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Iran and North Korea: Partners in Proliferation?

(Image Source: Yalibnan)

By Ryan Henseler |

On July 14, 2015 the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), collectively known as the P5+1, finalized negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to the agreement, Iran will be required to disable many centrifuges critical to the uranium enrichment process necessary for weaponization, redesign the Arak nuclear reactor such that it is incapable of generating bomb-grade plutonium, and drastically decrease its stockpile of non-weapons grade uranium. In return, crippling UN trade sanctions will be lifted, which would immediately boost Iran’s economy, including the return of over $100 billion per year in oil exports currently lost due to sanctions. The deal purports to make it nearly impossible for Iran to construct a nuclear weapon within its borders and, “is not built on trust – but on verification.” In addition, UN embargoes on arms and ballistic missile sales to Iran will be extended for another five and eight years respectively.

Despite these recent signs of goodwill, Iran has long maintained cooperative ties with another rogue state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea. In 2002, both states were labeled as part of the infamous “axis of evil” by then-President George W. Bush. Both nations share a deep mistrust of the West, and this connection serves as the bedrock of the alliance between the two otherwise ideologically divergent countries. In 2012, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared, “The Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea have common enemies, because the arrogant powers do not accept independent states,” essentially restating the ancient Arabic proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This relationship should be of concern for the United States and its allies moving forward. North Korea has flouted the UN arms embargo in the past, and is unlikely to be deterred by the signing of an accord between the P5+1 and Iran. The DPRK has also been accused of abetting Iran’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons through the illegal trade of uranium and other materials that could be used for weaponization. Though the verification methods spelled out in the agreement should sufficiently account for any illegal activities within Iran’s borders, a pressing question for the future is whether Iran will be able to relocate its nuclear ambitions and continue research and development within North Korea itself.

Cooperation and Suspicion

Iran and the DPRK’s pseudo-alliance began during the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Military cooperation through arms sales began shortly thereafter during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and continued throughout the 1990 Persian Gulf War. During this time, North Korea sold Iran various conventional weapons systems, including artillery, machine guns, and surface-to-air missiles, among others. In 2006 the UN released Security Council Resolution 1737, which began the arms embargo against Iran. However, the embargo did not break the partnership, merely moving it underground.

During the same time period, the DPRK was procuring nuclear weapons. North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 based on 2002 findings that they were violating the agreement through a uranium enrichment program. In 1994, the US and North Korea inked the General Framework Agreement stating that the DPRK would halt and eventually disband its nuclear weapons program in exchange for US monetary aid in constructing civil nuclear reactors. Various opponents of the Iran deal in Congress have pointed out the current deal’s similarity with the 1994 General Framework Agreement and have voiced fear that Iran will find ways to bypass inspections in much the same way that North Korea did following the 1994 agreement, particularly because “anytime, anywhere” nuclear inspections are not guaranteed in the deal. Instead, they have been replaced by inspections “when necessary and where necessary” which allow Iran a 25 day buffer period before the inspections actually take place.

The Iran-North Korea alliance deepened in 2012 with the completion of a deal which pledged cooperation in several fields, particularly scientific research, information technology (IT), engineering and operation of joint laboratories. Naturally, this deal raised concerns about the possibility of an increase in missile and weapons technology trade between the countries. For years, North Korea has been accused of illegally selling Iran both conventional weapons and nuclear materials, possibly even weapons-grade uranium. In addition to being a political ally, the DPRK is Iran’s main supplier of ballistic missile technology and Pyongyang is reliant on the revenue created by these sales.

In 2002, it was suspected that Iran was involved in a cover up involving the spilling of a secret shipment of uranium from North Korea to Iran on a Tehran airport tarmac. While the cover-up was eventually investigated by US intelligence officials with help from those of its allies, there are few present-day signs that Iran’s cooperation with the DPRK has faltered.  Iran’s main opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) recently released information that showed extensive nuclear cooperation between the current Iranian government and the DPRK through visits from nuclear experts on both sides as recently as April 2015. Perhaps even more alarming, it was reported that Iranian officials were present at North Korea’s latest nuclear test in 2013.

Surprisingly, Iran has managed to not allow its extensive cooperation with the DPRK to influence its relatively strong commercial relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK), despite the enduring tension between the political systems on the Korean Peninsula. Economic ties, particularly in crude oil trade, between the ROK and Iran remain strong, but their relationship is largely limited to commercial dealings due to major ideological differences and their choice in key allies (the DPRK for Iran and the United States for South Korea). Most South Koreans view Iran negatively, and high-level political cooperation between the two is largely non-existent. However, their relationship, even if it is based solely on mutually beneficial trade, shows that democratic nations that strongly disapprove of Iran’s nuclear ambitions are willing to maintain good relations if they feel it is in their economic best interests.

Role of China?

A final interesting piece of this puzzle is the possible contribution to or at least tacit approval of the Iran-North Korea partnership by the PRC. The PRC has long been Iran’s most powerful friend, though the relationship seems more transactional than anything. China is the largest purchaser of Iranian oil and is Iran’s largest trading partner in both imports and exports, making a robust relationship with Beijing of particular importance to Tehran. Many experts see the PRC as the biggest winner of the Iran deal, as the lifting of economic sanctions will allow Chinese businesses such as banks and oil companies more access to Tehran, and avoiding a potential war between the US and Iran is crucial to Chinese trade interests.

In 2005, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), a coalition of democratic resistance organizations based in Tehran, accused the PRC of directly selling beryllium and components for centrifuge construction to Iran, and argued that these were unlikely to be used for civilian purposes. In 2011, Malaysian police confiscated a shipment from China to Iran that they suspected contained parts that could be used to construct nuclear warheads, one of multiple shipments between the countries that have been confiscated in recent years.

Although Chinese entities have been implicit in selling materials to Iran, the degree of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government involvement is unknown. China’s ports and airspace have been used in the passage of shipments from North Korea to Iran on multiple occasions. Suspicions of Chinese intentions still exist largely due to China’s cooperation with Pakistan’s illicit nuclear program in the 1980s and more current hot button issues such as the PRC’s recent advances in the South China Sea (SCS). It is questionable whether the PRC, as a member of the P5+1 and a contributor to the Iran agreement is intentionally allowing Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. In any case, China should be more proactive in preventing North Korean transactions involving dangerous materials from passing through its borders. Of course, the US should not count on China to solve this problem alone, and must closely monitor the state of relations between the DPRK and Iran and vigilantly look for illicit transactions between the two sides going forward.