Reviving the North Korea-Iran Axis?

Hardliners want to use North Korea as a hammer to destroy the nuclear agreement with Iran. They'd better start looking for a more effective instrument

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When George W. Bush put Iraq, Iran, and North Korea into his infamous “axis of evil” speech in 2002, the three countries seemed to have little to do with one another – except that Washington didn’t like them (and they didn’t like Washington). Iran and Iraq were enemies, not allies, and the inclusion of North Korea was meant largely to underscore that the “global war on terror” was not a war on Islam.

With the Obama administration and the P5+1 racing to conclude a final nuclear agreement with Iran this summer, critics of the deal are also hurrying – to demonstrate that Iran remains a committed anchor in a revived “axis of evil.” In Iraq, crumbling under the weight of assaults from the Islamic State, Iran has expanded its influence in an effort to contain the spread of Sunni radicalism. For some commentators, Iran’s efforts in Iraq are part of a serious bid for regional hegemony. But the sad truth is that Washington needs Iran’s help to keep Iraq from becoming a failed state, so this part of a revived “axis of evil” has diminished traction.

Iran’s relationship with North Korea is a different problem altogether. Thousands of miles separate the two countries. There is no religious or ideological overlap. One country is negotiating in earnest with Washington while the other is maintaining an officially hostile attitude toward the United States. And yet the two countries have certain common interests. They both have nuclear programs, are subject to international sanctions, and have struggled with pariah status. Much of their cooperation is shrouded in mystery.

Because of this mystery, the Iran-North Korea relationship is ripe for exploitation, particularly by those who are eager to find a hammer to destroy the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. But if this is the only implement that critics can find to inflict damage, they’re scraping the bottom of their toolbox of destruction.

Allegations of Nuclear Cooperation

Iran and North Korea cooperate. On this point, there is no debate. They engage in bilateral trade, though Iran doesn’t make it onto the official list of North Korea’s top 10 trade partners. They signed a technical cooperation agreement in September 2012. Foreign ministry officials from both countries have made reciprocal visits. They occasionally make statements about their shared distrust of the United States.

As part of their bilateral trade, North Korea has supplied Iran with missile components, including two shipments since fall 2014 according to anonymous sources in the U.S. government. One common but unconfirmed estimate of the value of North Korea’s missile sales is $2 billion a year, which would vault Iran into second place behind China as a trading partner. Also unconfirmed is the assertion that Iran has provided North Korea with centrifuges that have been a central part of Pyongyang’s effort to acquire a second path to a nuclear weapon through highly enriched uranium.

Technical cooperation, and here we are moving further into more speculative territory, has included Iranian presence at North Korea’s nuclear tests and North Korean experts providing unspecified assistance inside Iran. The latest claim, trumpeted by anti-engagement activists like Alireza Jafarzadeh, is quite detailed:

A seven-member North Korean delegation, comprised of experts in nuclear warhead design and various parts of ballistic missiles including guidance systems, spent the last week of April in Iran. This was the third such nuclear and missile team to visit Iran in 2015. The next delegation is scheduled to secretly arrive in Iran in June and will be comprised of nine experts.

Moving further into the terrain of speculation, journalist Don Kirk writes in Forbes that:

North Korea is able to assist Iran in miniaturizing warheads to fit on missiles – a goal the North has long been pursuing – and also can supply uranium and other metals mined in its remote mountain regions.

“North Korea continues to supply technology, components, and even raw materials for Iran’s HEU weaponization program,” says Bruce Bechtol, author of numerous books and studies on North Korea’s military and political ambitions. Moreover, he says, “They are even helping Iran to pursue a second track by helping them to build a plutonium reactor.”

Based on this history of cooperation, critics of the nuclear negotiations with Iran have suggested that North Korea will offer a way for Iran to sneak out of its commitments. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz argued back in November 2014 that

if Iran under an agreement can have some kind of research and development, knowledge exchange and participation in other countries like North Korea, then this is also the way to bypass an agreement by simply not doing it alone in Iran, but by cooperating with North Korea or other rogue countries.

Finally, at the furthest edge of plausibility, Tzvi Kahn argues in a recent Foreign Policy Initiative bulletin that Iran and North Korea have a “broader goal of undermining US global leadership.” Here is the most unvarnished update of the Bush-era axis of evil, which goes beyond mere cooperation on nuclear issues to a concerted effort to oppose the United States at every turn.

Unraveling the Axis

Added together, these claims appear quite convincing. Not only is North Korea cooperating actively with Iran with conventional military hardware, it is also helping the country acquire a nuclear capability right under the noses of the International Atomic Energy Agency and in violation of several sanctions regimes.

But this apparent open-and-shut case for a return of the axis of evil minus Iraq is full of holes. Let’s take another look at the evidence.

North Korea and Iran may indeed conduct a brisk trade in ballistic missiles, though the figure of $2 billion seems particularly squishy. More careful analysts estimate that North Korea makes $1-2 billion from all of its missile sales. The US government estimated that between 1990 and 2000 North Korea made $1 billion for all its Scud sales, and that included barter as well as hard currency.

The figures are not only inflated but also outdated. “Iran has likely exceeded North Korea’s ability to develop, test, and build ballistic missiles,” observed the Congressional Research Service in a 2014 report. Even though Iran still may receive occasional inputs for its short-range missiles, “Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper stated during a February 11, 2014, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that Iran is not currently receiving assistance with its ICBM program.”

CRS is being rather polite. Relying on North Korea’s ballistic missile capability, particularly its long-range rockets, would be like importing your sushi from a landlocked country. Most of Pyongyang’s long-range missile tests have been duds (failed tests in 2006, 2009, and 2012; one possible success in 2012). If Washington wanted to ensure that Iran is saddled with an ineffective missile program, it should probably encourage missile cooperation with North Korea.

Perhaps most importantly, however, although such trade violates various sanction regimes and regional compacts, it does not constitute nuclear cooperation. The United States might not be happy that Iran imports or exports missiles to North Korea. But this issue is not currently on the table in the negotiations any more than Iran’s human rights situation, its military presence in the Middle East, or the nature of the government in Tehran.

The Nuclear Non-Link

CRS concludes that, despite speculation that Iran and North Korea have collaborated in various ways on their nuclear programs, “there is no evidence that Iran and North Korea have engaged in nuclear-related trade or cooperation with each other.” One major reason is that Iran, according to US intelligence estimates, stopped pursuing a nuclear program for military purposes in 2003. But even if there has been cooperation since then, for instance around North Korea’s nuclear tests, it would be of limited value for Tehran:

Although some analysts have argued that Pyongyang could provide nuclear test data to Tehran, the extent to which Iran could benefit from such data is unclear. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to date has apparently been based on plutonium; Iran would most likely use weapons-grade HEU, rather than plutonium, as fissile material in nuclear weapons, at least in the short term. Although Tehran could provide Pyongyang with access to Iran’s enrichment technology, such access would be of limited benefit to North Korea because North Korea’s centrifuge appears to differ from the two types of centrifuges that Iran has installed.

If their centrifuge programs are different, did Iran really help North Korea with its program? The evidence suggests that North Korea indeed relied on imported technology in the early days of the program but from Pakistan, Russia, China, and even an infamous attempted shipment from Germany, not from Iran. More recently, North Korea has shifted to indigenous manufacture for its HEU program.

There has been one report of North Korea shipping weapons-grade uranium to Iran (it allegedly caused a spill at the Khomeini International Airport in 2002). And Israeli intelligence has also alleged that North Korea is helping Iran build a plutonium reactor. Although frequently cited, neither claim has been substantiated. The uranium shipment, if it took place, happened before the date when the United States has acknowledged that Iran abandoned its quest for a nuclear weapon. The plutonium reactor, the pressurized heavy water reactor at Arak, will not have the capability of producing weapons-grade plutonium as long as the final agreement with Iran goes forward – so North Korean cooperation on this issue is moot.

What about the very specific details of Iranian delegations visiting North Korea? The source of this information is Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), the Iranian resistance group that resembles a cult more than a collection of dissidents and has received a “terrorist” designation from the US government. MEK has proven quite unreliable in the past, for instance in its assertion in 2010 of a secret nuclear site near the Iranian city of Qazvin. More recently, MEK supplied equally detailed revelations about a secret centrifuge facility underneath a Tehran suburb. In his debunking of the claims, Jeffrey Lewis concluded in Foreign Policy that:

The MEK highlights Iran’s nuclear programs – real, imagined, and downright fabricated – as a way to build support for regime change in Tehran. Hemming in the Iranian nuclear program through diplomacy removes one of the MEK’s most effective talking points in favor of bombing Iran. They won’t go down without a fight.

To continue the fight, MEK has brought in a heavy: North Korea. But note that the reports describe a North Korean delegation that includes experts in both nuclear warhead design and ballistic missiles. If such a delegation has visited, they may well have focused entirely on ballistic missiles. After all, although the North Korean government has claimed to have mastered the miniaturization necessary to put a nuclear warhead on a missile, the jury is still out on whether these claims are true. There is also a big difference between having a capability and sharing that capability (note Kirk’s elision of this difference when attempting to make the nuclear link in his Forbes column).

In any case, the State Department responded immediately to the most recent allegations of Iran-North Korean nuclear cooperation that “we don’t have any information at this time that would lead us to believe that these allegations impact our ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.”

A Weak Partnership

So, if the arguments for past nuclear cooperation are thin at best, where does that leave the case for North Korea helping Iran “sneak out” of any agreement with the P5+1 countries? As an argument against the impending agreement, this is a particularly weak one. Let’s assume the worst-case scenario that the two countries have had such cooperation since 2003, despite evidence to the contrary. Bringing Iran into a compliance regime is the best way of monitoring any future bilateral nuclear cooperation with North Korea.

True, North Korea could supply Iran with data from its nuclear tests or perhaps slip some documents to Iranian officials of its reportedly successful efforts at miniaturization. But as long as Iran’s facilities are subject to inspections and its nuclear material kept to a low level of enrichment, this information will be of dubious benefit. Without an agreement, meanwhile, Iran and North Korea could cavort beneath the sheets and we’d have no way of monitoring their conjugal visits.

And finally, there is the least plausible assertion: that North Korea and Iran share a broader goal of undermining US global leadership. This is a particularly odd argument to make when Iran is sitting down to negotiations with Washington. The leadership in Iran must be crafty indeed to believe that giving up a nuclear option and providing the Obama administration with a diplomatic victory will ultimately hobble the United States.

But the argument doesn’t hold up with respect to North Korea either. Pyongyang certainly indulges in extremely vitriolic anti-American rhetoric (including blatantly racist comments about President Obama himself). But North Korea has never cared very much about US global leadership. It has much more parochial concerns – preserving its system, getting a leg up on South Korea, weaning itself from its dependency on China, and combating Japanese hegemony. To achieve any or all of these goals, an accommodation with the United States could in fact be helpful. If Washington offered Pyongyang a deal it couldn’t refuse, North Korea would sever relations with Iran in a heartbeat (indeed North Korea seriously considered a missile buyout package from Israel back in 1993-4).

The new “axis of evil” with Iran at its center has even less explanatory utility than the fiction had on its debut in 2002. The attempt to drag North Korea in as a diabolus ex machina to destroy the incipient détente between the United States and Iran only underscores the paucity of arguments that the critics have at their disposal.

John Feffer is director of Foreign Policy In Focus. This was originally published in Lobelog. Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.