Editor’s note: On Aug. 14, nearly two months after the original publication of this Deep Dive, reports surfaced that North Korea received Soviet-era technology from a facility in Ukraine that expedited the construction of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. As we determine the veracity of the reports, we republish our own assessment of Iran and North Korea, which have also allegedly helped each other advance their respective weapons programs.
Remember Iran? The prospect of war with North Korea has made it easy to overlook this other nearly nuclear power that was until recently the object of Washington’s nonproliferation efforts. Tehran was dead set on developing a nuclear weapon, but it agreed to halt its program in 2015 after extensive negotiations with the United States. Granted, the rise of the Islamic State, a common enemy of the United States and Iran, and years of economic attrition wrought by international sanctions forced its hand. Still, Iran has complied with the agreement by subjecting itself to inspections meant to ensure it doesn’t enrich its uranium.
A nuclear weapons program, however, requires more than just weapons-grade fissile material. It also requires a warhead that is small and sturdy enough to survive the flight on a ballistic missile. And then, of course, it requires the ballistic missile itself – hence the attention North Korean missiles have received lately. North Korea has lots of fissile material. And it most likely has a miniaturized warhead, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Pyongyang is, in other words, one ballistic missile away from being able to strike the United States.
This precarious state of affairs has already affected U.S.-Iran relations. Since the nuclear deal strictly prohibits the enrichment of uranium but polices ballistic missile tests much more leniently, Iran has unsurprisingly conducted several such tests. The first, reportedly of a variant of North Korea’s most sophisticated intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Musudan or Hwasong-10, came on Jan. 29. The second, reportedly a failed test of a submarine-launched cruise missile, came on May 2. North Korea and Iran are the only two countries that operate the type of submarine from which the missile was launched. A third incident came on June 18, when, for the first time, Iran fired missiles on Islamic State facilities in Syria. It wasn’t exactly a test, but it served the same purpose.
The similarities between the two programs didn’t go unnoticed. Some reports allege active collusion between Iran and North Korea; others allege none whatsoever. The following report will attempt to determine the extent of their cooperation and what it means for U.S. relations with Iran – and for U.S. tensions with North Korea.
Iran’s relationship with North Korea began with a coup. In 1953, the same year the armistice ended hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, a faction of the Iranian military, supported and funded by the United States and the United Kingdom, overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. Washington was worried that Mossadegh would ally with the Soviet Union, and London wanted to regain some of the profits it lost when Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. The coup was “successful” in that it aligned Iran squarely with the West for nearly 30 years. But it was nearly 30 years marked by resentment and distrust among Iranians, who felt that Iran should not be a Western puppet state. They expressed their feelings in the 1979 revolution, which created the modern Islamic Republic.
It was a watershed moment in the Middle East if for no other reason than that it led to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The government in Baghdad, led by Saddam Hussein and dominated by Sunni Arabs who oversaw a majority Shiite country, viewed the establishment of a Shiite Persian state as an existential threat. So Iraq attacked Iran, thinking it would be too disheveled from its revolution to put up much of a fight. (Adding Iranian oil to its reserves was a nice but ancillary bonus.) Iraq was wrong. Early setbacks forced Saddam to sue for peace in 1982. Iran declined, and it prepared for its invasion of Iraq.
Iran’s invasion of Iraq fared no better than Iraq’s invasion of Iran. The United States intervened on Baghdad’s behalf, supplying weapons, intelligence, and billions of dollars of economic aid to preserve the balance of power in the region – this, despite the fact that Saddam still had an arsenal of Soviet-built ballistic missiles, which he used, in his desperation, against Iranian cities from afar. Tehran learned just how valuable such weapons could be, but it couldn’t rely on the United States or the Soviet Union to supply them. It needed to procure them on its own.
Enter North Korea, which, like Iran, had begun to doubt the reliability of Soviet support. And so it spent much of the 1970s developing its ballistic missile capabilities. Toward the end of the decade, Pyongyang acquired from Egypt Scud-B missiles, which it was able to reverse engineer (it’s unclear if it had foreign assistance in this regard), test in 1984, and produce domestically in 1987. Iran, meanwhile, had acquired small numbers of Scud-B missiles from Libya and then from Syria, but it needed more of them to fight Iraq. And North Korea was selling.
The Kim regime in North Korea had closed itself off economically from the rest of the world, so now that it could produce ballistic missiles at home, it needed money more than it needed anything else. Iran, which needed missiles more than anything else, was the ideal partner. Details are scarce, but what evidence does exist sheds some light on their budding commercial partnership. In 1983, Iranian officials visited North Korea and, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, reached an agreement to finance the development of Scud missiles. In 1986, Iran restructured North Korea’s $170 million oil debt. In return, Pyongyang reduced the price of Scud missiles it sold Iran by 70 percent. By the end of the 1980s, North Korea had provided Iran between 200 and 300 Scud-B and Scud-C missiles. And in doing so, it protracted one of the deadliest wars of the second half of the 20th century.
The Iran-North Korea relationship was thus born of shared needs and fears. But it was also, notably, born of failed U.S. Cold War strategies. In its efforts to prevent the Soviets from expanding into Iran, Washington installed a regime that would eventually drive the Iranians away from the West. In its failures in the Korean War, Washington would help set the stage for a North Korean regime that would despise the United States. Long before President George W. Bush put Iran and North Korea into the “axis of evil,” the U.S. government created the conditions that brought the two countries together in the first place. They oppose the United States even today.
Where the Trail Goes Cold
The Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, but the Iran-North Korea relationship stayed intact. Iran wasn’t particularly interested in being a permanent client of North Korea; it wanted to produce missiles on its own. But North Korea had a head start on them, and Iranian geopolitics demanded initiative, not patience. And it demanded new weapons. The Scud-B and Scud-C missiles had a range of only 200 miles (300 kilometers) and 400 miles respectively. So though they were effective against Iraq, close as it was to Iran, they would be less so against adversaries farther afield. By 1988 or 1989, North Korea had begun to develop a ballistic missile, the Nodong, that had a range of 600-900 miles, according to a report from the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. Acquiring the Nodong would mark a great leap forward in Iranian missile capability. And so, in 1992, Pyongyang and Tehran agreed to a military cooperation agreement whereby Iran agreed to provide $500 million toward “joint development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.”
A report from the Congressional Research Service notes that production of the Nodong in Iran itself was a significant part of the agreement. This report corroborates an annual threat assessment from the U.S. intelligence community indicating that Iran’s domestic production capability increased dramatically in the 1990s. By mid-1998, Iran could test fire its own version of the Nodong, which it calls the Shahab-3. (Dinshaw Mistry, an expert on the proliferation of missile technology at the University of Cincinnati, notes that at the time, Iran still needed guidance and motor systems from North Korea, but that the fuel tanks, warhead and body sections were built by Iran.)
Iran and North Korea would cooperate on ballistic missile technology into the 2000s. Though Tehran admitted in recent years to having purchased Scuds from North Korea, the government has since insisted that it is now self-sufficient. Its Sejjil missile program attests to its independence. With a range of 1,200 miles, the Sejjil was last tested successfully in 2011. (Either the program has encountered unforeseen obstacles or Tehran doesn’t want to incur penalties from the United States. The latter is the more likely explanation.) Yet some reports suggest transactions continued even into the 2010s. The Strategic Studies Institute report suggests that Iran acquired Musudan missiles, a North Korean-made intermediate-range missile with a range of between 1,600 and 2,500 miles, in 2005. In 2007, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that Iran had in fact bought a Musudan at some point prior to 2007. And according to Reuters, which cited a confidential U.N. report, North Korea and Iran regularly exchanged ballistic technology as recently as 2011.
It’s at this point that the trail goes cold. In 2014 and 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the cooperation between North Korea and Iran had lessened considerably, to the point that he assessed that Iran was not receiving assistance with its program for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. A February 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service takes this a step further, concluding that Iran “has likely exceeded North Korea’s ability to develop, test, and build ballistic missiles.” The fact that Iran has independently enhanced the Shahab-3 design, making it more accurate even at its intermediate range, attests to the veracity of the report.
Regardless of when Iran last purchased North Korean missiles, it’s important to note that Tehran has largely stopped testing those it currently has, for it indicates the government’s long-term strategy. If Iran is testing shorter-range, domestically produced missiles to increase their accuracy, it suggests Iran is preparing for local conflicts in its own backyard. But if Iran is attempting to boost the range of its ballistic missiles, that means it is actively pursuing an ICBM, which in the long term has only one strategic purpose for Iran: the creation of a nuclear deterrent against the United States.
This is why there’s been so much controversy over Iran’s latest ballistic missile tests. “Multiple intelligence officials” said that the missile from Iran’s July 2016 tests was a Musudan, according to a report from Fox News. Anonymous sources in a Reuters report said that the missile tested on Jan. 29 was also a Musudan. If true, it suggests that Iran has every intention of developing an ICBM, and that it is cooperating with North Korea to do so.
These reports, however, are hardly incontrovertible. They are unconfirmed and rely only on anonymous sources. The relative success of the Iran tests, moreover, suggests that Tehran is using missiles it built itself, not missiles from North Korea, which has struggled to operationalize the Musudan.
Politics is at play too. There are political factions in the United States and in Arab states of the Persian Gulf that want to depict Iran as aggressive – reports that Iran is testing North Korean missiles are good ammunition in that regard. The more likely explanation is that Iran, while generally self-sufficient, still cooperates to a low degree with North Korea over research and parts.
Ballistic missiles, however, are just one component of a nuclear weapons program. The component that receives the most scrutiny, perhaps rightly so, is the procurement and enrichment of fissile material. In this arena, there is less evidence that Iran and North Korea are cooperating – less evidence, but evidence nonetheless.
We know that North Korea and Iran were clients of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist caught for selling information on his country’s nuclear program in 2004. In 2009, the U.S. State Department confirmed that Iran had bought from Khan centrifuge components, centrifuges and designs – all of which are needed to enrich uranium or plutonium – and asserted that North Korea had bought similar equipment. A Congressional Research Service report from 2016 was more blunt, noting that that North Korea and Iran both received designs and materials “related to uranium enrichment” from the Khan network. None of this proves that Iran and North Korea were working in cahoots with one another; it simply proves that they were concurrently working with technologies from the same vendor.
Perhaps more indicative of cooperation are reports that Iran and North Korea worked together to build the nuclear facility at al-Kibar in northeastern Syria. The exact date they began to do so is unknown, but it was likely in the early 2000s. Der Spiegel, the German weekly, was one of the first sources to assert that both North Korean and Iranian scientists were actively cooperating in building Syria’s nuclear reactor. In 2008, Der Spiegel also reported that the reactor was seen as a back-up to Iran’s program. Sankei Shimbun, the Japanese daily, corroborates the report, adding that North Korean scientists had traveled to Iran to help develop a reprocessing plant in Syria capable of processing Iranian fuel rods. And according to a report from Israel’s Ynet news website, a senior Israeli military official, who was part of a panel assembled by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to report on the Syrian nuclear issue, said that Iran has funneled $1 billion into al-Kibar, noting that Iran could use the facility as a stand-in if it were unable to complete its uranium enrichment program.
There are some inconsistencies in these stories. For one thing, Iran has consistently worked with uranium, but the reactor at al-Kibar is believed to have been designed to enrich plutonium. The differences between uranium and plutonium are not insignificant. Uranium is more often used in commercial settings and is easier, if more expensive, to acquire and purify. Enriching plutonium requires less energy, and less plutonium is required for a bomb. This made plutonium the preferred choice for cash-strapped North Korea in the 2000s. (Pyongyang has since prioritized uranium.) This means the equipment used to enrich fissile material also differed. It also means that Iran would need a reprocessing plant, and there’s no evidence that it’s ever had one. So it’s hard to see how cooperating in the 2000s would help either side advance their respective programs.
Still, it’s hard to deny that to some degree North Korea and Iran cooperated in Syria. Iran was certainly involved in raising the funds for the nuclear facility. But it’s a far cry from proving the two countries helped each other advance their own enrichment programs. And it’s now a bit of a moot point; Israel destroyed the al-Kibar facility in Operation Orchard in 2007. If the conspiracy were real, it’s since been disrupted.
The more damning allegations of collusion, and the ones more difficult to prove, stem from reports that Iranian scientists have participated in North Korean nuclear tests. According to an anonymous source quoted in Sankei Shimbun, an Iranian delegation observed a North Korean nuclear test in May 2009 and engaged in meetings with high-level government officials in Pyongyang thereafter. Kyodo News, a Japanese news agency, reported that Iran paid the North Koreans tens of millions of dollars to allow Iranian scientists to witness a North Korean nuclear test in February 2013. Kyodo also reported that Iranian Defense Ministry officials had been in North Korea for some months before the test. Some Gulf Arab sources have gone so far as to say that the 2013 test was actually an Iranian test and that North Korea is just a surrogate for Iran’s nuclear program.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils a sample of the third generation centrifuge in April 2010. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images.
It’s practically impossible to prove whether Iran and North Korea have actively shared technology; such is the nature of intelligence. But one particularly damning piece of evidence is that since 2010, North Korea has significantly increased its production of highly enriched uranium. The latest estimates of its stockpiles come from an expert who visited the Yongbyon centrifuge facility in 2010. According to the expert, North Korea may have been able to increase its stockpile of weapons-grade uranium to 900 pounds, enough for 20 bombs, in 2016, with a capability to produce enough uranium for seven new bombs a year. His figures exclude the 119 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for six to eight bombs, North Korea already had.
For more than a decade, U.S. officials have insisted that there is no evidence that Iran and North Korea are cooperating outside the development of ballistic missiles. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they’re lying. In all likelihood, their explanations are more plausible than a handful of unconfirmed news reports. Still, the fact that North Korean uranium enrichment has surged as Iranian enrichment has stopped should be more concerning, given their long history of cooperation in other areas.
The Tide Turns
The strategic implications of cooperation, however unclear it may be, are manifold. Iran has no desire to maintain a relationship with a country if that relationship economically alienates it from the rest of the world. The Iranian economy was in tatters before U.S.-led sanctions were partially eased in 2015. In the two years before their easing, Iranian gross domestic product decreased by 9 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service. Oil exports, a huge source of revenue, decreased by 56 percent between 2011 and 2013. And Tehran was unable to access the reserves it held in foreign banks.
The nuclear deal revitalized the Iranian economy. In the first year after sanctions relief, growth stabilized at 0.5 percent, and then averaged around 7 percent in 2016. The increase was mostly due to resumed crude oil exports; oil sector growth totaled 61.3 percent (55.4 percent and 67.2 percent in the first and second quarters, respectively). Iranian oil exports have reached pre-sanctions levels, and Iran gained immediate access to $120 billion in reserves, as well as new opportunities to attract foreign direct investment and to have its banks rejoin the global financial system.
Yet several sanctions are still in place, discouraging the kind of investment projects and financial transactions Iran needs to jump-start its economy. And more sanctions may soon be in the offing, thanks to a bill recently passed in the U.S. Senate in response to Iran’s missile tests.
Iran therefore cannot afford to cooperate with North Korea, an isolated pariah state that has become Washington’s primary security concern. But it doesn’t really need to. North Korea may have been a useful partner for the past few decades, but it no longer has anything Iran needs. Iran can produce ballistic missiles domestically, and it was nearly able to enrich weapons-grade uranium before signing the nuclear agreement. It doesn’t need, moreover, any assistance fighting the regional proxy wars in which it is currently engaged. Put differently, Iran’s interests – economic recovery, defeating the Islamic State – diverge from North Korea’s. A relationship with Pyongyang hinders its ability to pursue those interests.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the Iran nuclear agreement is starting to fray because the shared interests that precipitated it may no longer be shared. Yes, sanctions and domestic politics influenced Iran’s decision to agree to the deal, but the primary cause was the Islamic State. Three years ago, IS was so strong that many rightly believed it could take Damascus, the capital of Syria and an important ally of Iran. The group held vast tracts of territory in Iraq, including Mosul, and directly threatened the parts of Iraq dominated by the Shiites, whom Iran supports. Neither Iran nor the United States could allow the Islamic State to dominate the region. That meant putting aside their differences for a common purpose.
After years of fighting, the tide is finally turning against the Islamic State. But as it weakens, so too does the U.S.-Iran alliance. Once IS is defeated, Iran will immediately move to solidify its control of Baghdad. It will then try to ensure the survival of the government of Bashar Assad in Syria. More broadly, it will continue to weaken the Sunni Arab states, particularly its regional rival Saudi Arabia, that are aligned against it. The battle lines of the coming conflict are already taking shape. The Saudi-led coalition against Qatar is as much about countering Iran as it is about defeating jihadism. And so it is in Iraq, Syria and the Gulf that the United States and Iran, having only recently eased tensions, will eventually collide.
In the next three to five years, Iranian influence will peak at the perfect time for Iran. The Arab world is in chaos. Turkey is not yet as strong as it promises to be. And various Kurdish groups are beginning to coalesce into statelets. These conditions are a golden opportunity for Iran, which will try to maximize its power, largely through its proxy groups, without jeopardizing the economic progress it has made since 2015. The country won’t be a regional hegemon in the long term, but it is ideally suited to capitalize on regional instability in the next few years.
For this reason, Iran will study how the United States deals with North Korea. Tehran didn’t sign the nuclear agreement to forfeit its nuclear program indefinitely; it needs the program as a long-term deterrent against the United States, a threat it considers existential. (Placing mines in the Strait of Hormuz, through which so much oil passes, is another option.) And in any case, the agreement doesn’t actually dismantle the program. It simply halts uranium enrichment.
North Korea’s acquisition of ICBMs is a clear but tacit red line for the United States. If Washington bluffs, Tehran will be more emboldened to proceed with missile tests than it already is. If the U.S. attacks North Korea, Tehran may feel even more compelled to develop a deterrent and, therefore, feel more emboldened to proceed with its missile tests. Of course, Kim Jong Un could capitulate without a shot being fired, but it’s hard to imagine Iran doing the same. The legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is built in part on resisting the United States and making sure Iran never suffers the humiliation of 1953 again.
The fates of Iran and North Korea have been intertwined since 1953. The circumstances of their early development dictated that they cooperate, at least to some degree, as they built deterrents against their enemies. Their partnership may be coming to an end, incompatible as their strategic needs now are, but their fates are still linked. From Washington’s perspective, the “axis of evil” is now an axis of two, one of which is squarely in the crosshairs of the U.S. military. Iran wants to know how this situation will end because it understands that the nuclear agreement only delayed the inevitable reckoning with the United States.