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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
As the negotiators celebrate “Implementation Day” of the Obama Administration’s Iran nuclear deal less than two weeks after Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test, a critical question remains: is Pyongyang-Tehran nuclear cooperation now really a thing of the past? One takes limited comfort from the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which provided certification for Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement, is the same organization that, under the 1994 Agreed Framework, oversaw the freezing of North Korean plutonium production at Pyongyang’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. This occurred even while Pyongyang was simultaneously pursuing a secret, second path to nuclear weaponry via a highly enriched uranium program. The IAEA involvement with North Korean denuclearization compliance came to an abrupt end when Pyongyang expelled all IAEA inspectors from the country in December 2002. Will the IAEA be more observant and successful with Iran this time around?
President Obama hailed the new agreement with Iran in his recent State of the Union address, noting that “as we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.” His words stand in marked contrast to those uttered by another president in another State of the Union address over a decade ago. In January 2002 then-President George W. Bush warned the Congress and the American people that North Korea and Iran constituted a part of an “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Kim Jong Un demonstrated with his January 6th nuclear test that he is still arming and further threatening peace. The question is: is his former “axis of evil” partner Iran really ready to throw in the nuclear towel?”
North Korea expert Gordon Chang went further, raising the possibility in the Daily Beast that some Iranian officials may even have gone to witness the latest North Korean nuclear test
Business Insider noted in a January 6 article that “Iran has established ties to the North Korean nuclear-weapons program.” North Korea expert Gordon Chang went further, raising the possibility in the Daily Beast that some Iranian officials may even have gone to witness the latest North Korean nuclear test even as their government was finalizing its nuclear agreement with the P5+1 (Permanent Five UN Security Council members plus Germany): “Another reason today’s test would be ominous is Iran may have witnessed it and helped the North Koreans. During all three previous North Korean detonations, Iranians, including the shadowy Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of Tehran’s nuclear program, were present.” Japan’s Kyodo News reported, in fact, that Iranian President Ahmadinejad approved the payment of “tens of millions of U. S. dollars” to North Korea to facilitate the travel of an Iranian delegation to observe Pyongyang’s previous nuclear test in February 2013. Any data provided by Pyongyang to Tehran on any of the four (2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016) North Korean nuclear test results – presumably for a price – would prove a treasure trove of information on the design and yield of the devices detonated, a matter of great interest to Iranian nuclear scientists.
And, according to the Business Insider article, it “wouldn’t necessarily be a violation of the nuclear deal for Iran to access information from a North Korean nuclear test. Thomas Moore, a former non-proliferation expert for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Business Insider that he doesn’t think that accessing this information would necessarily be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), either … possession of test data isn’t specifically proscribed under a provision in the Iran agreement that addresses prohibited activities related to nuclear-weapons design.”
OUTSOURCING THE BOMB?
The Washington Times reported last September 15 that “the Iran nuclear deal is silent on an issue that the CIA and proliferation experts are concerned about: that Tehran may outsource parts of its nuclear and missiles program to the secretive regime in North Korea.” The paper went on to note that CIA Director John Brennan acknowledged that his agency “is monitoring whether Iran may try to assist its clandestine nuclear program with help from another rogue state such as North Korea, or by colluding with Pyongyang toward the secret purchase and transfer of nuclear weapons for Tehran.” The Times then quoted Michael Rubin, an analyst of the American Enterprise Institute, as stating “Kerry and crew left a loophole a mile wide when they effectively allowed Iran to conduct all the illicit work it wants outside of Iran, in countries like North Korea or perhaps Sudan.” The Obama Administration indicated continuing concerns over the trustworthiness of Tehran by imposing new sanctions on Iranian firms and individuals involved in a recent ballistic missile test immediately after implementation of the Iran deal was announced and U.S. hostages were freed.
‘The Iran nuclear agreement will increase Iran’s wealth considerably as U.N. economic sanctions are lifted and Iran receives at least $50 billion from the United States in frozen assets’
Dr. Larry Niksch, a 43-year veteran of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and currently with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), appeared as a witness before a House Committee hearing titled “the Iran-North Korea Strategic Alliance” on July 28, 2015. Niksch, an expert on North Korea-Iran nuclear cooperation, testified concerning the use of Iranian funding to bankroll North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Niksch noted that “after 2011, I have seen a reverse flow from Iran into North Korea, expanding Iranian investment of personnel and money in North Korea’s domestic nuclear and missile programs. Iranian missile scientists were stationed in North Korea for a large part of 2012, well into 2013, to assist North Korea in preparing for that successful 2012 long-range missile test.” He further observed that “Iranian money appears to be the lubricant for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The Iran nuclear agreement will increase Iran’s wealth considerably as U.N. economic sanctions are lifted and Iran receives at least $50 billion from the United States in frozen assets.”
It seems to be a reflection of the old adage of “having your cake and eating it too:” Tehran gains up to $100 billion in sanctions relief and revenue from renewed oil sales while at the same time contracting with North Korea to do its nuclear testing for it and sharing in the critical test results. And Pyongyang equally benefits – gaining further funding for its internationally-condemned nuclear program through access to funds provided to Tehran under Iranian sanctions relief, thus possibly being indirectly funded by the United States.
The only losers appear to be those seeking to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially to rogue regimes. Momentarily putting aside questions concerning the trustworthiness of the Tehran regime in honoring its commitments to the Obama Administration, one is still left wondering about a deal which seems to indirectly fund North Korean nuclear weapons development. Does it make any sense to enable the de facto nuclear state of North Korea, one already in possession of an arsenal of at least 10 to 15 nuclear weapons, so that it can continue to pose a direct nuclear threat to U.S forces forward deployed in South Korea and Japan as well as to the civilian populations of those two close American allies? Just ask the moms and dads of our 28,500 service men and women stationed in South Korea.