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Iran And North Korea: Brothers In Nuclear Arms

By Guest Post. Originally published at ValueWalk.

Summary

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. 

Iran
OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

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.

Introduction

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

The post Iran And North Korea: Brothers In Nuclear Arms appeared first on ValueWalk.

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