As the world’s major powers debate the finer points of Iran’s weapons program, one crucial aspect of the nuclear equation has been overlooked: the Islamic Republic’s close ties with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
The two countries have long had a fruitful partnership: Iran supplies North Korea with 80 percent of its annual oil consumption – 7 to 8 million barrels — free of charge. Iran also pays China an unknown sum to provide North Korea with much-needed wheat and other basic foodstuffs.
In return for this oil and cash, North Korea scratches Iran’s back with the cooperation it needs in three essential fields:.
1. Nuclear development. Iran and North Korean maintain special missions in each other’s capitals. The Iranian mission is invited to attend all stages of North Korea’s nuclear development, including enrichment processes and nuclear tests. Both missions are concerned to ascertain that their collaboration in nuclear and military affairs complies fully with their masters’ wishes.
2. Ballistic missiles. Iran’s ballistic missiles are built around North Korean missile technology. US Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Israel, have all brought their concerns about the transfers of this lethal technology transfer before Beijing and Moscow, hoping China and Russia would bring one at least of their allies to heel and terminate their illicit trade – to no avail. China and Russia flatly rejected all appeals and, more than once, made the US pay in political, economic and, occasionally, military coin, for complaining.
Early Iran-North Korean nuclear exchanges were discovered
3. Facilities for nuclear tests. North Korea and Iran have offered each other sites and technology for conducting nuclear tests, as well as trials for missiles and advanced weapons systems. But the 6,400 km distance between them has proved to be an insuperable obstacle to their efficient interaction, because communications across this vast distance would be highly vulnerable to alien intelligence interception, without being detected by either of the partners.
The seeds of the Pyongyang-Tehran partnership were sown in 1998, when the reputedly moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s additional protocol allowing IAEA inspectors to conduct spot inspections.
One year previous, Iran agreed to a two-year suspension of uranium enrichment. At the same time, Khatami gave the Revolutionary Guards the go-ahead to reach out to North Korea and scout out new testing grounds.
And so began a decades long cat-and-mouse game with the US and Israel, who began to closely monitor flights and ships shuttling between Iran and North Korea.
Those efforts bore some fruit: in April 2006, the US Navy intercepted a North Korean ship in the Pacific Ocean carrying radioactive materials that could have been used in the service of a nuclear bomb. In August 2008, the US Navy stopped a ship in the Indian Ocean heading in the opposite direction. Hailing from Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, the vessel was loaded with nuclear equipment for inspection and upgrades by North Korean experts.
And in May 2012, following a special request from Obama, Malaysia intercepted a North Korean plane on a US intelligence tip that it was carting nuclear equipment to Iran. The Malaysians maintained the plane landed for refueling and the forbidden cargo was found during a routine inspection, while Iran and North Korea stayed mum on the incident.
Israel takes out Iranian-North Korean plutonium reactor in Syria
But the grand slam of rigorous surveillance came several years before, in 2007, when Israeli intelligence offered Washington detailed information on ships ferrying components for a plutonium reactor from North Korea to Iran. Iran, Syria and North Korea were using these parts to clandestinely build the Al-Kibar facility in Deir ez-Zor, the culmination of a project for giving Tehran and Pyongyang an implosion-type nuclear weapon using plutonium-239.
An Israeli Air Force strike took out the reactor in September 2007.
Since his election in 2013, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been talking up nuclear negotiations as the way to get rid of the international sanctions weighing down heavily on the Iranian economy. But in parallel, prompted by Israeli intelligence’s discovery of a clandestine trigger test at the military complex of Parchin, the Iranians have been thinking of shifting their nuclear weapons program over to North Korean soil to elude detection.
Iran has so far rebuffed all kinds of pressure to give nuclear inspectors access to the suspect site in Parchin, claiming it is a military base and Tehran is not bound by its agreements with the IAEA to provide such access.
But with the P5+1 talks progressing, albeit slowly, the Revolutionary Guards are turning on the heat for a nuclear explosive trigger device to be tested in North Korea – not just for its reliability, but also to see if it works for a very small nuke contained in the warhead of an Iranian missiles.
Khamenei vetoes transfer of nuclear trigger test to North Korea
Although under heavy Revolutionary Guards pressure to permit this test to be transferred to North Korea, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pushed back three months ago with an order to ditch the plan.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report he had discovered that US and Israel intelligence satellites and drones were able to detect radioactive material in the cargo holds of planes and ships.
It was also feared that the CIA and Israel had planted highly competent networks of saboteurs at Iran’s ports able to prevent the equipment for testing in Korea ever making it out to sea.
Khamenei calculated that a North Korean test was simply not worth the risk. If a suspicious cargo were to be discovered aboard an Iranian ship or plane, this time the Americans could no longer look away and shrug. Israel would force them to put the new evidence before the IAEA board and thence inevitably before the UN Security Council.
There is no guarantee that the supreme leader won’t change course again. And so the X Factor of Iran’s nuclear program, North Korean input, must be taken into account in the bargaining in Vienna between the six powers and Iran, before they settle on a comprehensive accord.