The U.S. must do more to track and block companies that could be aiding the collaboration between Iran and North Korea on nuclear and military programs, according to a report published in Washington on Thursday that claims the links between the two isolated nations is deeper than commonly recognized.
The report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, was released just weeks after Pyongyang claimed to have carried out a successful test of a hydrogen bomb and international sanctions on Iran are being lifted under the Obama administration-backed nuclear accord with Tehran.
While the foundation’s report notes there is “no proof” of explicit Tehran-Pyongyang nuclear cooperation, there remain a host of unanswered questions and fears among some analysts that Iran is “outsourcing aspects of its nuclear weapons program” to North Korea.
“Signs of military and scientific cooperation between Iran and North Korea suggest that Pyongyang could have been involved in Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile program, and that state-run trading companies may have assisted in critical aspects of Iran’s illicit nuclear-related activities,” the foundation’s report notes, saying that put more pressure on the Obama administration to track the suspected linkages.
Debate over the extent of collusion between the two is heated, although evidence of collaboration has piled up for years.
One of the more significant developments came in November 2010 with the leaking of a classified U.S. government cable written 10 months earlier that revealed that American intelligence officials believed Iran had obtained 19 advanced missiles from North Korea.
The cable was among several that WikiLeaks had made public. The New York Times reported that the missile intelligence suggested “far deeper military — and perhaps nuclear — cooperation between North Korea and Iran than was previously known.”
CIA Director John O. Brennan last fall acknowledged that his agency was watching to see if Tehran would attempt to continue its clandestine nuclear program through a third nation — even as Iranian officials were pledging to disclose their own activities to U.N. inspectors as part of the agreement.
“We have to make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to uncover anything,” Mr. Brennan told a group of reporters in Austin, Texas, in September. “I’m not saying that something is afoot at all. What I’m saying is that we need to be attuned to all of the potential pathways to acquiring different types of [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities.”
Intelligence officials asserted afterward that Mr. Brennan was speaking only generally, not specifically, about a potential Iranian-North Korean connection. But his comments coincided with claims by some outside the government that the Iran nuclear deal failed to address such issues.
Michael Rubin, an analyst with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told The Washington Times at the time that the Obama administration had “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.”
Unease in Congress
It’s the prospect of collaboration with North Korea that has triggered the most unease on Capitol Hill.
At a July hearing, Rep. Ted Poe, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee dealing with terrorism and proliferation, cited South Korean news reports from 2011 that said “hundreds of North Korean nuclear and missile experts were working in Iran.”
Not everyone involved in the hearing agreed with the report. Jim Walsh, an associate with the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lamented that “people who believe there has been nuclear cooperation rely almost exclusively on media accounts.”
“I reviewed some 76 media reports covering a span of 11 years. None of the 76 reports has been confirmed — none,” Mr. Walsh testified at the time. “On the other side of the ledger, the DNI, the IAEA, the U.N. Panel of Experts for Iran, and the U.N. Panel of Experts for North Korea, despite numerous opportunities to do so, has never claimed Iranian-North Korean nuclear coordination.”
But fears of such coordination have surged anew in the wake of two ballistic missile tests carried out by Iran this fall and Pyongyang’s more recent claim to have test-detonated a miniaturized hydrogen bomb.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday passed a bill, already cleared by the House, that would expand the president’s power to level sanctions against anyone found to be facilitating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Thursday’s report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies challenges the administration’s hope that the Iran nuclear deal would moderate Tehran’s foreign policy and hostility to U.S. interests.
The report’s authors, fellow Ali Alfoneh and former CIA officer Scott Modell, argue that Washington “needs a better understanding of Iranian and North Korean proliferation networks and the impact of U.S. government demarcates, designations, sanctions, and arrests in order to improve the possibility of interdicting illicit materials.”
At the same time, the authors acknowledge that assertions of nuclear collaboration between Pyongyang and Tehran are based mainly on evidence of ballistic missile technology transfers between the two over the past three decades.
“Hard evidence of active nuclear weapons development and production is lacking,” the report states. “However, the activities of the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG), for example, suggest a certain depth to [North Korean-Iranian] ballistic missile collaboration.
“SHIG is similar to most Iranian government entities involved in nuclear- and ballistic missile-related proliferation in that it is constantly adding new front companies,” the authors write, adding that “many of the entities reported to have been involved in procurement for SHIG rely on North Korean firms and China-based brokers and intermediaries.”
The report also points to companies already sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union.
“These include the Saeng Pil Trading Corporation (SPTC), which appears to have been involved in brokering the sale of the Chinese-origin precision-guided munitions known as Lei Shi,” the authors write. “SPTC’s illicit trade has reportedly included key components for the munitions, including guidance systems.”
The document says such factors raise a host of questions for U.S. officials to consider:
“Is the United States monitoring the better-known North Korean trading companies that could be involved with Iranian transactions, such as SPTC? Is Washington tracking the representatives of these companies in countries of the former Soviet Union, where the firms reportedly purchase export-controlled items such as Scud missile components?”