Iran’s aggressive designs in the Middle East have been well covered by the media. These range from its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war to its propping up of Syrian President Bashar Assad with, among other things, thousands of its Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters.
Yet far less attention has been paid to another important element in Iran’s ambitions: the help it has long received from North Korea in the development of ballistic missiles.
As Iran boasts, these are the very missiles, many with anti-Israel slogans painted on them, that threaten the Jewish state.
While nuclear-armed North Korea accelerates the development of its ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ones (ICBMs), which can now reach large parts of the U.S., relatively little has been reported about the collaboration between Pyongyang and Tehran, and between Pyongyang and Damascus (recalling Israel’s 2007 destruction of the North Korean-designed nuclear reactor in Syria).
Tehran has not shied away from bragging about the advancement of its ballistic missile program, even though it arguably remains in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
Iran, with the backing of the Russians, maintains that Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal, does not prohibit it from developing ballistic missiles. It points to an annex to the resolution that only “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” In diplomatic parlance, the term “calls upon” is not as restrictive as “decides,” which amounts to a prohibition.
While arguments ensue about what Iran is technically allowed to do on the missile front, there is little doubt that North Korea has been aiding Iran for years. In a lengthy June 26 article published in The Tablet, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued that while “it is certainly possible, even probable,” that the two states have been collaborating on this front, this remains “unproven,” despite a wealth of circumstantial evidence.
The circumstantial evidence has indeed been accumulating for years.
In May 2011, Reuters reported that “North Korea and Iran appear to have been regularly exchanging ballistic missile technology in violation of UN sanctions, according to a confidential UN report.… The report said the illicit technology transfers had ‘trans-shipment through a neighbouring third country.’ That country was China.”
In subsequent years, other reports have emerged about clandestine collaborations between the two countries. Some have been attributed to the UN Panel of Experts, which is responsible for monitoring North Korea’s compliance with UN Security Council sanctions.
Both China and Russia, it appears, have suppressed the publication of the panel’s findings.
In May 2015, Reuters reported that North Korean officials had taken multiple trips to Tehran – three within the first five months of that year alone, according to the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
The NCRI claimed that a North Korean delegation visiting in late April of that year – as Tehran was completing details of the nuclear agreement – “included nuclear experts, nuclear warhead experts and experts in various elements of ballistic missiles including guidance systems.”
Ballistic missiles become an even greater worry when they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. North Korea is racing ahead with that technology to the dismay of the flailing Trump administration, which has no viable response.
Ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are inextricably linked.
Emily Landau, head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies, has been critical of aspects of the Iranian nuclear deal, but has argued about the need to improve “the circumstances surrounding” it, instead of renouncing or renegotiating it.
Still, when addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program in March, she warned that the international community “will ultimately face a nuclear threat as intractable as North Korea(’s).”
Paul Michaels is CIJA’s research director.