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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — A top State Department official on Monday dismissed reports that Iran may be hiding key nuclear-related assets in North Korea and implied that she was unaware of the possibility, despite the publication this weekend of several articles by top analysts expressing alarm at the extent of nuclear cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang.
Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the State Department, dismissed as “bizarre” the reports, which described the transfer of enriched uranium and ballistic missile technology back and forth between the two rogue regimes.
The existence of an illicit Iranian nuclear infrastructure outside of the Islamic Republic’s borders would gut a nuclear deal that the administration has vowed to advance by Tuesday, according to these experts and others.
If Iran is not forced to disclose the full extent and nature of its outside nuclear work to the United States, there is virtually no avenue to guarantee that it is living up to its promises made in the negotiating room, according to multiple experts and sources in Europe apprised of the ongoing talks.
Gordon Chang, a North Korea expert who has written in recent days about Iran’s possible “secret program” there, described the State Department’s dismissal of these reports as naïve.
“Let me see if I get this straight: The country with the world’s most highly developed technical intelligence capabilities does not know what has been in open sources for years?” Chang said. “No wonder North Korea transfers nuclear weapons technology to Iran and others with impunity.”
“The North Koreans could go on CNN and say, ‘Hey, Secretary Kerry, we’re selling the bomb to Iran,’ and the State Department would still say they know nothing about it,” Chang said. “No wonder we’re in such trouble.”
Other Iranian experts specializing in the country’s military workings also have raised recent questions about Tehran’s collaboration with North Korea.
Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, both senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), have revealed that a nuclear reactor destroyed in Syria in 2007 by Israel was likely a North Korean-backed Iranian project.
Gerecht told the Free Beacon in a follow-up interview that key issues regarding Iran’s past military work and outside collaboration are being ignored in the negotiating room as diplomats rush to secure a tentative deal by Tuesday night.
“It certainly appears that the administration has backed away from [previous military dimensions] questions,” Gerecht said. “The plan appears to be to let the [International Atomic Energy Agency] continue its so far fruitless effort to gain access to sensitive sites, personnel, and paperwork, but to keep these questions out of the talks.”
“The administration is doing this because it fears the Iranians would walk out,” he added. “Any military work revealed by the Iranians would prove the Supreme Leader and [President] Rouhani liars.
Despite concerns from countries such a France over the issue, the United States has attempted to accommodate Iran, Gerecht said.
“The White House wants to believe that monitoring of known sites will be sufficient. It’s a bit mystifying given the Iranian track record and the CIA’s longstanding inability to penetrate the nuclear-weapons program (it’s just too hard of a target to do this reliably),” he explained. “But since they fear a breakdown, they bend their credulity in Iran's favor. This has been the story of the negotiations from the beginning.”
Alfoneh also told the Free Beacon that Iran should be pressed by the United States to disclose the full extent of its nuclear relationship with North Korea.
“I certainly think the Islamic Republic should come clean concerning its past record of nuclear activities: Did the Islamic Republic ever try to build a nuclear weapon? If not, how are we to understand the opaque references to Tehran-Pyongyang nuclear cooperation in the 1990s?” Alfoneh said.
“As long as the Islamic Republic does not provide a clear record of its nuclear activities in the 1980s and 1990s, and as long as we do not know the full scope of Tehran-Pyongyang nuclear cooperation, there is always the risk of the two states renewing that cooperation, which in turn would jeopardize any agreement the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 Group may reach,” he said.
Another potential complication includes the ability of international inspectors to discern the extent of Iran’s nuclear work in Syria.
“Syria’s current chaos makes it virtually impossible for inspectors to do their job even if the Syrians were compliant,” according to Emanuele Ottolenghi, a onetime advisor to foreign ministries in Europe.
There is no way to determine whether Syria is housing any other nuclear sites on behalf of the Iranian, according to Ottolenghi, another senior fellow at FDD.
“Syria has covered up its nuclear activities after the 2007 [Israeli Air Force] raid on Deir al-Azour,” he said. “After four years of inconclusive efforts, the [International Atomic Energy Agency] ended up deferring the issue to the [United Nations Security Council] after declaring Syria in non-compliance.”