After Bomb Test, North Korea, Iran Continue Illicit Nuke Cooperation

After test explosion, lawmakers, experts warn of illicit nuclear axis

Hasan Rouhani, Kim Yong Nam
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani shakes hands with a top North Korean leader, Kim Yong Nam, at the start of a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013 / AP
January 7, 2016

One day after North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen bomb, lawmakers and regional experts are warning that Pyongyang and Tehran are continuing an illicit clandestine partnership enabling the rogue nations to master nuclear technology.

Loopholes in the nuclear pact recently reached between Iran and the international community have allowed the Islamic Republic and North Korea to boost their nuclear cooperation, which includes the exchange of information and technology, according to material provided to Congress over the past year.

Iran is believed to be housing some of its key nuclear weapons-related technology in North Korea in order to avoid detection by international inspectors. Iranian dissidents once tied to the regime have disclosed that both countries have consulted on a nuclear warhead.

Following the test, however, the White House publicly denied that Iran and North Korea are working together, according to multiple statements issued by the administration on Wednesday.

Still, the Iranian-North Korean nuclear axis is coming under renewed scrutiny by lawmakers in light of Pyongyang’s most recent detonation, which is the fourth of its kind in recent years.

Congressional critics now warn that the Obama administration cannot be trusted to clamp down on North Korea given its recent efforts to appease Iran by dropping a new set of sanctions that were meant to target its illicit ballistic weapons program.

Iran, on the other hand, thinks that the bomb test will give it "media breathing space" by drawing attention away from its own nuclear pursuits, according to Persian-language reports carried by state-controlled media outlets closely aligned with the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.

"The entire world may well consider North Korea a failed state, but from the view point of the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps], North Korea is a success story and a role model: A state which remains true to its revolutionary beliefs and defies the Global Arrogance," said Ali Alfoneh, an expert on the inner workings of the Iranian regime.

Prominent members of Congress are now warning that North Korea’s latest nuclear test is a sign of what could come from Iran, which they claim is closely following the North Korean nuclear playbook.

Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R, Fla.), chair of House’s foreign relations subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, described North Korea’s latest test as "a precursor to what we can expect from Iran in a few years."

Iran, Ros-Lehtinen told the Washington Free Beacon, "is following the North Korea playbook" and "stands to be the main beneficiary of Pyongyang’s continued nuclear progress."

"Iran and North Korea have a history of collaboration on military programs and have long been suspected of collaborating on nuclear related programs," she said, noting that the Iran deal provides the Islamic Republic with the cash necessary to purchase advanced nuclear technology.

"Iran won’t even need to make any progress on its domestic nuclear program—once it perfects its ballistic missiles it could purchase a weapon from North Korea and all of the conditions and monitoring in the [nuclear deal] would be ineffective in detecting or stopping that," she said.

"Let’s not forget, Iranians have reportedly been present at each of North Korea’s previous nuclear tests," Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "We cannot turn a blind eye to ongoing ties between North Korea and Iran. President Obama must act now to stop these rogue nations from supporting each other’s nuclear weapons efforts aimed at harming America and our allies."

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) expressed concern that Iran is following in North Korea’s footsteps, and that the nuclear deal will collapse just as  Bill Clinton’s agreement with North Korea did in the mid-1990s.

"This test is just the latest sign that North Korea is a regime hell-bent on building and developing a sophisticated nuclear program," Meehan said. "The passage of the 1995 nuclear deal with [North Korea] came with it promises from the Clinton administration of accountability and transparency for Kim’s regime."

"Those same sort of assurances are echoed today by the Obama White House as it seeks to assure us that its own deal with Iran will be more successful," Meehan said. "The Iran deal and the North Korean deal were sold with the same promises, the same assurances, to the American people, sometimes even word-for-word."

"When you put the rhetoric of the 90’s and the North next to the rhetoric of today and Iran, it’s hard to tell the difference," he added.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), a chief advocate for increased economic sanctions on Iran, highlighted what he called North Korea’s "alarming record" of "cooperating on missile development with Iran."

With Iran set to receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief later this month, regional experts have informed Congress that the nuclear deal "creates conditions and incentives that are highly likely to result in the expansion" of Iran and North Korea’s illicit nuclear exchange, according to testimony submitted last year by Claudia Rossett, an expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The deal fails to "cut off the pathways between Iran and nuclear-proliferating North Korea" and even has made "it safer for Iran to cheat," according to Rossett’s testimony.

Additionally, sanctions relief gives Iran a chance to "go shopping in North Korea," she said.

The Obama administration denied the ties between Iran and North Korea, telling reporters on Wednesday that "they’re entirely two different issues altogether."

"We consider the Iran deal as a completely separate issue handled in a completely different manner than were the—than was the Agreed Framework with North Korea," said John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, echoing similar remarks issued by the White House.

The administration’s hesitance to link the two nuclear issues has angered some critics of the Iran deal.

"This is exactly the kind of dishonest incoherence that the Iran nuclear deal forces its advocates to defend," said Omri Ceren, the managing director of press and strategy at The Israel Project, a D.C.-based organization that works with journalists on Middle East issues.

"The Obama administration can't admit that the [deal] provided the Iranians with hundreds of billions of dollars, some of which they're going to invest in nuclear research beyond their borders, allowing them to get sanctions relief while advancing their program anyway," Ceren said. "So instead they have to deny that there are links between Iran and North Korea's nuclear program, even though that's laughable."