Iran Update 2: The Iranian Connections and Precedents



We now have a plethora of open-source information on North Korea’s collaboration with Iran on missiles. Joshua Pollack provides one of the more concise summaries in a recent issue of the Non-Proliferation Review. He notes the central problem for sanctions and interdiction: that while direct sales have declined, technology transfer and sharing arrangements with Iran are probably continuing. For those seeking more detail from the Iranian side, the International Institute for Strategic Studies has a 2010 study called Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net assessment (here).

But are the North Koreans and Iranians playing footsie with respect to nuclear issues as well? In an earlier overview of the IAEA report we noted that North Korea was not mentioned but that Pyongyang’s fingerprints seemed pervasive; several items about bomb design were noteworthy although they appeared to be related to HEU devices rather than the plutonium models tested by the North Koreans.

Mark Fitzpatrick—who has a long history with the issue and oversees the IISS dossiers--has a piece for The National that is more cautious and worth a careful read. For example, it calls into question reports that North Korean scientists are being rotated through Iran’s nuclear facilities, noting that they could very well be collaborating on missiles. But Fitzpatrick’s piece does give potential credence to two new pieces of information:

  • A Suddeutsche Zeitung story from last August—citing Western intelligence sources—spotlights the transfer of a dual-use software program that could be useful in a weapons program; ironically, the software was initially developed by the Los Alamos lab and allows scientists to calculate whether reactions have gone critical. The German paper cites this as part of a wide-ranging cooperation agreement for which the Iranians purportedly paid $100 million.
  • Fitzpatrick also mentions an unreferenced article published in Israel around the same time pulling together evidence that Iran might have been involved in financing the Syrian reactor that the Israelis bombed in 2007. (If anyone has the reference, we would be curious to see it).

The IISS dossier on Iran’s WMD, Iran's Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Capabilities:A Net Assessment, is also cautious on the North Korean connection with respect to nuclear weapons. But its first chapter on the political and diplomatic history of the Iranian negotiations is a must-read for anyone thinking about the North Korean negotiations.

A central theme of the chapter is the fundamental conflict between Iran and the shifting contact groups—first the EU 3 or E3 (the UK, France and Germany) and then the E3+3 (China, Russia and the US)--over the right to a peaceful nuclear program. The position of the E3+3 was that demands for Iran to suspend its nuclear programs were warranted by a history of evading safeguards and failing to abide by reporting obligations to the IAEA. Because Iranian commitments were not credible, “the E3 [and E3+3] sought to turn the ‘temporary suspension’ of enrichment and reprocessing into a ‘permanent cessation’…”

Iran, by contrast, treated suspension as a concession. Tehran stuck by the letter of the NPT that Iran had the right to a peaceful nuclear program, even if the mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle could always be turned to the pursuit of fissile material and weaponization if they chose.

This issue is bound to recur in the Six Party Talks when they resume. The difference between Iran and North Korea is that Iran has the cash to pursue a nuclear option while North Korea doesn’t. Iran also has a much denser network of international financial connections than North Korea, which makes the implementation of sanctions more challenging.  One manifestation of this weaker financial position is that North Korea has repeatedly raised the issue of LWRs, asking that the five parties pay for—and even construct—reactors as part of a nuclear deal (see our analysis here and here).

But the Iranian saga also sketches out a second breakout path: the North Koreans build their own LWR—as they are now doing--and then insist that their enrichment program is legitimate. As negotiations stall, Pyongyang continues to develop a second route to fissile material even as they are negotiating the shutdown of the plutonium path.

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