How Iran, North Korea still form the Axis of Evil

by DR. JACK CARAVELLI November 2, 2017

In a memorable 2002 State of the Union speech President George W. Bush labeled Iran and North Korea parts of an axis of evil set on acquiring nuclear weapons, undermining US interests and destabilizing the Middle East and Asia.  At the time, Bush's remarks were seen by some as overblown but events over the past few years indicate the president saw clearly what today may be described as an axis of evil 2.0.

From the earliest days of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, North Korea has been an indispensable partner in supporting Iran's military objectives.  During that period North Korea was a critical conduit for Iran to receive large amounts of military equipment, including the Scud B ballistic missile in its war with Iraq.  Each side benefited; Iran had cash and oil-both badly needed by North Korea-and Pyongyang had military hardware.

Through the years that relationship has grown and deepened.  In the 1990s, for example, there was created in both countries "friendship farms" for cultural exchanges and in the large Iranian embassy compound in Pyongyang stands a mosque, one of only a handful of houses of worship in the entire country.  These symbolic gestures mask a much deeper and dangerous relationship.

Iran deploys by far the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East but it remains dependent on outside assistance, beginning with the expertise North Korea has acquired over decades of effort, and in the past shared, on missile development and production.  It is well documented that for decades North Korea and Iran have carried out extensive scientific and technical exchanges.  One result has been that Iran's Shahab series of long-range missiles, for example, are derived from the North Korean design of No Dong missiles.

North Korean and Iranian anti-Americanism has reached new heights during the presidency of Donald Trump.  As the president has wrestled for months to formulate a strategy to mitigate North Korea's evolving nuclear threats, Trump also has felt compelled to take the bold move to decertify the 2015 multilateral nuclear accord with Iran.

At first blush those actions may seem to have little in common; Iran and North Korea of course are in different geographical regions with much different economies and political goals.  Some have seen this as suggesting their bilateral relationship is little more than one of convenience.

Events suggest otherwise.  During the August inauguration of Hassan Rouhani to a second term as Iranian president, the North Korean delegation was led by Kim Yong Nam, the speaker of the parliament and arguably the second most powerful man in the country, albeit a distant second to the dictatorial Kim Jong Un.  Nam had a lengthy, personal meeting with Rouhani according to Iranian media reports.  Nam also remained in the country for 10 days, reportedly to sign a series of technical agreements although few details have been revealed.

Such meetings show a deepening of ties as Iran and North Korea confront the United States and regional adversaries such as Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea.

What should concern them is the scope of future military and security cooperation between Iran and North Korea.  They have demonstrated and continue to refine cyber capabilities that disrupt and undermine their opponents. 

By far the most dangerous area of cooperation would be in nuclear weapons where North Korea has made extraordinarily rapid progress in the past few years.  On the other hand, Iran remains a non-nuclear weapons stare under the Nonproliferation Treaty and claims to be abiding by its 2015 nuclear deal.

Neither commitment should be viewed with any confidence as closing off Iran's interest and ability to become a nuclear weapons state.  The old incentives remain in place; North Korea now has extensive nuclear know how and Iran has the cash and oil to pay for it.  CIA director Mike Pompeo has remarked "it is fair to say" North Korea and Iran may pursue such an arrangement.  We don't know much about what is transpiring between the two in this area and that should alarm us.  The US has extensive intelligence capabilities but will have to become more reliant on the regional capabilities of its friends and allies to understand the nuclear emergence of Iran and North Korea 2.0.

Jack Caravelli writes regularly on national security issues. He served in the Central Intelligence Agency, the White House National Security Council Staff from 1996-2000, and then as deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Energy from 2000-2003. He is the author of The Age of Hatred.


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