A series of high-level meetings between Iranian and North Korean officials has prompted fresh concern in U.S. national security circles about the depth of military and ballistic missile technology cooperation between the two American adversaries.
An analysis from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said U.S. intelligence has spotted Iranian defense officials in North Korea over the past year, raising the specter that Pyongyang and Tehran might be sharing certain military technological advances with each other.
The concern over collusion intensified with Tuesday’s ballistic missile launch by the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The 53-minute missile test, the first by Pyongyang in more than 2½ months, landed off the coast of Japan and may have traveled higher into space than any other North Korean missile, U.S. and South Korean military officials said.
At least one high-level North Korean visit to Iran has also taken place, according to the analysis published this week by the Washington Institute, which is known for its criticisms of the Iranian regime.
“In early August, Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s No. 2 political leader and head of its legislature, departed Pyongyang amid great fanfare for an extended visit to Iran,” the report said. “The official reason was to attend the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani, but the length of the visit raised alarm bells in Washington and allied capitals.”
President Trump, in his Oct. 13 White House address announcing that he would no longer certify that Iran was living up to its commitments on the 2015 nuclear deal, hinted that his administration shared many of those concerns and was looking for proof.
“There are also many people who believe that Iran is dealing with North Korea,” Mr. Trump said in the speech detailing his new Iran policy. “I am going to instruct our intelligence agencies to do a thorough analysis and report back their findings beyond what they have already reviewed.”
The analysis stopped short of asserting that Iranian and North Korean officials are collaborating directly on nuclear weapons development, noting that the official position of the U.S. government and the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency remains that there is no conclusive evidence of such collaboration.
But the latest analysis suggests that the two nations are sharing ballistic missile and rocket technology. The analysis pointed to a series of “covert contacts,” with missile technicians from Iran’s Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group traveling last year to North Korea to help develop an 80-ton rocket booster for ballistic missiles.
“One of the company’s top officials, Sayyed Javad Musavi, has allegedly worked in tandem with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID), which the United States and U.N. have sanctioned for being a central player in procuring equipment for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” it said.
In November 2010, a leaked U.S. government cable revealed that American intelligence officials believed Iran had obtained 19 advanced missiles from North Korea.
The classified cable was among several that WikiLeaks had made public. The New York Times subsequently reported that the missile intelligence suggested “far deeper military — and perhaps nuclear — cooperation between North Korea and Iran than was previously known.”
Following the signing of the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord — a deal strongly backed by the Obama administration that called for Iran to dramatically reduce its nuclear activities in exchange for international sanctions relief — skeptics predicted Iran might try to outsource activities to Pyongyang that Tehran was prohibited from doing under the agreement.
Then-CIA Director John O. Brennan acknowledged in 2015 that his agency was watching to see if Tehran would attempt to continue a clandestine nuclear program through a third nation, even as Iranian officials were pledging to disclose all activities to U.N. inspectors as part of the nuclear accord.
“We have to make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to uncover anything,” Mr. Brennan said at the time. “I’m not saying that something is afoot at all. What I’m saying is that we need to be attuned to all of the potential pathways to acquiring different types of [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities.”
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, another Washington-based think tank critical of Iran’s government, said in a report last year that links between Iran and North Korea were deeper than commonly recognized and called on the U.S. government to do more to block companies that could be aiding the collaboration.
While the January 2016 report also said there was no proof of explicit nuclear cooperation between the two, it asserted that a host of unanswered questions remained over the extent to which Iran may be “outsourcing aspects of its nuclear weapons program” to North Korea.
“Signs of military and scientific cooperation between Iran and North Korea suggest that Pyongyang could have been involved in Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile program, and that state-run trading companies may have assisted in critical aspects of Iran’s illicit nuclear-related activities,” the foundation’s report said.
The Washington Institute analysis was written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon, who was fired from the newspaper in June following an Associated Press report citing suspected evidence of his involvement in prospective arms deals to foreign governments.
Mr. Solomon, who subsequently denied such involvement, is now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute. He is also the author of “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East.”