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Iran-North Korea meeting — A message for the US?

Iran-North Korea meeting — A message for the US?
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As U.S. sanctions on Iran entered into force on August 7, Tehran was busy playing host to the foreign minister of the ultimate rogue nuclear regime, North Korea. Between August 7 and 8, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho held high-level talks with Iran’s foreign minister and President. It is unknown if the meetings were planned for this date or rescheduled to coincide with sanctions. However, three provocative statements did result from the meetings, all of which point to greater coordination and cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang.

The first was the Iranian admonition not to trust the U.S. Prior to the Singapore summit; Iranian officials similarly warned the Kim regime against believing that the U.S. would keep its word. During Ri’s two-day trip to Tehran, it’s highly likely that each state shared their respective approaches, tips, and tricks for dealing with the U.S., and the Trump administration in particular. 

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Currently, North Korea is dealing directly with President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE (and South Korea’s President Moon) in an ongoing charm offensive after nearly a year of fiery rhetoric combined with nuclear and missile tests. Although the North continues with anti-American propaganda, it has refrained from attacking President Trump directly. 

 

Conversely, Iran and the U.S. continue to trade barbs publicly, and Iran’s Supreme Leader has “ban[ed] holding any talks with America” and appears intent on defying the U.S. It is unknown which approach will bear greater fruit.

The second seemingly perfunctory but important statement indicated that the two nations “expressed satisfaction with existing bilateral relations and called for further expansion of ties.” Tehran is one of Pyongyang’s best customers of ballistic missile materials and technology, and conventional weapons from small arms to artillery. 

Enhanced ties could mean anything from coordination of political action at the UN to further material support of hostile non-state actors. It could also mean arms and missile sales.

While Iranian officials habitually tout self-sufficiency, select North Korean weapons have played an outsized role in Iran’s inventory, even if they are later reverse-engineered or modified. One example is diesel-electric midget submarines, such as the North Korean Yono midget submarine, which was procured in 2004 and become the Iranian Ghadir class. More high-profile examples pertain to ballistic missiles. 

After Iran’s procurement of the North Korean liquid-fueled Nodong-A, a nuclear capable medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), it now mass-produces that MRBM under the name Shahab-3, and has used it as a baseline to develop and refine other MRBMs like the Ghadr and Emad. There are currently key gaps in Iran’s missile arsenal that North Kore could easily fill, such as solid-fuel MRBMs.

Lastly, the third statement of concern came from the North Korean Foreign Minister who said that his country would never give up its “nuclear knowledge.” This is a critical point for denuclearization negotiations, as well as an important predicate for any future deal with Iran. As the recent revelation of Iran’s “atomic archive” indicates, even if entering a nonproliferation agreement, states will cheat, lie, and obfuscate in order to hold onto this information. How can the U.S. be sure North Korea or Iran will not restart their nuclear weapons programs if they retain the scientists and technicians as well as the computer hard drives containing every aspect of research, development and testing that have provided them with nuclear and missile capabilities? 

From these statements, we can speculate a way ahead.  The North Koreans and Iranians may continue to synchronize their diplomatic approaches toward the US with one “good cop” and one “bad cop.”  The U.S. should assess their diplomatic activities at the United Nations General Assembly in September, and should be prepared to expect North Korea to step-up proliferation activity with Iran and other nations in its quest for hard currency. 

The message to the U.S. from this meeting is that although North Korea and Iran are taking different approaches, they are united in their opposition to sanctions and in their cooperation to continue refining hostile capabilities and conducting illicit activities. If these “maximum rogues” are to remain under “maximum pressure” until they substantively alter their behavior, Washington must work doubly hard to thwart and expose cooperation between the two.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and former Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a research fellow specializing in Iran. Follow David on Twitter  @davidmaxwell161.