Iran, North Korea Deepen Missile Cooperation

Paul Kerr

North Korea has long been known to be a key supplier of missile technology to Iran. Concern about this cooperation, however, has increased in recent months as both countries have expanded their nuclear and missile programs.

Pyongyang launched a series of ballistic missiles in July 2006 and tested a nuclear device about three months later. (See ACT, November 2006.) For its part, Tehran has continued to develop both ballistic missiles and its uranium-enrichment program. It is not clear whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, December 2006.)

Perhaps the most important recent development is Iran’s apparent purchase from North Korea of missiles with a range possibly exceeding that of Tehran’s longest-range deployed ballistic missile, the Shahab-3. The Israeli newspaper Ha`aretz quoted Major General Amos Yadlin, the head of the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Branch, as saying that Tehran had purchased the missiles, some of which had already arrived in Iran. A knowledgeable former Department of State official told Arms Control Today Dec. 19 that the reports are “certainly credible.”

The United States believes that North Korea has been deploying the same missile, which is reportedly based on the Soviet SS-N-6. Washington believes Pyongyang is deploying the missile in a road-mobile mode, although the SS-N-6 was a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The United States and South Korea estimate that the missile, which North Korea has never tested, could potentially have a range of 2,500-4,000 kilometers, according to press reports. The most advanced version of the SS-N-6 had an estimated range of 3,000 kilometers. Any new missile’s range would vary considerably depending on the size of its payload. (See ACT, September 2004.)

During a Nov. 12 television interview, Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps indicated that Iran tested a Shahab-3 capable of traveling 2,000 kilometers. Tehran has previously claimed to possess a missile with such a range.

The United States has repeatedly claimed that Pyongyang has provided assistance to Tehran’s ballistic missile programs. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph told reporters in September 2006 that “ North Korea has been…the principal supplier to Iran of ballistic missile technologies.” The Shahab-3, which has an estimated range of 1,300 kilometers, is based on the North Korean Nodong missile, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center reported in 2006. The report added that Iran has deployed fewer than 20 such missiles.

Safavi acknowledged during a Nov. 6 television interview that Tehran had obtained Scud B and Scud C missiles from “foreign countries like North Korea” during the 1980s.

A CIA report covering 2004 indicates that Iran continued to receive “ballistic missile-related cooperation” from entities in North Korea as well as Russia and China. However, foreign assistance enabled Tehran to “move toward its goal of becoming self-sufficient in the production of ballistic missiles,” the report adds. Safavi claimed that Iran no longer requires foreign assistance for its missile programs.

In addition to material assistance, Pyongyang also has provided Tehran with technical advice for its ballistic missile programs, according to current and former U.S. officials. For example, the former State Department official said that the Shahab-3 was developed with North Korean expertise.

Moreover, at least one Iranian official may have been in North Korea to witness the July missile tests. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill testified during a July 20 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that it is Washington’s “understanding” that such officials were present. However, he told reporters the next day that he had not meant to “confirm” reports about the matter.

Similarly, North Korean officials may have visited Iran to assist with Tehran’s missile programs, a knowledgeable former congressional staff member said in a Dec. 19 e-mail.

U.S. officials suspect that Pyongyang may also have provided missile flight-test data to Tehran, according to both the former State Department official and Michael Green, President George W. Bush’s National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs until December 2005. However, there is no “specific evidence” of such cooperation, the official acknowledged.

Whether North Korea’s assistance to Iran is “the byproduct of individual, short-term, and isolated decisions” or “an element of a more formal agreement between the two nations” is an “open question,” the former congressional staffer said.