Iran Hawks Draw Lessons from DPRK Despite Ongoing Uncertainty on Korean Peninsula

Details are still emerging on the exchange of artillery fire in the Yellow Sea following what has been described as a North Korean artillery attack on South Korea. However, this incident, combined with reports of Pyongyang’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) facility, has given new life to the eternally rehashed comparisons between North Korea and Iran.

Of course the similarities between the two countries, comprising two-thirds of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” are limited. North Korea is a self-imposed “hermit kingdom.” Iran, much to the dismay of those calling for ever tighter sanctions, is eager to establish both trade and political links with both its neighbors and allies around the world.

The week started with what appears to be widely held assumptions that Iran and North Korea may have collaborated on Pyongyang’s HEU facilitity, or North Korea might transfer the technology to Iran, or Tehran might have transferred technology to Pyongyang. This leaves a lot of room for questions. However, the conventional thinking is that there is a link — with no agreement on how, or if, a technology transfer has occurred.

The WSJ‘s Jay Solomon interviewed the Washington Institute for Near East Policy‘s (WINEP) Simon Henderson, who told him:

One has to assume that Iran either has the P-2 centrifuge from North Korea, or could get it very easily.

And former UN ambassador, outspoken hawk, and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow John Bolton wrote in the LA Times:

There is substantial reason for concern that Tehran’s capabilities and its penchant for cooperating with the North exceed U.S. intelligence estimates.

Indeed hawks from WINEP and AEI are not the only ones making assumptions about how Pyongyang’s announcement might impact Iran’s nuclear program.

The extremely well informed Nelson Report, an insider newsletter which focuses on U.S.-Asia policy, suggested that a technology transfer may have occurred from Iran to North Korea. An anonymous expert who told them:

From what we’re seeing, you have to think the components of this plant were moved-in from elsewhere and set up, which is a stunning defeat for our intelligence, since it could equally imply there are many HEU-related facilities elsewhere in N. Korea, in addition to whatever was imported from Pakistan and/or Iran.

The Report also wrote:

Every expert we touched base with today felt that despite its years of known effort to achieve HEU capability, the equally known assistance and information sharing with Pakistan, and the presumed but not proven cooperation with Iran, leads the experts to assume that the DPRK had help with the current HEU facility.

Indeed, uncertainty continues to run rampant over the extent of the DPRK-Iran relationship and how a technology transfer may have played a role in Pyongyang’s HEU announcement. The lack of details hasn’t slowed hawkish pundits from translating this week’s artillery attack and the earlier Cheonan sinking into the conclusion that containment is a failed policy. Thus, the U.S. should take any and all actions to prevent Iran from reaching North Korea’s level of nuclearization.

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot writes in Commentary (my emphasis):

For those who advocate containment as the solution to the Iranian nuclear threat, it is worth noting how destabilizing a nuclear-armed rogue state can be and how hard it is to contain. Even now, North Korea could be planning to export nuclear know-how or uranium to Iran. If so, what are we going to do about it? My guess: not much. That is an argument for stopping Iran by any means necessary before it crosses the nuclear threshold and becomes as dangerous as North Korea.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Why go all the way to N.Korea. I am sure Pakistan would be as co-operative, if the price was right. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pakistan was prepared to sell Iran, a functioning bomb.

  2. It is to be expected that all the Neocons, and the Likud hawks in Israel, use this incident to construct all kinds of threatening connections between the nuclear activities of North Korea and Iran.
    They will use any and all argument they can find, or make up, to build a case for attacking Iran.
    It is all part of an ongoing ‘perception management’ strategy by the Israeli government, spreading information to convince western public opinion that war with Iran is inevitable.
    The lack of solid evidence is no impediment; if there is none, they just fabricate it. Just read the highly informative piece on the IPS website on a example of faked evidence, titled: “Iran Laptop Papers Showed the Wrong Missile Warhead” by Gareth Porter.

  3. Why are you repeating the “High Enriched Uranium” canard?

    North Korea showed an enrichment facility that it says is for a light water reactor. Such reactors would use low enriched Uranium (3-5%). An enrichment facility can be configured with some extras to produce higher enriched Uranium. But there is no sign that the North Korean facility is configured for that nor that North Korea has the intend to make HEU.

    Also please note that the people who saw the enrichment facility said it is using marangated steel rotators/centrifuges without outer cooling coils. Iran does not use such. It IR1 centrifuges have outer cooling coils and its newer models IR3/4 have carbon-fiber rotators.

    There is from a technical point nothing known so far that points to an Iran-North Korea cooperation.

  4. In order that the world understands the situation in Iran, please use the phrase “Iranian regime” instead of the word “Iran”. That the people of Iran will not be mixed up with the regime.

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