As Trump grapples with Iran’s missiles, enter North Korea
Beirut - As Iran continues to defy US President Donald Trump’s drive to force it to halt its contentious nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, the Americans’ increasingly volatile stand-off with North Korea over its strategic military objectives is steadily becoming an important element in the confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
This is complicating the mounting confrontation between Trump, an ardent opponent of the landmark July 2015 nuclear agreement that the United States and five major global powers signed with Tehran, and an Iranian leadership that Washington views as bent on regional domination.
Whether the US campaign to force Pyongyang to halt its provocative nuclear and missile testing will nudge North Korea into increasing its support for Iran’s efforts is not clear.
The collaboration between Iran and North Korea on nuclear and missile development is murky at best and US intelligence says little on the matter, fearful of divulging anything that could expose sources and methods.
But both are violent opponents of the United States and it has been widely understood that they have exchanged technological data for two decades. North Korea provided Iran with Scud missiles during the 1980-88 war against Iraq.
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser and US specialist on what Washington deems as rogue regimes, warned that Tehran’s links to Pyongyang constitute a growing threat.
“When it comes to nuclear technology, Iran and North Korea are like sorority sisters swapping clothes or an old married couple sharing a toothbrush,” he said.
Iranian scientists and technicians reportedly attended North Korean missile tests and adapted North Korean systems to accelerate their county’s ballistic missile project, including the latest variant, the Khorramshahr.
The Islamic Republic displayed the Khorramshahr in public September 22 for the first time during its annual Sacred Defence Week parade, claiming it had successfully test-fired a medium-range, liquid-fuelled ballistic missile (MRBM).
Analysts say the Khorramshahr is based on North Korea’s intermediate-range Hwasong-10, also known as the BM-25 Musudan. The Iranians say the single-stage, 13-metre-long Khorramshahr has an explosives payload of 1,250 kilograms and a range of 4,000km.
Iran first test-fired the Khorramshahr in secret on July 11, 2016, said Washington-based analyst Farzin Nadimi, who specialises in Arabian Gulf security issues. It failed shortly after lift-off.
A Khorramshahr was reportedly tested on January 29 and supposedly flew approximately 1,000km, although there are suspicions Iran may have faked that launch using film from the earlier test.
The unveiling of the Khorramshahr “indicates strong technical cooperation with Pyongyang, raising concerns that Iran might be on the path to developing a nuclear-capable ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) down the road,” Nadimi observed on September 27.
“If the Khorramshahr is indeed a variant of the Hwasong-10, that would be a worrisome sign, given reports that the North Korean missile uses the same engine as its current ICBMs,” Nadimi said in a Washington Institute for Near East Policy analysis.
Scientists say that the focus in the Iran-North Korea equation is two July test-firings of the Hwasong-14, intended as an ICBM capable of hitting the US mainland.
“The missile in its current form could reach the West Coast but not the East Coast,” said Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defence at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Scientists, however, say development of the Hwasong-14 could be “a game changer.”
Hours after Iran claimed to have successfully tested the Khorramshahr, Trump accused Iran of collaborating with North Korea to improve its missile technology.
Under the terms of the 2015 agreement, which partially lifted US-led sanctions imposed on Iran in return for it curtailing its nuclear project, the United States must recertify the deal every three months.
Trump has twice endorsed the deal despite Iran’s continued missile testing and efforts to develop nuclear warheads, even though on September 10 he branded it as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
He is to report to Congress by October 15 whether he will continue to adhere to the agreement, which amounts to US recognition of Tehran’s prominence in the Middle East, or scrap it and face an Iranian backlash that could impact heavily on a region long torn by conflict.
If Trump gives the deal a thumbs down, Congress has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions. If it does, the whole agreement, bitterly opposed by Israel and Saudi Arabia, may well collapse.
That would alienate the co-signatories — China, Russia, Britain, Germany and France — which want the agreement to remain intact, in part for the economic benefits of dealings with Iran.
Renegotiating a deal that would impose tighter limitations of Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes would seriously worsen the security crisis in the Middle East and likely expose the region to more conflict, possibly dragging in US forces.
Trump has indicated he will not endorse the 2015 agreement this time, even though his military commanders, who want to avoid a potentially calamitous open clash with Iran, declared on September 20 that Tehran was adhering to the letter, if not the spirit, of the nuclear pact.
“But, at the same time, they are rapidly, rapidly deploying and developing a whole series of ballistic missiles and testing ballistic missiles at all ranges that provide significant concerns to not just the United States but our allies,” US Air Force General John Hyten, head of the US Strategic Command, conceded.
Trump’s military chiefs fear that if he carries out his threat to decertify the 2015 agreement, the Islamic Republic will become another North Korea, leaving the United States locking horns with two rogue states bent on becoming nuclear powers.
Pyongyang is technologically years ahead of Iran in the development of both nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to carry them and, some US officials say, has become a key element in Iran’s drive to acquire such weapons.
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and dozens of ballistic missile launches, but it has not yet demonstrated what one Western source described as “proficiency in mounting a so-called miniaturised nuclear warhead on a rocket, although its technology appears to be rapidly developing.”
South Korea’s military said available data indicate North Korea has a new missile potentially capable of reaching the US mainland.
On May 14, Pyongyang claimed that it had test-fired a new missile that could carry “a large-size, heavy nuclear warhead” and could reach the US mainland.
The missile flew some 700km and reached an altitude of more than 2,000km. With a lower trajectory, analysts believe the missile could have a range of 4,500km, the Financial Times reported in May. That “would have covered US bases in Japan, Guam and potentially Hawaii,” observed Bong Youngshik, a North Korean expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
On top of that, on September 3, North Korea announced “perfect success” in the test of a hydrogen bomb they said could be carried atop a ballistic missile.
South Korea’s defence ministry, hardly an unbiased observer, warned that Pyongyang “is very close to developing the technology needed to miniaturise nuclear warheads.”
That could accelerate Iran’s efforts and dramatically change the strategic equation in the Middle East — a threat the United States could ignore at its peril.