Does Iran Have Secret Nukes in North Korea?

Washington’s nuclear deal with Tehran depends on aggressive inspections inside Iran. But the mullahs may well have a secret program outside their borders.

03.30.15 12:36 AM ET

In October 2012, Iran began stationing personnel at a military base in North Korea, in a mountainous area close to the Chinese border. The Iranians, from the Ministry of Defense and associated firms, reportedly are working on both missiles and nuclear weapons. Ahmed Vahidi, Tehran’s minister of defense at the time, denied sending people to the North, but the unconfirmed dispatches make sense in light of the two states announcing a technical cooperation pact the preceding month.

The P5+1—the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany—appear determined, before their self-imposed March 31 deadline, to ink a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding its nuclear energy program, which is surely a cover for a wide-ranging weapons effort. The international community wants the preliminary arrangement now under discussion, referred to as a “framework agreement,” to ensure that the country remains at least one year away from being able to produce an atomic device.

The P5+1 negotiators believe they can do that by monitoring Tehran’s centrifuges—supersonic-speed machines that separate uranium gas into different isotopes and upgrade the potent stuff to weapons-grade purity—and thereby keep track of its total stock of fissile material.

The negotiators from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China are trying to get Tehran to adhere to the Additional Protocol, which allows anytime, anyplace inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. If Iran agrees to the IAEA’s intrusive inspections, proponents of the deal will claim a major breakthrough, arguing for instance that Iran will not be able to hide centrifuges in undisclosed locations.

But no inspections of Iranian sites will solve a fundamental issue: As can be seen from the North Korean base housing Tehran’s weapons specialists, Iran is only one part of a nuclear weapons effort spanning the Asian continent. North Korea, now the world’s proliferation superstar, is a participant. China, once the mastermind, may still be a co-conspirator. Inspections inside the borders of Iran, therefore, will not give the international community the assurance it needs.

The cross-border nuclear trade is substantial enough to be called a “program.” Larry Niksch of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., estimates that the North’s proceeds from this trade with Iran are “between $1.5 billion and $2.0 billion annually.” A portion of this amount is related to missiles and miscellaneous items, the rest derived from building Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

Iran has bought a lot with its money. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, thought to be Tehran’s chief nuclear scientist, was almost certainly in North Korea at Punggye-ri in February 2013 to witness Pyongyang’s third atomic test. Reports put Iranian technicians on hand at the site for the first two detonations as well.

The North Koreans have also sold Iran material for bomb cores, perhaps even weapons-grade uranium. The Telegraph reported that in 2002 a barrel of North Korean uranium cracked open and contaminated the tarmac of the new Tehran airport.

In addition, the Kim Jong Un  regime appears to have helped the Islamic Republic on its other pathway to the bomb. In 2013, Meir Dagan, a former Mossad director, charged the North with providing assistance to Iran’s plutonium reactor.

The relationship between the two regimes has been long-lasting. Hundreds of North Koreans have worked at about 10 nuclear and missile facilities in Iran. There were so many nuclear and missile scientists, specialists, and technicians that they took over their own coastal resort there, according to Henry Sokolski,  the proliferation maven, writing in 2003.

Even if Iran today were to agree to adhere to the Additional Protocol, it could still continue developing its bomb in North Korea, conducting research there or buying North Korean technology and plans. And as North Korean centrifuges spin in both known and hidden locations, the Kim regime will have a bigger stock of uranium to sell to the Iranians for their warheads. With the removal of sanctions, as the P5+1 is contemplating, Iran will have the cash to accelerate the building of its nuclear arsenal.

So while the international community inspects Iranian facilities pursuant to a framework deal, the Iranians could be busy assembling the components for a bomb elsewhere. In other words, they will be one day away from a bomb—the flight time from Pyongyang to Tehran—not one year as American and other policymakers hope.

The North Koreans are not the only contributors to the Iranian atom bomb. Iran got its first centrifuges from Pakistan, and Pakistan’s program was an offshoot from the Chinese one.

Some argue that China proliferated nuclear weapons through the infamous black market ring run by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. There is no open source proof of that contention, but Beijing did nothing while Khan merchandised Chinese parts, plans, and knowhow—its most sensitive technology—from the capital of one of its closest allies. Moreover, Beijing did its best to protect the smuggler when Washington rolled up his network in the early part of last decade. The Chinese, for instance, supported General Pervez Musharraf’s controversial decision to end prematurely his government’s inquiry, which avoided exposing Beijing’s rumored involvement with Khan’s activities.

And there are circumstances suggesting that Beijing, around the time of Khan’s confession and immediate pardon in 2004, took over his proliferation role directly, boldly transferring materials and equipment straight to Iran. For example, in November 2003 the staff of the IAEA had fingered China as one of the sources of equipment used in Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons effort. And as reported in July 2007 by The Wall Street Journal, the State Department had lodged formal protests with Beijing about Chinese enterprises violating Security Council resolutions by exporting to Tehran items that could be used for building atomic weapons.

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Since then, there have been continual reports of transfers by Chinese enterprises to Iran in violation of international treaties and U.N. rules. Chinese entities have been implicated in shipments of maraging steel, ring-shaped magnets, and valves and vacuum gauges, all apparently headed to Iran’s atom facilities. In March 2011, police in Port Klang seized two containers from a ship bound to Iran from China. Malaysian authorities discovered that goods passed off as “used for liquid mixing or storage” were actually components for potential atomic weapons.

In the last few years, there has been an apparent decline in Chinese shipments to Iran. Beijing could be reacting to American pressure to end the trade, but there are more worrying explanations. First, it’s possible that, after decades of direct and indirect illicit transfers, China has already supplied most of what Iran needs to construct a weapon. Second, Beijing may be letting Pyongyang assume the leading proliferation role. After all, the shadowy Fakhrizadeh was reported to have traveled through China on his way to North Korea to observe the North’s third nuclear test.

Fakhrizadeh’s passage through China—probably Beijing’s airport—suggests that China may not have abandoned its “managed proliferation.” In the past, China’s proxy for this deadly trade was Pakistan. Then it was China’s only formal ally, North Korea. In both cases, Chinese policymakers intended to benefit Iran.

In a theoretical sense, there is nothing wrong with an accommodation with the Islamic Republic over nukes, yet there is no point in signing a deal with just one arm of a multi-nation weapons effort. That’s why the P5+1 needs to know what is going on at that isolated military base in the mountains of North Korea. And perhaps others as well.