First Comes Iran, Then Comes North Korea - OZY | A Modern Media Company

First Comes Iran, Then Comes North Korea

Washington needs a plan for leveraging success with both Tehran and Pyongyang.

First Comes Iran, Then Comes North Korea

By John McLaughlin

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because dealing solely with Iran won't work.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The Biden administration has begun cautious exploratory talks with Iran and other signatories on reviving the 2015 agreement that limited Tehran’s nuclear work. As a practical matter, the U.S. has to tackle nuclear issues one at a time, but it is very hard to separate Iran’s nuclear and missile ambitions from those of North Korea. Eventually, our diplomats will have to treat the two as a “package deal” because of the close ties the two countries have nurtured over decades — ties that can give each some bargaining leverage and some insulation from Washington’s efforts to pressure them or deny them access to expertise and material.

The talks with Iran are exploratory and indirect, meaning American and Iranian representatives are not always be at the table but will communicate on a menu of options through diplomats from the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union.

The ambition on the U.S. side appears to be to map out a series of reciprocal steps whereby Iran would gradually restore compliance with the agreement in exchange for gradual relaxing of U.S. and international economic sanctions. Since Trump’s withdrawal from the accord in 2018, Iran has begun enriching uranium to higher levels and in larger quantities than the agreement permits. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran has now accumulated about 12 times the enriched uranium permitted under the 2015 agreement, steps Iran says it can reverse — for a price.  

So far, Iran has stuck to its position that the U.S., as the party that left the accord, is obliged to first lift all the sanctions before Iran has to do anything. Robert Malley, appointed by President Biden as Special Envoy for Iran, has been very careful to keep expectations low and to signal that Washington will not make concessions easily.

There are no comparable talks currently planned with North Korea, but the Biden administration continues to weigh the options. Pyongyang is much further along than Iran on both nuclear weapons and missiles. On the nuclear side, the U.S. Army says the North has 20 to 60 nuclear warheads and the ability to make about six per year.

The North also appears close to achieving a workable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) based on tests it conducted in 2017. Its largest missile, the Hwasong-15, reportedly reached an altitude of 2,780 miles; scientists estimate that if this lofted shot was flattened out in a normal trajectory, it could reach most parts of the United States. Although experts assume the North can attach nuclear warheads to its missiles, they doubt it has an effective guidance system or has mastered the technology to ensure the survival of its final stage through the heat of atmospheric reentry.

Cooperative relations between the two countries go back decades and continue now to contribute to Iran’s missile progress in particular. Starting in the 1980s, Iran began acquiring missiles and designs from North Korea; Iran’s Shahab-3 medium-range missile, with a range of 1,200 miles, is essentially a version of North Korea’s No Dong weapon. In 2016, the Obama administration treasury department issued a sanctions notice indicating that Iran and North Korea were working on a large rocket engine that appears to be the engine North Korea used in its successful 2017 tests of its largest ICBM. 

Iranian acquisition of this engine could hasten its efforts to increase the ranges of its missiles, which currently top out at 1,200-1,800 miles. A U.N. panel of experts, moreover, issued a report last month noting that such missile cooperation was continuing.

On the nuclear front, much of the information is fragmentary and given more weight by U.S. opponents of the Iran nuclear accord than by its advocates. But it is fair to say that some level of nuclear collaboration has been underway for more than a decade. Each side has expertise the other wants — Iran on uranium centrifuge enrichment (North Korea relied on plutonium in its early nuclear work), and North Korea on nuclear warhead design. South Korea claims that North Korean experts have worked at Natanz, one of Iran’s premier nuclear hubs, and the IAEA has reports that the North transferred to Iran mathematical formulas and codes for nuclear warhead design. And in the early part of the last decade, North Korea helped Iran’s ally Syria build a nuclear plant, destroyed by Israel in 2007.

The bottom line: The Biden team is right to give first priority to Iran, because it can still be deterred from the nuclear path that North Korea has already taken. But when the administration turns to North Korea later, it will have to include among its goals measures to guard against Pyongyang diluting or undoing whatever progress it may have made with Iran.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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