by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
North Korea tested a nuclear weapon on September 3rd that literally shook the region. The United States Geological Survey, a government entity that measures earthquakes, reported on their website a “possible explosion” measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. They reported the rumble was felt by persons in China, Russia and Japan. And symbolically, the blast was “felt” as far away as Washington, D.C.
David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, testified to Congress in comments published to the Institute’s website that the nuclear test was “by far” North Korea’s largest “in terms of explosive yield.” In fact, not only was the blast “felt” in the United States, it’s safe to assume it was also felt in Jerusalem and Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Why would Israel and Iran, far away from North Korea and their enemies, be impacted by the nuclear test? Because it was one more step by North Korea towards fully functional and powerful nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community—which is a path the Iranians have been traveling for decades. And because North Korea might just help the Iranians get there.
Dr. Ephraim Asculai—senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and formerly with the Israel Atomic Energy Commission for more than 40 years—noted that one doesn’t have to ask if North Korea might try to sell or give their nuclear technology to a rogue nation. They already have. North Korea provided nuclear technology to Syria, “so I wouldn’t put it beyond them to sell to anyone, Iran included,” said Dr. Asculai in an interview with The Mideast Update.
Israel was key in identifying North Korean support in Syria. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, in an interview with Ynet in 2016, confirmed that Israel obtained evidence of a North Korean nuclear reactor design in Syria that helped lead to the conclusion that North Korea was involved. Not long afterwards, the Israelis reportedly destroyed the Syrian nuclear facility.
That’s just one example of North Korea’s proliferation threat. According to a February 2016 report from the US Congressional Research Service, which was republished by the Iran Watch website, Iran and North Korea were assessed to have had “meaningful and significant” cooperation in the realm of ballistic missiles dating back decades. The 2016 report said that while Iran had “likely exceeded North Korea’s ability” in the missile field, they “may, to some extent, still rely on Pyongyang for certain materials for producing Iranian ballistic missiles.”
While the 2016 report cited a lack of evidence indicating nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran, the long-term relationship raises questions. As Dr. Asculai noted, “If Syria, why not Iran?”
Over the last several decades, North Korea has repeatedly reached deals over their nuclear program, only to violate them whenever they saw fit. Iran has had a slightly different path, but the story is similar. “Iran also had deals, enrichment suspension agreements, and violated them,” said Dr. Asculai. “I’m not sure that Iran is a very trustworthy partner. If it keeps to the deal, it does so because…it’s in its best interest to keep the deal, at least for the time being.”
Dr. Asculai warned that the nuclear deal with Iran isn’t a good deal for the rest of the world—especially given the “sunset” clauses that end key restrictions on Iran after a period of time—and furthermore it buys Iran more time to complete their overall nuclear program, including missiles.
Those concerns should be highlighted all the more by North Korea’s example, which has repeatedly used deals to buy itself time to develop their program. Dr. Emily Landau, Senior Research Fellow and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program for INSS, wrote in an email to The Mideast Update that “failed negotiations with North Korea must raise a red flag regarding the [Iran deal], which is a severely flawed deal that does not signify a strategic reversal on the part of Iran. Arms control scholars must seriously consider whether negotiations and diplomacy are an effective strategy for dealing with a determined nuclear proliferator.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels similarly. In a September speech to the United Nations published by his office, he warned that while some claim the Iran deal will keep Tehran from the bomb, “that’s exactly what they said about the nuclear deal with North Korea, and we all know how that turned out. Unfortunately, if nothing changes, this deal will turn out exactly the same way.”
If Iran is able to follow the path of North Korea, that could be quite frightening. In October, Dr. Asculai said of North Korea, “They’re quite successful in their nuclear endeavor. It’s not a limited success. They produced both plutonium and enriched uranium. They tested already six times, most of them successfully. Their last test in September was really successful.”
And how close is Iran to being able to do their own September 3rd test that shook the world? “Once they decide to break away from the [nuclear] agreement, it would probably take them a couple of years,” warned Dr. Asculai. “I know it’s a pessimistic view, but you have to be quite realistic when you tackle this issue. No one guessed that North Korea would make so quick a progress on its development of nuclear weapons and missiles. And it did it, so why not Iran?”
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