On May 2, 2017, the Iranian military conducted a missile test from a Ghadir-class submarine in the Strait of the Hormuz. Even though the missile test failed, the close similarities between Iran’s Ghadir-class submarine and North Korea’s Yono-class miniature submarine alarmed Western policymakers. Many U.S. defense experts have argued that Iran’s missile test was proof of continued Tehran-Pyongyang military cooperation, despite repeated attempts by the United States to isolate the DPRK regime.
Even though there was considerable optimism that the July 2015 ratification of the Iran nuclear deal would halt Tehran’s long-standing military cooperation with North Korea, Iran’s ballistic missile program continues to rely on North Korean military technology. Iran’s ongoing cooperation with North Korea can be explained by a shared distrust of U.S. diplomatic overtures and the common belief that countries have a right to develop self-defense mechanisms without external interference.
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While media coverage on Iran-North Korea military cooperation has focused principally on technician exchanges between the two countries and nuclear cooperation, ballistic missile development has been the most consistent area of Tehran-Pyongyang technological cooperation since the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015. This collaboration explains the striking similarities between Iranian EMAD and North Korean Rodong missiles.
Even though parallel missile developments are powerful indicators of collaboration between Iran and North Korea, American and Israeli analysts have intensely debated the nature of the Tehran-Pyongyang partnership. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the view that Iran-North Korea cooperation is largely transactional. In a recent interview, Bolton declared that if North Korea gets nuclear missiles, “Iran could have that capability the next day” because of Tehran’s long-standing defense contracts with the DPRK and Pyongyang’s desperate need for hard currency.
While the DPRK’s dire economic situation can explain some dimensions of the Iran-North Korea military partnership, there is compelling evidence that Tehran-Pyongyang ballistic missile technology cooperation is a more mutual exchange than many U.S. policymakers have assumed.
Israeli defense analyst Tal Inbar recently noted that Iran purchased North Korea’s technical know-how on ballistic missile production, upgraded the DPRK missiles’ forward section, and distributed these advancements back to North Korea. The similarities between North Korean missiles launched during recent tests and Iranian technology suggests that Iran is a possible contributor to North Korea’s nuclear buildup, rather than a mere transactional partner.
Even though Iran’s technology-sharing partnership with North Korea is widely stigmatized, there is a compelling strategic rationale for Tehran’s continued military exchange with Pyongyang. Should Iran successfully test a missile on a North Korean-style miniature submarine, Tehran’s ability to threaten U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz would increase greatly. The Yono-class submarine’s undetectability helped the DPRK sink South Korea’s ROKS Cheonan ship in 2010. Iran’s possession of similar naval capabilities strengthened by sophisticated ballistic missiles would greatly increase the costs of a U.S. military confrontation with Tehran.
Iran’s successful utilization of North Korea’s BM-25 Musudan missile system could also profoundly impact the regional balance of power. As the head of the U.S. military in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, recently noted, Washington’s adherence to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty prevents it from developing short- and medium-range missile deterrents to neutralize Iran’s missile developments.
Should Iran resolve the problems that unraveled its July 2016 test of North Korean missile technology and gain a 2,500-mile strike range, Tehran’s ability to militarily challenge Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States will strengthen considerably. This prospect explains why Iran views its partnership with North Korea as an integral component of its broader strategy to reshape the balance of power in the Middle East.
Normative Solidarity Between Iran and North Korea
In addition to the strategic benefits of aligning with Pyongyang, Iran’s continued military cooperation with North Korea is founded in deep-rooted normative solidarity between the two countries. This solidarity is rooted in the shared belief that countries have the right to decide what level of defensive capacity is appropriate for them, without external interference or aggressive deterrence.
The synergy between Iran and the DPRK on national self-defense rights is rooted in both countries’ shared perception of the United States as a security threat. On February 3, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif defended Iran’s ballistic missile program, by insisting that it was a defensive reaction to aggressive threats from the United States. Iranian diplomats also frequently cite the United States’ military support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War as proof that Iran needs defensive capabilities of unassailable strength to maintain its sovereignty.
North Korea has framed its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in similarly defensive terms. In a January 2016 public statement from the DPRK’s official news agency, KCNA, the North Korean government defended its nuclear test as a necessary measure to prevent its leaders from succumbing to the fates of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi. The North Korean state media has also justified its weapons buildup by arguing that the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea is a compelling indicator of an imminent joint U.S.-ROK invasion of Pyongyang.
In addition to invoking their national rights to self-defense, the Iranian and DPRK governments have also highlighted double standards in the international community’s responses to states possessing nuclear weapons. In particular, Iran and North Korea have been stridently critical of Washington’s willingness to accept Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, even though many world leaders argue that Israel’s nuclear arsenal poses a threat to regional and international stability.
Even though the 2015 Iran nuclear deal initially sparked optimism in the United States about the viability of a grand bargain to denuclearize North Korea, recent actions by the Iranian and DPRK militaries have effectively extinguished this prospect. If Iran-United States relations continue to worsen under Trump and Iran continues to upgrade its ballistic missile capabilities with DPRK technology, the Tehran-Pyongyang military nexus will remain an intractable security challenge for U.S. policymakers for years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.