The Red-Green Axis Goes Ballistic: Iran, North Korea, and Proliferation

"It's a match made in hell," writes journalist Benny Avni of the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile proliferation nexus between Iran and North Korea.  This international, potentially apocalyptic version of what is known as a "red-green alliance" between radical Islamic and leftist elements makes America's often neglected missile defense efforts all the more urgent.

Various commentators have noted a "stark contrast" between the ideological natures of the Iranian and North Korean regimes.  As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observes, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy, while North Korea is a hereditary tyranny with an anti-religious, Marxist ideology.  Nonetheless, these two rogue state international outcasts, once included in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," both "feel a serious threat from the United States and the West," notes Harvard University's Matthew Bunn.

Accordingly, Israeli analysts have observed that the "nuclear and ballistic interfaces between the two countries are long-lasting" since the carnage of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.  During the conflict, Iran internationally "was a pariah, desperate for military equipment and ammunition," notes North Korean military analyst Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.  "If Iran has sometimes been desperate to buy arms and military technology, North Korea has always been desperate to sell arms and military technology," given the country's economic isolation, writes Cordesman.  Thus, North Korea "needed money more than it needed anything else.  Iran, which needed missiles more than anything else, was the ideal partner," concludes the think-tank Geopolitical Futures.  

The Iran-Iraq War began a relationship in which, one Israeli academic notes, "several analysts believe that Iran was the primary financial supporter of North Korea's missile development program."  In exchange for Iranian oil wealth, North Korea provided Iran with Scud-B missiles that North Korea began producing in 1987 after having reverse-engineered them from missiles procured from Egypt in the late 1970s.  By the end of the 1980s, Iran had received hundreds of Scud-B and Scud-C missiles.

Subsequently, Iran agreed in 1992 to provide North Korea with $500 million for joint nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development.  As a result, North Korea fielded the Nodong missile in the 1990s while Iran deployed its clone, the Shahab-3, in 2003 after several years of testing.  While North Korea's Nodong missiles can hit parts of Japan, Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) notes that from Iran, the Shahab-3 can strike Israel and Central Europe.  North Korea's Musudan missile, 19 of which Iran obtained sometime before 2007, has theoretically an even longer range, capable of striking from Iran targets like Berlin and Moscow.

While some analysts deny the existence of Iran-North Korea missile design collaboration or joint development, Iranian-North Korean ballistic cooperation extends beyond missiles themselves to fields such as test data exchanges.  "It's doubtful there has been a single Iranian missile test where North Korean scientists weren't present, nor a North Korean test where Iranian scientists didn't have a front row seat," notes the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin.  Missile test sites in Iran and North Korea also exhibit strong similarities.

Evidence concerning Iran-North Korea nuclear cooperation remains more indefinite, although both countries have used similar nuclear supply chains like that of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.  Despite numerous reports through the years of technical personnel exchanges and visits, sometimes involving hundreds of individuals, Cordesman notes that American intelligence has never confirmed such cooperation.  Yet British officials on September 10 argued that the rapid progress of North Korea's nuclear weapons development indicated foreign help from a country like Iran or Russia.  

Any Iran-North Korea collaboration in the fields of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles involves grave stakes, Cordesman notes.  "Containing, deterring, and defeating either Iran or North Korea is difficult enough when each nation is treated separately.  It becomes far more difficult to the extent they are cooperating to develop missile and nuclear forces."  Accordingly, former Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) describes Iran and North Korea as "two pieces of a greater national security puzzle."

CIA director Mike Pompeo worries that the "North Koreans have a long history of being proliferators."  In particular, notes University of Denver Professor Jonathan Adelman, the Iran-North Korea relationship "has become so tight that nuclear weapons and missiles in North Korea would rapidly be duplicated in Iran."  The spotty record of interdicting shipments between Iran and North Korea leaves open the possibility that North Korea will simply ship complete warheads to Iran.  "Quite a frightening scenario to consider," says one commentator.  "It's hard enough to put one nuclear genie back in the bottle.  What are the chances we'll be able to do it twice?"

Particularly in the Iran-North Korea "blooming axis of proliferation," notes Middle East expert Matthew RJ Brodsky, "any bilateral agreement with one of its members can be easily undone by another."  Critiquing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Rubin observes that "one of the biggest holes to which the Obama administration agreed was not recognizing that Iranian nuclear work doesn't necessarily take place in Iran."  Today, senior Trump administration officials and others argue that North Korea is stockpiling illicit nuclear material on Iran's behalf in order to circumvent the nuclear agreement's restrictions.  The Israeli analysts further argue that the "Obama administration shot the U.S. in the foot," as sanctions relief under the agreement will facilitate nuclear programs in both Iran and North Korea.

The possibilities of deliverable nuclear weapons in Iran and/or North Korea present numerous strategic nightmares for the United States and its allies similar to World War II's dual German and Japanese threats.  Nuclear proliferation in both Iran and North Korea could force the United States to confront simultaneously two crisis fronts in conjunction with any available allies, while either rogue state could benefit from the other tying down Western powers.  Even proliferation in one of these rogue states would be a major challenge. 

Such interrelated, multifaceted, yet regionally distinct threats demand a comprehensive, multilayered missile defense system of land-, sea-, and space-based elements that can counter missile threats at all ranges and all points globally.  Only then could the United States protect itself, its allies, and its deployed forces from varied missile threats, whether accidental or intentional, regardless of launch origin.  Yet the United States has neglected for years missile defenses even as North Korea finally tested on July 27 a missile capable of targeting America's west coast.

Accordingly, America's best missile homeland security system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, remains dangerously limitedWhile America slept before emerging crises, missile defense has become a weak link in American security.  An Iranian or North Korean nuclear strike against any American vital interest would make Pearl Harbor's December 7, 1941 Day of Infamy look like a Sunday picnic.

"It's a match made in hell," writes journalist Benny Avni of the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile proliferation nexus between Iran and North Korea.  This international, potentially apocalyptic version of what is known as a "red-green alliance" between radical Islamic and leftist elements makes America's often neglected missile defense efforts all the more urgent.

Various commentators have noted a "stark contrast" between the ideological natures of the Iranian and North Korean regimes.  As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observes, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy, while North Korea is a hereditary tyranny with an anti-religious, Marxist ideology.  Nonetheless, these two rogue state international outcasts, once included in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," both "feel a serious threat from the United States and the West," notes Harvard University's Matthew Bunn.

Accordingly, Israeli analysts have observed that the "nuclear and ballistic interfaces between the two countries are long-lasting" since the carnage of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.  During the conflict, Iran internationally "was a pariah, desperate for military equipment and ammunition," notes North Korean military analyst Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.  "If Iran has sometimes been desperate to buy arms and military technology, North Korea has always been desperate to sell arms and military technology," given the country's economic isolation, writes Cordesman.  Thus, North Korea "needed money more than it needed anything else.  Iran, which needed missiles more than anything else, was the ideal partner," concludes the think-tank Geopolitical Futures.  

The Iran-Iraq War began a relationship in which, one Israeli academic notes, "several analysts believe that Iran was the primary financial supporter of North Korea's missile development program."  In exchange for Iranian oil wealth, North Korea provided Iran with Scud-B missiles that North Korea began producing in 1987 after having reverse-engineered them from missiles procured from Egypt in the late 1970s.  By the end of the 1980s, Iran had received hundreds of Scud-B and Scud-C missiles.

Subsequently, Iran agreed in 1992 to provide North Korea with $500 million for joint nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development.  As a result, North Korea fielded the Nodong missile in the 1990s while Iran deployed its clone, the Shahab-3, in 2003 after several years of testing.  While North Korea's Nodong missiles can hit parts of Japan, Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) notes that from Iran, the Shahab-3 can strike Israel and Central Europe.  North Korea's Musudan missile, 19 of which Iran obtained sometime before 2007, has theoretically an even longer range, capable of striking from Iran targets like Berlin and Moscow.

While some analysts deny the existence of Iran-North Korea missile design collaboration or joint development, Iranian-North Korean ballistic cooperation extends beyond missiles themselves to fields such as test data exchanges.  "It's doubtful there has been a single Iranian missile test where North Korean scientists weren't present, nor a North Korean test where Iranian scientists didn't have a front row seat," notes the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin.  Missile test sites in Iran and North Korea also exhibit strong similarities.

Evidence concerning Iran-North Korea nuclear cooperation remains more indefinite, although both countries have used similar nuclear supply chains like that of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.  Despite numerous reports through the years of technical personnel exchanges and visits, sometimes involving hundreds of individuals, Cordesman notes that American intelligence has never confirmed such cooperation.  Yet British officials on September 10 argued that the rapid progress of North Korea's nuclear weapons development indicated foreign help from a country like Iran or Russia.  

Any Iran-North Korea collaboration in the fields of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles involves grave stakes, Cordesman notes.  "Containing, deterring, and defeating either Iran or North Korea is difficult enough when each nation is treated separately.  It becomes far more difficult to the extent they are cooperating to develop missile and nuclear forces."  Accordingly, former Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) describes Iran and North Korea as "two pieces of a greater national security puzzle."

CIA director Mike Pompeo worries that the "North Koreans have a long history of being proliferators."  In particular, notes University of Denver Professor Jonathan Adelman, the Iran-North Korea relationship "has become so tight that nuclear weapons and missiles in North Korea would rapidly be duplicated in Iran."  The spotty record of interdicting shipments between Iran and North Korea leaves open the possibility that North Korea will simply ship complete warheads to Iran.  "Quite a frightening scenario to consider," says one commentator.  "It's hard enough to put one nuclear genie back in the bottle.  What are the chances we'll be able to do it twice?"

Particularly in the Iran-North Korea "blooming axis of proliferation," notes Middle East expert Matthew RJ Brodsky, "any bilateral agreement with one of its members can be easily undone by another."  Critiquing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Rubin observes that "one of the biggest holes to which the Obama administration agreed was not recognizing that Iranian nuclear work doesn't necessarily take place in Iran."  Today, senior Trump administration officials and others argue that North Korea is stockpiling illicit nuclear material on Iran's behalf in order to circumvent the nuclear agreement's restrictions.  The Israeli analysts further argue that the "Obama administration shot the U.S. in the foot," as sanctions relief under the agreement will facilitate nuclear programs in both Iran and North Korea.

The possibilities of deliverable nuclear weapons in Iran and/or North Korea present numerous strategic nightmares for the United States and its allies similar to World War II's dual German and Japanese threats.  Nuclear proliferation in both Iran and North Korea could force the United States to confront simultaneously two crisis fronts in conjunction with any available allies, while either rogue state could benefit from the other tying down Western powers.  Even proliferation in one of these rogue states would be a major challenge. 

Such interrelated, multifaceted, yet regionally distinct threats demand a comprehensive, multilayered missile defense system of land-, sea-, and space-based elements that can counter missile threats at all ranges and all points globally.  Only then could the United States protect itself, its allies, and its deployed forces from varied missile threats, whether accidental or intentional, regardless of launch origin.  Yet the United States has neglected for years missile defenses even as North Korea finally tested on July 27 a missile capable of targeting America's west coast.

Accordingly, America's best missile homeland security system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, remains dangerously limitedWhile America slept before emerging crises, missile defense has become a weak link in American security.  An Iranian or North Korean nuclear strike against any American vital interest would make Pearl Harbor's December 7, 1941 Day of Infamy look like a Sunday picnic.

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