AnalysisIran is watching, learning -- the macro, not the micro

In renegade North Korea, some see a potential precursor of nuclear Iran

Israeli and US experts say Pyongyang can no longer be reined in, but there’s still a chance to thwart Tehran’s atomic ambitions

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

People watch a television news screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on August 29, 2017. (AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)
People watch a television news screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on August 29, 2017. (AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)

For Iran, the atomic-armed North Korea offers a glimpse of a possible future, 20 years down the line, in which it has a nuclear weapon but paid a dear price for it.

The two countries have wildly different societies, and while North Korea has already created atomic bombs, Iran is not yet believed to possess any. But as international pariahs hell-bent on stocking nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them, Pyongyang and Tehran are inextricably linked.

Furthermore, North Korea serves as a kind of example — for better or worse — to Iran, which has learned from its mistakes and successes. And when Pyongyang fires a missile over Japan, as it did Tuesday, Iran can see how the world responds and takes that into account for its own future actions.

“You can’t compare Iran and North Korea now. You need to look and see how Iran is positioning itself for the future, in light of the example set by North Korea,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of IDF Military Intelligence and current head of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank at Tel Aviv University.

Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser, noted in a position paper earlier this month that the connection between Iran and North Korea was demonstrated “in 2007, when Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said, ‘Pay attention to North Korea’s conduct. What has come of two years of negotiation with North Korea? It led to [the West’s] acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear technologies in the field of uranium enrichment. So now, [the West] will accept ours.'”

A missile is test-launched by North Korea early Tuesday, July 4, 2017 (screen capture: Korean Central News Agency)

According to Yadlin, Iran is not necessarily watching North Korea’s every missile launch and nuclear test, but rather taking in the bigger picture.

“Iran’s observation of North Korea is more macro than micro. It’s not about this test or that test, this missile or that missile. Iran is learning from North Korea that whoever has a nuclear weapon and a ballistic missile can threaten world powers and can handle the pressure put on them,” Yadlin told The Times of Israel over the phone.

For proof that non-nuclear states are more vulnerable, the Iranian regime need only look at former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who voluntarily disarmed his country of its nuclear weapons in 2003, only to be overthrown less than a decade later by a combination of internal unrest and US-led NATO operations.

This image made from video of an Aug. 14, 2017, still image broadcast in a news bulletin on August 15, 2017, by North Korea’s KRT shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un receiving a briefing in Pyongyang.(KRT via AP Video)

The nuclear-powered North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, has been ratcheting up tensions with the US with apparent impunity.

Tuesday morning’s launch was the North Korea’s 13th this year, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was also not the first time it fired a missile over Japan. Indeed, it’s been doing so for nearly 20 years.

Kim recently threatened to attack Guam, which hosts a large American military base. While Tuesday’s missile wasn’t fired at the US territory, analysts speculated that it was meant to demonstrate that it could reach the Pacific island.

Stephan Haggard, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics think tank, wrote that the launch was “perfectly calibrated to create political mischief,” putting the US, South Korea and Japan in immediate distress and “driving wedges” between them as they contemplate a response, knowing that a reprisal would put them at odds with the other major player in the region: China.

A Ghadr-F missile is displayed next to a portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a Revolutionary Guard hardware exhibition marking the 36th anniversary of outset of Iran-Iraq war, at Baharestan Sq. in downtown Tehran, Iran, on Sunday, September 25, 2016. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

As North Korea gets bolder with its rhetoric and missile launches, the developments will likely inform Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decisions on how to proceed with his country’s nuclear program — much to the discomfort of other countries in the Middle East.

“Leaders and populations around the region, especially in Israel and the Gulf states, fear that they may be watching a movie play out in East Asia that will soon be screened closer to home,” wrote Yadlin and Philip Gordon, of the US Council on Foreign Relations, in an article in Foreign Affairs this month.

Nuclear dream or nuclear nightmare?

Still, the possible future that North Korea represents for Iran is not one that it necessarily wants.

North Korea remained obstinate in the face of attempts by the international community to halt its nuclear ambitions. It would enter negotiations with the United States in order to get relief and, once it benefited from the agreements, renege on the promises it made.

This has left North Korea with a nuclear arsenal, including — so it claims — a hydrogen bomb. But it has also left the country incredibly poor and isolated in the global arena, trading only with China, Singapore and Russia.

Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers applaud as they watch a screen showing news coverage of an August 29 missile test launch, in a public square outside a train station in Pyongyang on August 30, 2017. North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un has promised more missile flights over Japan, insisting his nuclear-armed nation's provocative launch was a mere "curtain-raiser", in the face of UN condemnation and US warnings of severe repercussions. / AFP PHOTO / KIM Won-Jin
Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers applaud as they watch a screen showing news coverage of an August 29 missile test launch, in a public square outside a train station in Pyongyang on August 30, 2017.
(AFP/Kim Won-Jin)

North Korea has a population that is deeply devoted to its leader and seems to have accepted its position as an outcast state.

A nuclear bomb might give the Islamic Republic a certain degree of immunity from toppling, but the process of getting it might leave it just as vulnerable.

Iran, on the other hand, also wants to have ties with foreign countries, to trade with them and send its students to study in their universities.

“[Iran] has an unpopular government, an educated middle class, and a young population eager to join the international community, which makes the regime more susceptible to pressure and to incentives,” Yadlin and Gordon wrote.

The military option

The other key difference between Iran and North Korea is in the potential for a military option to halt their respective nuclear programs.

In the more than 60 years since the Korean War began, Pyongyang has invested huge efforts and material into deterring attacks from foreign countries by creating an unstoppable battery of artillery cannons and missiles aimed at Seoul, South Korea, which is located a scant 40 miles from the border.

Korean People’s Army (KPA) tanks are displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. (Ed Jones/AFP)

In the July/August issue of the Atlantic magazine, reporter Mark Bowden wrote: “One high-ranking US military officer who commanded forces in the Korean theater, now retired, told me he’d heard estimates that if a grid were laid across Seoul dividing it into three-square-foot blocks, [North Korean artillery] guns could, within hours, ‘pepper every single one.'”

The threat of North Korea destroying Seoul or Tokyo, each of which boast a population of nearly 10 million, seriously curbs America’s appetite for a military option against Pyongyang.

The same is not necessarily true for Iran.

“A preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program would of course be costly and problematic as well, but given the costs and consequences of an Iranian nuclear capability, it remains a real option — one many of Iran’s neighbors would support,” Yadlin and Gordon wrote.

In the phone conversation, Yadlin also noted that unlike the governments of South Korea and Japan, which oppose a military option against North Korea because of its ability to kill millions of their citizens, Iran’s enemies — namely Israel and Saudi Arabia — are some of the fiercest backers of an airstrike on the Islamic Republic, despite the threats to their own populations.

Technical know-how

Mark Kirk, a former Republican US senator and senior adviser to the United Against Nuclear Iran group, warned that besides North Korea informing Iran’s strategic decisions, the two countries also have a history of collaborating on nuclear and ballistic missile projects.

“The Shahab-3 missile, which is the main missile that the Iranians are aiming at Israel, is largely a Nodong missile, designed and built in North Korea,” Kirk said, speaking over the phone from the United States.

A Shahab-3 long range missile is displayed during a rally marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran on June 23, 2017. (AFP/Stringer)

The US Congressional Research Service has also said that North Korea likely supplied Iran with the BM-25 ballistic missile, which the Islamic Republic apparently test-fired in July 2016, and with miniature submarines that have reportedly been deployed in the Red Sea since 2011.

“It’s likely that the nuclear [weapon] technology that the North Koreans have already developed has been transferred to Iran,” he added.

The former senator from Illinois also said that he believes some of the funds released to Iran over the past two years under its nuclear deal with six world powers have made their way to North Korea.

Yadlin said Israel’s security services are closely monitoring this type of information and equipment-sharing between the two countries.

Israel is tracking “if there is contact, if there are transfers of weapons from North Korea to Iran,” he said.

Before and after satellite images of the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar, which was reportedly struck by Israel in 2007 (AP/DigitalGlobe)
Before and after satellite images of the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar, which was reportedly struck by Israel in 2007 (AP/DigitalGlobe)

Yadlin noted that next week will see 10 years since — according to foreign reports — Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor that was built by the North Koreans.

“No one took credit for it. But someone discovered it and destroyed it,” said Yadlin, who was Military Intelligence chief at the time.

Going forward

While Iran seems to be upholding the agreement, the deal, titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was not meant to last forever; nor was it designed to stop Iran’s non-nuclear actions, including ballistic missile production and funding of terror.

It was a stopgap measure, which would hopefully put off the creation of an Iranian bomb by 10 to 15 years, during which the country could undergo regime change.

However, Iran is also using that time to ensure that it will be able to weather another round of sanctions, should it decide to abandon the JCPOA once the deal expires.

Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror (Flash90)

“Assisted by Russia, [Iran] is intensively building its air defense systems,” Amidror wrote, referring to the installation of the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft battery. “It is cultivating a solid economy that can better withstand potential future sanctions and other means of economic pressure, which was what brought it to the negotiation table on its knees.”

Last week, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization also threatened that his country could begin producing weapons-grade enriched uranium in less than a week if the nuclear deal dissolves.

‘Israel must learn the lessons of the nuclear agreement with Iran as well as study how North Korea became a nuclear power that threatens the US’

Therefore, Amidror wrote, the international community needs to take steps now in order to prevent Iran from becoming another North Korea.

“Israel must learn the lessons of the nuclear agreement with Iran as well as study how North Korea became a nuclear power that threatens the US,” he wrote in his paper for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Former US senator Mark Kirk. (United States Senate/Wikimedia)

Kirk described the previous US policy toward North Korea and Iran as one of appeasement and decried it as ultimately ineffective.

The former senator lauded US President Donald Trump’s more forceful tone against the North Koreans, specifically his threat of bringing “fire and fury” down up the Asian country.

“That was heard most in Tehran,” he said.

Yadlin said that Iran’s military limitations, its citizens’ desire to have contact with the outside world, and the fact that it doesn’t have a champion in the way that North Korea has in China, mean that the Islamic Republic can still be stopped.

In his article with Gordon, Yadlin said the US and other world powers should not “give up on negotiations, which would leave the disastrous alternatives of accepting an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran, but to make such negotiations work.”

But they also encouraged the development of missile defense systems, as well as weapons like the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound bomb that is capable of destroying the types of underground bunkers that Iran uses to conduct its nuclear activities.

Just in case.

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