Brothers in (nuclear) arms

Last updated 1 Mar 13 @ 11:49 |
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As tensions continue to grow over Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes, John Chisholm asks whether their status as international pariahs has unwittingly pushed them together


As 2013 gets underway in earnest, North Korea and Iran have both made successful advances towards credible nuclear capability. Iran has installed new centrifuges, and appears unfazed by any diplomatic appeals to rein in its nuclear ambitions. North Korea has conducted a successful underground test, and has continued to improve its missile technology. So far, in both cases, there has been no room for restraint.

Iran has installed new centrifuges at its Natanz site, according to the quarterly IAEA report on Iran which was released by the BBC before publication. In it, the Iranians are alleged to be installing 180 new centrifuges, and it concludes: “The director general is unable to report any progress on the clarification of outstanding issues including those relating to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”. In other words, the IAEA is no further than it was three months ago in ascertaining whether the nuclear technologies Iran is developing are for peaceable purposes or military ones. Three months ago it was not much further on than three months before that and so on. In short, the IAEA is getting nowhere fast.

The new centrifuges are badly needed by the Iranian programme. Many of the older ones in operation were no longer functional or had been badly damaged by the Stuxnet attack discovered in June 2010. Iran had informed the IAEA by letter on 23 January that it was about to go ahead and install a new generation of centrifuges – the IR2m, which can process between two and three times more uranium than the older models previously in service. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed that these new centrifuges could cut by a third the Iranian nuclear timetable. The US State department, meanwhile, reacted with an almost resigned acceptance that this was an inevitable development. They hinged their response on talks due to commence on 26 February in Kazakhstan, expressing the view that here was an opportunity for Iran to allay the fears of the international community.

The State Department cannot expect this in any serious way. Iran has continually avoided meaningful steps that may reduce tension (such as allowing Russia to process spent Iranian fuel rods) but has instead resorted to rhetoric and verbal assurances, which simply boil down to: “we’re not developing a bomb, honest!” The fact that virtually no one believes this is primarily due to Iran’s previous behaviour. Against that backdrop it would be hard for their assurances to be taken at face value, and they have simply refused to take credible steps.

It must also be borne in mind that Iran goes to the polls in less than five months. Although Ayatollah Khameni has warned potential candidates not to engage in “early electioneering”, hats are already being discreetly tossed into the ring.  President Ahmedinejad, long a bogeyman of the West, cannot stand again according to the constitution. But what is startling is how many of the possible successors have been involved in the nuclear negotiations with the West. Hassan Rohani, who resigned as Chief Negotiator after alleged clashes with Ahmedinejad, has discreetly let it be known he will stand. The current speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, is also a contender, and he succeeded Rohani in 2005. He too clashed with Ahmedinejad and resigned after two years. Larijani, although of the opinion that Ahmedinejad was too confrontational with the West, has received the tacit endorsement of the country’s conservative power brokers. But the list goes on. The current negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is also a possible candidate who, although he has kept silent, has a claque of supporters who have been promoting a Jalili candidacy. Lastly there is Ali Akhbar Saleni, not a previous negotiator but the current Foreign Minister and former head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran.

The involvement in the nuclear programme is clearly a fast-track to the leader’s inner circle. But, against this, sanctions are beginning to have a severe impact. In the last three quarters of 2012 Iranian oil sales fell by 40 per cent while income slumped by 45 per cent. This is a burden that the Iranian economy cannot bear for long. The only response is rhetoric and a form of sammlungspolitik built around the prospect of a nuclear capability.

In North Korea such concerns hardly apply. The economy is already a catastrophe and no elections are necessary. Instead, the new leader, Kim Jong Un, has proved himself to be a chip off the old block by undertaking a large underground test, continuing missile testing and allowing a video to be released showing a simulated nuclear attack on a US city, followed by another showing Barack Obama and US troops being engulfed by flames.

It is, of course, extremely difficult to know what is really going on in the Hermit Kingdom, never mind the twisting mental processes of the new supreme leader and those around him. It is fairly easy to measure the effects of their actions, but in the closed and paranoid world that is the North Korean leadership’s natural environment it is impossible to say whether the actions they take and the effects they create are interpreted in the same way as they are everywhere else.

It would, however, be unfair just to label Pyongyang as lacking a sense of perspective. The satirical newsletter, The Onion, wrote a spoof article dubbing Kim Jong Un “the sexiest man alive”. This was followed by a list of hagiographic descriptions of the tyro dictator which would not have looked out of place in North Korea itself. That the Chinese People’s Daily, national organ of the Chinese government, can have taken this seriously and faithfully republished key elements of the article with no hint of irony illustrates their collective misunderstanding of the West. The fact that this could happen should always be remembered when considering how China views North Korea and its Western critics.

When it came to brazening out the political (as opposed to real) fallout from the underground nuclear test, Kim Jong Un showed no trace of the “unmistakable cute cuddly side” mentioned in the Onion. Instead, Pyongyang merely rehearsed the conventional rhetoric and demonstrated once again its paranoia and “war footing” psychology.

But the story is circulating that the 12 February tests were not for North Korea at all, but were the test of an Iranian warhead. The claim made by several intelligence sources is that the test was paid for and arranged by Tehran, and was more an illustration that a common Iranian/North Korean warhead exists and is fully functional. There were apparently several Iranians present at the Punggye-Ri test site, and satellite imagery also reported a large Satcom terminal at the entrance which would not be necessary except to transmit data to a third party. This is the third test that North Korea has undertaken, the last being in 2009. This was allegedly a smaller, miniaturised warhead, far more suitable for the developing delivery systems of North Korea and Iran. Nevertheless, according to extrapolations drawn from seismic measurements, the 2013 warhead was certainly double the power of the 2009 test, at least six and up to ten kilotons. North Korea has successfully proven its warheads already, in Pakistan in May 1998. This is taken as another indication that the successive tests in North Korea are as much about the relationship with Tehran than about the DPRK’s own weapons systems.

Such a small warhead, married to Iran’s Shahab 3D or  North Korea’s Taepo-Dong 2 missiles, offers a potent intermediate range system. If they can get the missiles to reliably work, a small ten-kiloton warhead offers both parties the ability to realistically threaten nuclear engagement as part of a deterrence package. Another element of the test may be different materials. In previous tests the North Koreans have used plutonium. The US has estimated that the DPRK has enough material for between six and ten such warheads. But the Iranian programme relies on the enrichment of uranium. It would be intriguing to know what was used in the February test. If North Korea has been able to construct a warhead using uranium, this would dovetail with Iranian requirements but would also give North Korea access to another source of fissile material.

The test came hard on the heels of increasingly belligerent statements from North Korea aimed directly at the United States. On 24 January, Pyongyang issued a statement which said: “We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets which will be launched by the DPRK one after another and a nuclear test of higher level will target against the US, the sworn enemy of the Korean people”. If that left any doubt, two violently hostile videos released underline this more aggressive attitude. In addition, two test sites were prepared at Punggye-Ri, the second of which was heavily camouflaged. It is conceivable that a second test may be in the offing.

But there are quite a few straws in the wind that may have convinced the North Korean leadership that a hostile move from the West may be in the offing. Firstly, the first joint military exercises between the US and South Korea since the death of Kim Jong Il suddenly changed their nature, with new war games included pre-emptive artillery attacks on North Korea. Secondly, another amphibious landing operation simulation took on vastly larger proportions following Kim Jong Il’s death, including 13 naval vessels, 40 fighters and 9,000 American troops.

Meanwhile, South Korean officials began talking of Kim Jong Il’s death as a prime opportunity to pursue a regime-change strategy. South Korea unveiled a new cruise missile that could launch a strike inside North Korea and is working to increase its range to strike anywhere inside North Korea. Soeul also openly began discussing asymmetric warfare against North Korea.

Finally, the US military’s key Resolve Foal Eagle computerised war simulation games suddenly changed, simulating the deployment of 100,000 South Korean troops on North Korean territory following a regime change. Japanese help was also enlisted, allowing the US to deploy a second advanced missile defence radar system on its territory and the two carried out unprecedented war games.

It is also not lost on anyone that, despite the US’ superficial lack of interest in a new South Korean naval base that is under construction, this base will essentially serve as an integrated missile defence system run by the US military and housing Aegis destroyers.

Looked at it like that, you would not even have to be in an advanced state of paranoia in order to feel threatened. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of the North Korean leadership this possibly presages war. Hence the upping of the tension, and the reminder sent to the US that North Korea can commit nuclear suicide if it wants to. Although the new President of South Korea seems more moderate than her predecessor, Pyongyang could easily push her to the right with continued provocations.

Iran and North Korea clearly have a common cause in their desire to get hold of credible nuclear capability. Neither wants to end up like Saddam Hussein, for whom even the suspicion of chemical and biological weapons was not sufficient to deter the West but instead brought disaster upon him. The lesson is simple: go nuclear as the most assured form of protection. It should also be remembered that Iran’s other reliable ally, Syria, seems to be in the process of slow disintegration which may be causing Tehran to fall back on a relationship with a partner who seems less likely to implode, as well as having an advanced nuclear and missile programme that they can continue to draw experience from.

What Tehran has is money, although somewhat less than it had a year ago, making it able to buy North Korean know-how and secrecy. Their nuclear programmes have had the effect of isolating them, and their isolation has drawn them together as international pariahs. Both are now squarely on the plate of John Kerry, the new US Secretary of State. His arrival may herald new initiatives, but both North Korea and Iran have shown that, when it comes to their nuclear programmes, both are determined to stay the course.


John Chisholm is intersec’s International Affairs Correspondent