The West treats the nuclear programs of Iran, North Korea and Syria as individual entities, but they are really a cooperative effort between these rogue governments. The three countries work closely together, allowing each partner to benefit from the progress made by another. This makes the threat more severe, but it also means that stopping one member of this nuclear Axis of Evil will significantly hinder the efforts of the others.
The construction of a massive new missile launch site in Semnan Province in Iran modeled after similar bases in North Korea shows that the two are hard at work building Iran’s capabilities. It is believed that the site will be used to fire Iran’s space-launch vehicle, a technology very similar to what is used in creating intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Iranians test-fired a missile in December called the Sajjil-2 that can reach Eastern Europe and Israel. It is two-staged and has a solid fuel system, which shows that Iran is progressing alongside the North Koreans. It is probable that North Korea has been tasked with test-firing the ICBMs and nuclear weapons because the Stalinist state elicits less international reaction than the Islamic Republic.
When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, Iranian nuclear scientists were immediately given access to study the results, and Iranian experts may actually have been present when the bomb was detonated. Members of Iran’s government, military and weapons programs are routinely present for tests of missiles and other armaments. On May 25, 2009, North Korea set off another nuclear bomb with somewhat better results, although it’s still believed that problems occurred during detonation. Iran sent 15 experts from its Shahid Immat Industrial Group, a state company involved in its own ballistic missile program, to help North Korea with its missile tests in March. These missile tests coincided with the nuclear test, so it can be assumed that the Iranians were involved in both.
Cooperation also includes chemical weapons. On July 26, 2007, an accidental explosion in Syria spread mustard gas, VX, and sarin gas killed “dozens” of Syrians and Iranians when they were trying to place a mustard gas-filled warhead onto a Scud-C missile. North Korea was part of this program as well. An earlier accident happened in May 2004 when a train shipping missiles to Syria crashed in North Korea, reportedly killing about a dozen Syrians. In August 2009, the three countries test-fired two short-range Scud missiles in Syria that they had jointly produced, one of which went off-course and ended up in Turkey.
According to the high-level Iranian defector, Ali Reza Asghari, Iran paid between $1 and 2 billion for North Korea’s construction of Syria’s nuclear site that was ultimately destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007. Syria received 45 tons of “yellowcake” uranium from North Korea in 2007, and is suspected of sending it to Iran after the Israeli bombing. This shows that Syria’s program is an extension of Iran’s. The Iranians appear to have been focusing on its own uranium enrichment program in their own country, but outsourced their plutonium reprocessing program to Syria.
The arms sold to Iran may be ending up in the hands of terrorists. On December 11, an aircraft from North Korea was seized in Thailand. It contained shoulder-launched missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missile components, and various weapons-related electronics destined for Iran. This followed the seizure of a naval vessel by the United Arab Emirates in August that was delivering explosives, detonators, rocket-propelled grenades, and other conventional weapons to Iran.
This cooperative effort makes the West’s attempts to stop each rogue states’ programs more complicated and difficult. Luckily, it also means that each state is dependent upon another, and the weakness of one is a weakness for all of them. If Iran’s nuclear program can be stopped, it will remove Syria’s intermediary for dealing with North Korea, and the regime of Kim Jong-Il will be deprived of revenue essential for maintaining stability and continuing their own illicit activities.
There is no visible opposition movement in North Korea, but there are signs that economic distress is causing discontent. The regime banned the use of old bank notes and issued a new currency and banned the use of foreign currency. This caused a catastrophe, causing shortages, even more starvation and even protests. Amazingly, the backlash caused the regime to apologize to its people and reverse its stance on foreign currency.
If Iran was lost as a customer, the regime would suffer a crisis. The Iranians are estimated to buy about $2 billion of North Korean arms each year, but based on the level of cooperation observed such as the building of the new missile launch site, the number may be much higher. Asghari’s revelation that Iran paid $1-2 billion for the Syrian nuclear site dramatically modifies that estimate by itself. North Korean defectors believe that 40 percent of the country’s total exports consist of arms sales. In addition, between 25 and 30 percent of the GDP (which is about $41 billion) is devoted to the military.
If Iran’s government fell or stopping dealing with North Korea (and didn’t merely outsource such activities to an ally), this would likely cause Syria’s behavior to change as well. Former commander of U.S. forces in South Korea General Thomas A. Schwartz has said that such sales are “how they have kept their economy alive.” If those customers are lost, the North Koreans would either have to cut funding to their own weapons programs or to the military, the latter of which is the most important pillar to the regime’s stability.
The increasingly dire economic situation facing Iran’s government represents an opportunity for the West to force them to scale back their own programs and therefore exert significant pressure on North Korea and Syria. Right now, there is double-digit inflation in Iran. Ahmadinejad wants to cut the government’s budget by $40 billion by reducing spending on subsidies. The parliament, believing such cuts would cause inflation to reach over 50 percent, only approved $20 billion. Nevertheless, this is certain to provoke unrest.
In addition, companies dealing with Iran’s energy sector are fleeing because of the increased threat of sanctions. Glencore, Trafigura, and Vitol have just decided that they will no longer do business in Iran. They alone provide Iran with half of its oil and Royal Dutch Shell will also no longer sell gasoline to them. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz say that many banks and insurance companies dealing with Iran’s gasoline imports are pulling out of Iran. They say that companies that have long done business in Iran such as British Petroleum, Glencore and Reliance Industries have decided to stop selling gasoline to Iran, and numerous other big European companies are leaving the country.
The West can take advantage of Iran’s economic weaknesses to improve the situation with North Korea and Syria. There are other customers for North Korea but Kim Jong-Il cannot afford to lose much business. By placing tough sanctions on Iran and supporting the opposition, the U.S. and its allies can potentially kill (or at least severely injure) three birds with one stone.