With sanctions and rhetoric, President Donald Trump may be pushing North Korea and Iran closer together. On Wednesday, while in Seoul on his Asia tour, three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups displayed military strength nearby, while Trump gave dire warnings to North Korea’s leader to abandon nuclear weapons. “Do not underestimate us, and do not try us,” Trump said while addressing the National Assembly. It’s a dangerous game of brinkmanship.
In refusing to certify Iranian compliance with the JCPOA — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal — the Trump administration hopes to keep Iran from becoming another nuclear armed adversary state.
But experts say that by walking away from the Iran accord while simultaneously trying to coax North Korea back to the negotiating table, the Trump administration doesn’t just risk undermining its own efforts to strike a deal with Kim Jong Un’s regime over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The president also risks pushing the two pariah states closer together, potentially rekindling a collaborative military-to-military relationship that reaches back decades and heightening the prospect that ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technologies will proliferate. It is a relationship former President George W. Bush coined “the axis of evil.”
The result: a worsening security situation in the Asia-Pacific region and a fresh nuclear crisis in the Middle East, one likely to prompt Saudi Arabia and its regional allies to consider acquiring their own nuclear capabilities in response. Right now Saudi Arabia is party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The scenario is neither far-fetched nor far off, says Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.
“If we walk away from this deal with the Iranians, they can do everything North Koreans have done and more,” he says. “And they can do it much, much faster.”
The enemy of my enemy
While the opaque nature of the Iranian and North Korean regimes make it difficult for Western analysts to monitor the relationship between them, military ties between the two states go back as far as the 1980s. Iran — then locked in conflict with neighboring Iraq and suffering under an arms embargo — needed missiles. North Korea obliged, supplying Iran with hundreds of Soviet-designed Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles. Iran renamed their new missiles (Shahab-1 and Shahab-2) and used the technology to seed its own ballistic missile research and development.
As the two nations pursued their own ballistic missile programs independently, they also shared technical information and know-how. While it remains unclear exactly what was shared, there are two key points on which defense analysts are confident. First, emerging Iranian and North Korean missile systems continue to exhibit similar characteristics (the second stage of North Korea’s alleged intercontinental ballistic missile, for instance, looks a lot like one of the upper stages of an Iranian space launch rocket), suggesting some degree of ongoing cooperation. Second, high-ranking Iranian scientists and military officers have reportedly attended and observed many of North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests over the past two decades, underscoring the two regimes’ continued military ties.
“It’s possible they’re just there in the bleachers watching these things for the entertainment, but I doubt it,” says Tom Karako, senior fellow and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I suspect when you see high-ranking Iranian officials at a military parade in Pyongyang, or at missile test exercises, they’re not there for the Korean food.”