A Closer Look at Iran and North Korea’s Missile CooperationMay 12, 2017
On May 2, 2017, the Iranian military conducted a missile test from a Ghadir-class submarine in the Strait of the Hormuz. Even though the missile test failed, the close similarities between Iran’s Ghadir-class submarine and North Korea’s Yono-class miniature submarine alarmed Western policymakers. Many U.S. defense experts have argued that Iran’s missile test was proof of continued Tehran-Pyongyang military cooperation, despite repeated attempts by the United States to isolate the DPRK regime.
Even though there was considerable optimism that the July 2015 ratification of the Iran nuclear deal would halt Tehran’s long-standing military cooperation with North Korea, Iran’s ballistic missile program continues to rely on North Korean military technology. Iran’s ongoing cooperation with North Korea can be explained by a shared distrust of U.S. diplomatic overtures and the common belief that countries have a right to develop self-defense mechanisms without external interference.
While media coverage on Iran-North Korea military cooperation has focused principally on technician exchanges between the two countries and nuclear cooperation, ballistic missile development has been the most consistent area of Tehran-Pyongyang technological cooperation since the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015. This collaboration explains the striking similarities between Iranian EMAD and North Korean Rodong missiles.
Even though parallel missile developments are powerful indicators of collaboration between Iran and North Korea, American and Israeli analysts have intensely debated the nature of the Tehran-Pyongyang partnership. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the view that Iran-North Korea cooperation is largely transactional. In a recent interview, Bolton declared that if North Korea gets nuclear missiles, “Iran could have that capability the next day” because of Tehran’s long-standing defense contracts with the DPRK and Pyongyang’s desperate need for hard currency.
While the DPRK’s dire economic situation can explain some dimensions of the Iran-North Korea military partnership, there is compelling evidence that Tehran-Pyongyang ballistic missile technology cooperation is a more mutual exchange than many U.S. policymakers have assumed.
Israeli defense analyst Tal Inbar recently noted that Iran purchased North Korea’s technical know-how on ballistic missile production, upgraded the DPRK missiles’ forward section, and distributed these advancements back to North Korea. The similarities between North Korean missiles launched during recent tests and Iranian technology suggests that Iran is a possible contributor to North Korea’s nuclear buildup, rather than a mere transactional partner.