In the last few days, the international sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program were lifted, which will allow Tehran access to $30 billion immediately and more than $100 billion will become available in short order. There are many fears about the uses Iran will put this money to, whether on the nuclear program itself, in aiding Iran’s imperial policy in the region, now proceeding with assistance from Russia, or perhaps exporting terrorism further abroad. An under-examined potential use of this money, highlighted by new sanctions the United States applied to Iran over its ballistic missile program, is to purchase weapons from North Korea. Pyongyang has already conducted what it claims is a hydrogen bomb test this year; fuelled by Iranian money the Hermit Kingdom might yet make more trouble for its neighbours and beyond.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a statement on January 16 “confirming that Iran has completed the necessary preparatory steps to start the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA, the nuclear deal signed on July 14, 2015 between Iran and the P5+1. Iran will “start to provisionally implement the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA,” and the IAEA will have greater access “to monitor nuclear activities in Iran and to verify that they are peaceful,” the statement added. Well, in theory anyway.
The worry of David Albright, all the way back in November 2014, that for the sake of a deal the Obama administration would throw the IAEA “under the bus“—that is, not make Iran come clean about the past weaponization work, knowledge of which must be attained to certify anything in the future—has essentially come to pass. The nuclear program’s possible military dimensions (PMDs) were not even dealt with as part of the JCPOA, but were handled under what we’re not supposed to call a “secret side agreement,” the “Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues” that Iran signed separately to the JCPOA, directly with the IAEA, and the text of which remains secret. (There was another not-secret-side-deal over Parchin.) As the Institute for Science and International Security noted at the time, the provisions of the Roadmap left open the alarming possibility that Iran will “get away with what amounts to a simple box checking exercise in which Iran provides false civilian rationales for its various experiments and work”. So it proved.
The IAEA’s “Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” released in December 2015, was a mere sixteen pages and “essentially admits that [the IAEA] has not significantly furthered its understanding of Iran’s military nuclear activities since 2011,” as an analysis for the Bipartisan Policy Center crisply summarized it, and “largely leaves the PMD issue unresolved.” Iran flatly denied there were or had ever been any military dimensions to its nuclear program, and while technically answering the twelve questions put to it by the IAEA—meeting the letter of the JCPOA—Iran in fact defied the IAEA on every single one of the questions it raised, even resubmitting evidence on one issue that was as obfuscatory as the first evidence.
The IAEA Final Assessment put the final nail into the serially-discredited December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had stopped work on a nuclear weapon after 2003. Iran had paused aspects of its nuclear-weapons program after the invasion of Iraq, but had miniaturized them to make them harder to detect and recommenced work in a systematic way by 2005, work that continued right up to 2009 at least, according to the IAEA. But again: all of this was known four years earlier.
Since the Nuclear Deal
Nonetheless, with the PMD issue unresolved, despite it being a poison pill, the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program were lifted on January 17 in what President Obama called “historic progress through diplomacy”.
The mantra of the Obama administration has been that the nuclear deal is an isolated arms control instrument, thus the U.S. retains the will to “snapback” sanctions and “pushback” Iran’s aggression in the region. Even if one does not see the nuclear deal as primarily a means of removing the nuclear issue as a sticking point to allow President Obama to solidify détente with the Islamic Republic—and pull back the U.S. from the Middle East—the will to take any action to contain Iran has to be doubted. Iran does not compartmentalize, as the U.S. ostensibly does, and is likely to react to any checking of its imperial ambitions by abrogating the nuclear accord.
Iran’s behaviour just since it signed the JCPOA has made it politically difficult for the administration to have absolutely no reaction, however.
Before the end of July 2015, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) expeditionary Quds Force, had been to Moscow to plan the direct deployment of Russian air power in Syria, which occurred in September in tandem with an influx of Iranian-controlled ground troops designed to protect the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and destroy all non-extremist opposition to Assad, specifically the rebels supported by the United States. Iran has abetted the imposition of starvation-sieges by Assad, notably in Madaya, where 20,000 people are being held hostage, five of them Americans, and between twenty-three and thirty-one people have been starved to death in the last month. In October, Iran fired a nuclear-capable missile in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Iran has kidnapped Siamak Namazi, a dual Iranian-American citizen who heads strategic planning at the Dubai-based Crescent Petroleum, and Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese IT specialist who holds permanent residency in America (a “green card”). And just yesterday, reports surfaced saying that far from moderating, Iran had banned essentially all the reformists from participating in next month’s already-controlled election.
One issue the administration sought to resolve was that of the American hostages held by Iran. Under another parallel agreement, on January 16, after fourteen months of negotiations, the U.S. traded seven men it had convicted in open court of violating sanctions to aid Iran’s Intelligence Ministry (VEVAK) and IRGC in the procurement of illicit materials and dropped the extradition requests registered with Interpol for fourteen more people connected with Iran’s criminal behaviour in exchange for the release of five Americans held in Iran: The Washington Post‘s journalist Jason Rezaian, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati whom Tehran had sentenced to death for espionage, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, and American student Matthew Trevithick whose tweets had displeased the regime. Iran “also committed to continue co-operating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Robert Levinson,” according to a U.S. official, the FBI agent who was abducted on Kish Island in 2007, almost certainly by the Iranian regime. But for now: Levinson, Namazi, Zakka, and the five Americans in Madaya remain in Iranian detention.
The New Sanctions
It was the missile test where the Obama administration decided to stake its claim to “pushback”. At the exact same time the sanctions on the nuclear program were lifted, the U.S. imposed sanctions on eleven entities and individuals “involved in procurement on behalf of Iran’s ballistic missile program,” banning them from using the U.S. banking system.
Hossein Pournaghshband and his U.A.E.-based Mabrooka Trading Co. were sanctioned for using front-companies and third-country registrations to conceal the end-use certificates for equipment shipped through networks based in the U.A.E. and China. Mabrooka had been trying to provide support to Navid Composite, an entity “designated in December 2013 as an Iran-based subsidiary of U.S.- and U.N.-designated Sanam Industrial Group, an entity sanctioned for its involvement in Iran’s ballistic missile program.” At the time of the December 2013 sanctions Navid Composite was “building a carbon fiber production plant in Iran,” and had, “since at least 2012, … contracted with Asia-based entities to procure a carbon fiber production line capable of producing 150 tons per year of carbon fiber probably suitable for use in ballistic missile components.” These new sanctions add: “Since at least early 2015, Pournaghshband used his company, Mabrooka Trading, to procure materials and other equipment for Navid Composite’s carbon fiber production plan.”
The middle-man between Pournaghshband and Navid Composite, Chen Mingfu and his Anhui Land Group Co., were also sanctioned “for having provided, or attempting to provide … support to Navid Composite and Mabrooka Trading. … Mingfu brokered deals in support of Mabrooka Trading and Pournaghshband’s efforts to procure materials and equipment for Navid Composite’s carbon fiber production line. Mingfu, using Hong Kong based-Anhui Land Group Co., Limited, provided logistical support to Mabrooka Trading and Navid Composite.”
Candid General Trading and its managing director, Rahim Reza Farghadani, were designated for providing support to Mabrooka Trading and Pournaghshband, including having “conducted financial transactions for Mabrooka Trading and Pournaghshband for goods intended for Navid Composite.”
Seyed Mohammad Hashemi, an official at Iran’s Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) that “manages and coordinates” Iran’s ballistic missile program, was sanctioned for acting on MODAFL’s behalf and supporting the ministry in its development of an illegal ballistic missile program. Mehrdada Akhlaghi Ketabachi, the director of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), was sanctioned for acting on behalf of that entity because AIO is directly subordinate to MODAFL. Ketabachi was previously sanctioned in 2008 as head of the Shahid Bakeri Industrial Group, for which he was the key negotiator in procuring equipment. SBIG had been identified already by that time as a cut-out for MODAFL.
The most intriguing are three men sanctioned for activities related to Iran’s ballistic missile program that are linked to North Korea.
Seyed Mirahmad Nooshin, the director of Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG), which was identified and sanctioned in June 2005 as a subsidiary of the MODAFL-run AIO, was blacklisted for the support he has given the company. Sayyed Medhi Farahi, the deputy of MODAFL, was sanctioned for support to that ministry. The sanctions add: “Farahi and Nooshin have been critical to the development of the 80-ton rocket booster, and both traveled to Pyongyang during contract negotiations.”
Sayyed Javad Musavi was sanctioned for providing support to SHIG as its commercial director. According to the U.S. Treasury:
Musavi … has worked directly with North Korean officials in Iran from UN- and U.S.-designated Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID). SHIG also coordinates KOMID shipments to Iran. The shipments have included valves, electronics, and measuring equipment suitable for use in ground testing of liquid propellant ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. Within the past several years, Iranian missile technicians from SHIG traveled to North Korea to work on an 80-ton rocket booster being developed by the North Korean government.
The North Korean Connection
It was once controversial to posit cooperation between Iran and North Korea (DPRK) in the development of weapons of mass destruction. “Shi’a” Iran and the “atheist,” Communist DPRK couldn’t cooperate. Leave aside that Communism never really took in the DPRK and the official ideology is a racialist xenophobia that portrays Koreans as a uniquely virtuous, child-like race beset by marauders. The evidence that States of divergent ideologies can and do cooperate when united by anti-Westernism has steadily accumulated.
Israel launched Operation ORCHARD in September 2007, which demolished a nuclear reactor in the deserts of eastern Syria, at al-Kibar, that had been constructed with DPRK’s help under an agreement reached in 2002. This is why the reactor looked so much like the one at Yongbyon, the only one of its kind for several decades. U.S. intelligence documented “sustained nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria” likely beginning “as early as 1997”. While the Iranian role in construction at al-Kibar is less clear-cut, it seems Tehran was an intended beneficiary of the reactor for its own nuclear-weapons program. When it was reported that satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 had detected activity in the contested Marj as-Sultan area near Damascus consistent with an underground nuclear program, the intelligence also detected the involvement of both IRGC and DPRK.
DPRK is one of Assad’s few remaining allies and its links to Assad’s weapons’ sector are extensive. Assad had been a profiteer from the sanctions imposed on Iraq, charging a cut from the Saddam Hussein regime in its various schemes to defy those sanctions using Syrian territory. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Pyongyang broke off negotiations it was conducting with Saddam in Syria for the export of not just Rodong missiles but the production line to Saddam. The Assad regime had “offered its ports and territory as the surreptitious transit route”. Damascus-Pyongyang cooperation on ballistic missiles is a long-standing fact, documented again in January 2015 sanctions against two KOMID officials, Ryu Jin and Kang Ryong.
The September 2012 “scientific cooperation” pact between Iran and DPRK had “pretty much the same wording” as the 2002 Syria-DPRK agreement that led to al-Kibar, said Olli Heinonen, a former lead weapons inspector at the IAEA. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s deputy, Kim Yong Nam, signed both the agreements. Iran-DPRK weapons-procurement cooperation goes back to almost immediately after the Iranian revolution and expanded throughout the 1990s. Most of Iran’s ballistic missile technology and design is based on data passed from DPRK to Iran—e.g. the DPRK’s Nodong-1 is the basis for Iran’s medium-range Shahab-3—and this cooperation has moved on to longer-range missiles.
The nuclear links between DPRK and Iran are also noteworthy. The “father” of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, was reportedly present for all three previous DPRK nuclear tests—in 2006, 2009, and 2013—and Iranian officials were believed to be on-hand for what Pyongyang claimed was a H-bomb test on January 6, 2016. This has given Iran access to crucial test data. And DPRK has also mastered more efficient centrifuges than Iran. Under the JCPOA, the research-and-development loophole will allow Iran to develop more advanced centrifuges and eventually install them so that it is within dashing distance of a nuclear weapon at the end of the JCPOA—and that’s just if it sticks to the deal. DPRK will almost certainly have a role to play in Iran making these advances.
Even worse is that the DPRK’s assistance to Iran in its incremental drive to a nuclear bomb could be rendered moot by “a single IL-76 cargo flight from North Korea—which may, or may not, be detected by Western intelligence.”
As Iran proceeds toward regional hegemony and at least the threshold of nuclear weapons, its newly-public condominium with Russia is getting a lot of the attention, but its criminal ally on the Korean Peninsula should not be forgotten. With more money available to Tehran after the sanctions relief, the DPRK an honorary member of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” since 2012, and the perennially cash-strapped Kim dynasty having only conventional and unconventional weapons to sell, it can be expected that the JCPOA will not only unlock more mischief in the Middle East but in East Asia, too.