May 12, 2007

Iran and North Korea to improve relations?

According to recent news reports, Iran would like better relations with North Korea. Both have attained the status of pariah nations and both were sanctioned by the United Nations in 2006 for their nuclear research programs.

Iran and North Korea have had a close relationship for years in the field of military weapons sales and development, at least as far back as the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Soon after Iraq invaded Iran, Iran realized that it needed to acquire arms from other than their traditional sources. Those sources dried up after the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979 that saw the Iranians take over the American Embassy and hold dozens of diplomats hostage for over a year.

The Iran-Iraq war which pitted two oil giants against each other was too lucrative for weapons producing nations to ignore. In 1983, the United States began Operation Staunch to put pressure on nations whose companies were selling arms to Iran. It was effective with countries that cared about their relationship with the United States.

North Korea was not one of those countries. The United States suspected that North Korea was a long-time supplier of weapons to Iran. Real proof came in 1988 soon after the Iraqis retook their Al-Faw peninsula from the Iranians. In 1988, I was a liaison officer to the Iraqi armed forces. While there, we discovered that the Iraqis had captured a strange self-propelled artillery piece that they could not identify. The only thing they knew was that it was designed to fire 170mm rounds, an odd caliber.

What the Iraqis had captured was a North Korean M1978 KOKSAN gun. At that time, the KOKSAN was the longest-range field gun made anywhere in the world, capable of firing a rocket-assisted projectile to a range of almost 60 kilometers. It had been used by the Iranians to conduct harassment fire from the Al-Faw Peninsula into Kuwait's northeastern oil fields to punish Kuwait for supporting Iraq. Its real purpose was to range the South Korean capital of Seoul from north of the Korean demilitarized zone, the DMZ.

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian military development was a low priority, but in the 1990’s that changed. Iran embarked on a militarization program across the board. In addition to purchasing North Korean missile systems, they developed their own with North Korean technology and assistance. Such an Iranian missile supplied to Hizballah was used to damage an Israeli naval vessel during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Iranian surface-to-surface ballistic missile development bears an uncanny resemblance to North Korean systems. Some are almost identical. It is this type of close cooperation that had analysts concerned when reports surfaced of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers observing the North Korean nuclear weapons test in October 2006.

The Iranians claim they want better political, economic and cultural ties with North Korea. Sure. Two pariah nations, one with oil, the other with missile and nuclear weapons expertise - I think we know what this is about.