May 15, 2007

The real axis of evil

This article appeared on

In January 2002, President Bush declared that Iraq, Iran and North Korea constituted an “axis of evil.” He was close, but not quite correct – the actual members were, and remain, Syria, Iran and North Korea. Labeling these countries an “axis” implies cooperation between the members. Iraq was not part of any relationship with Iran or North Korea. Granted, Iraq was a problem, but not part of an “axis.” However, there are ongoing relationships between Syria, Iran and North Korea that have been going on for decades which might constitute one.

Syria and Iran have been allies since 1982. About a year and a half after Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran, Damascus and Tehran signed an economic pact that provided Syria with subsidized Iranian oil. In return, Syria shut down Iraq’s main pipeline to the Mediterranean, squeezing Iraq economically.

It was this Syrian-Iranian alliance that provided Tehran with access to Lebanon. In 1982, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps entered the Bekaa Valley, organized the Shia and created Hezbollah.

The international airport in Damascus continues to be the transshipment point for Iranian weapons into Lebanon. It is about a 30 minute drive from the airport to the Lebanese border and into the Bekaa Valley. When I was the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus, it was not unusual to see crated cargo from Iranian military aircraft being loaded onto trucks bearing the Hezbollah emblem. Neither the Syrians nor the Iranians seemed concerned doing this at the civilian cargo terminal in direct sight of the passenger terminal.

The supply line, used to supply not only Hezbollah, but Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well, was critical to Hezbollah’s performance during the war with Israel in the summer of 2006. Without Iranian support, these groups would have trouble surviving. Iran’s ability to support them is dependent on its relationship with Syria. The relationship was formalized into a defense pact between the two countries and renewed in 2006. It provides for mutual defense and joint intelligence operations against Israel.

Syria and North Korea have had a relationship since at least the early 1990’s. In northern Syria, North Korean technicians manned a missile development facility and provided Syria with the North Korean produced SCUD-C ballistic missile. The North Korean military attaché was involved in marketing North Korean weapons and training to the Syrian military.

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 1980-1988 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.

What the Iraqis had captured was a North Korean KOKSAN gun. At that time, the KOKSAN was the longest-range field gun made anywhere in the world. 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.

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war, 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 Hezbollah, 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.

Three pariah nations, one with oil, one with missile and nuclear weapons expertise, and the third with access to three of Israel’s worst enemies – that’s a formidable axis of evil.