AUSTIN, Texas — The Iran nuclear deal is silent on an issue that the CIA and proliferation experts are concerned about: that Tehran may outsource parts of its nuclear and missiles program to the secretive regime in North Korea, which on Tuesday committed itself to producing more fuel for nuclear bombs.
CIA Director John Brennan acknowledged Tuesday his agency is monitoring whether Iran may try to assist its clandestine nuclear program with help from another rogue state such as North Korea, or by colluding with Pyongyang toward the secret purchase and transfer of nuclear weapons for Tehran.
“We have to make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to uncover anything,” Mr. Brennan told a group of reporters in Austin, Texas. “I’m not saying that something is afoot at all — what I’m saying is that we need to be attuned to all of the potential pathways to acquiring different types of [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities.”
Experts say the deal worked out by Secretary of State John F. Kerry carries no known prohibition against North Korea performing Iran’s nuclear arms research, paid out of the $100 billion to $150 billion the deal frees up in Iranian assets.
“Kerry and crew left a loophole a mile wide when they effectively allowed Iran to conduct all the illicit work it wants outside of Iran, in countries like North Korea or perhaps Sudan,” Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Washington Times.
While there is heated debate over the extent of collusion between Iran and North Korea, evidence of collaboration has piled up for years in public source information even as the Obama administration and the U.S. intelligence community remain mum about such reports.
Larry Niksch, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has been tracking the Iran-North Korea nexus for decades.
“There appears to be little in the Iran nuclear agreement that would prevent Iran from continuing or increasing its personnel and financial investments in North Korea’s future missile and nuclear warhead programs,” Mr. Niksch told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in July. “It seems to me that North Korea may receive from Iran upwards of $2 [billion] to $3 billion annually from Iran for the various forms of collaboration between them.”
At the same hearing, Jim Walsh, an associate with the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, disputed claims that the collaboration includes a nuclear element.
“People who believe there has been nuclear cooperation rely almost exclusively on media accounts. I reviewed some 76 media reports covering a span of 11 years. None of the 76 reports has been confirmed — none,” said Mr. Walsh at the time. “On the other side of the ledger, the DNI, the IAEA, the U.N. Panel of Experts for Iran, and the U.N. Panel of Experts for North Korea, despite numerous opportunities to do so has never claimed Iranian-North Korean nuclear coordination.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Brennan pushed aside questions about the legitimacy of news reports alleging that deep nuclear and missile cooperation already exists between Iran and North Korea, but stressed CIA officials are “not going to assume that’s not going to happen.”
Nonetheless, he said he stands behind the nuclear deal and has “a lot of confidence” that the accord is structured in such a way that will make it extremely difficult for Iran to cheat.
The CIA director made the remarks on the Iran nuclear deal during an small roundtable discussion with reporters at the University of Texas — his graduate school alma mater — where he and other U.S. national security leaders, including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, are gathering this week to celebrate the release of thousands of pages of classified intelligence briefs dating back to the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations.
Mr. Brennan’s remarks also come just days after Mr. Clapper revealed that U.S. intelligence officials “are fielding some independent capabilities that will enable us … to have good insight into [Iran’s] nuclear industrial enterprise” as the accord goes into effect over the coming months.
Speaking at an intelligence community conference in Washington last week, Mr. Clapper said he supports the nuclear deal despite biting criticism from Republicans that it lacks safeguards to ensure that Iranian officials won’t cheat and develop nuclear weapons right under the nose of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the U.N. nuclear watchdog tasked with monitoring Tehran’s compliance with the accord.
Mr. Clapper told the conference that he’s “pretty confident” U.S. intelligence officials will be able to verify “from our own sources” the accuracy of future IAEA assessments of whether or not Iran is complying with the terms of the accord.
North Korea, which announced Tuesday it has restarted its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor, already owns nuclear weapons and, according to a U.S. commander, has mastered the art of making a miniaturized warhead that could fit on its Nodong medium-range missile capable of hitting its neighbors.
Although the administration remains silent on the issue of possible collaboration, there are reams of U.S. and foreign press reports detailing such cooperation, generally in the form of North Korea sending scientists and technology to Iran and Iranians visiting North Korea to view its program firsthand.
“There’s a growing evidence that Iran and North Korea have not only been cooperating on missile programs but also in the nuclear field,” said Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican. “[In] media reports as far back as 1993, there are indications that the Iranians financed North Korea’s nuclear program with $500 million in return for nuclear technology.”
Mr. Niksch testified that the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the largest opposition group to the hard-line Islamic state, reported that a delegation of North Korean missile and nuke experts visited Iran last May, the third such tour this year.
“Iranian money appears to be the lubricant for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” he said. “The Iran nuclear agreement will increase Iran’s wealth considerably as U.N. economic sanctions are lifted and Iran receives at least $50 billion from the United States in frozen assets.”
Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, called the Iran-North Korea collaboration “vibrant.”
“It’s ongoing, and there is credible evidence to suggest that cooperation on these fronts has helped to materially enhance not only the Iranian nuclear program, but also the sophistication and the know-how of the North Korean effort as well,” he told the subcommittee.
Of the potential $150 billion in freed assets, he said, “That sum equates to roughly a quarter of Iran’s annual gross domestic product, which last year was $415 billion. It also matches or exceeds the entire post-World War II reconstruction plan for Europe. That was marshaled by the Truman administration. That effort was launched in 1948 and facilitated the disbursement of $13 billion, which is equivalent to $120 billion in today’s currency to 17 separate countries in Southern and Eastern Europe over the course of four years.”
North Korea signaled on Tuesday it plans to resume a robust nuclear program as the state news agency said its primary plutonium reactor had been restarted after an 8-year hiatus.
The Associated Press in Pyongyang quoted the news agency as saying plutonium and highly enriched uranium facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex have finally been “rearranged, changed or readjusted and they started normal operation.”
The AP quoted state media as saying scientists had improved “the levels of nuclear weapons with various missions in quality and quantity.”
A top U.S. commander has said publicly that North Korea appears to have designed small nuclear warheads suitable for a ballistic missile. The fear among experts is that this expertise will be shared with Iran, meaning Tehran will continue to make inroads toward building a bomb even under the U.S. nuclear deal.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States will not accept the North as a nuclear state.
“That’s why we urge North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that threaten regional peace and security and focus instead on fulfilling its international obligations and commitments,” Mr. Earnest said. “We will work with our partners in the context of the six-party talks to try to return North Korea to a posture of fulfilling those commitments that they have made.”
The six-party talks resulted in a 2007 agreement for the North to close the plutonium reactor. But the deal fell apart when North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and kicked out international inspectors in response to United Nations condemnation.
• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
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