March 25, 2015 | Policy Brief

Unanswered Questions Surrounding Tehran-Pyongyang Cooperation

March 25, 2015 | Policy Brief

Unanswered Questions Surrounding Tehran-Pyongyang Cooperation

With the deadline for nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group drawing near, unanswered questions about the nature of the relationship between Tehran and Pyongyang are taking on new significance. Many questions remain about this relationship, but the memoirs of former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, now Expediency Council chairman, raise troubling new ones.

Throughout the multivolume memoirs, published in Farsi over the past ten years, Rafsanjani is remarkably candid about his country’s procurement of conventional arms and ballistic missiles from Pyongyang. For example, Rafsanjani openly notes how the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps received eight Scud B missiles in December 1986 and five more in March 1987.

However, beginning in 1989, the journal entries on North Korea become more opaque – a change which may reflect an emerging nuclear nexus between Tehran and Pyongyang.

On February 29, 1989, Rafsanjani, explaining Iran’s changed needs after the war with Iraq, asks Kim Kwang-chin, the North Korean vice-minister of defense, to reduce by half the number of ballistic missiles Iran ordered from North Korea. Instead, Rafsanjani asks for an unspecified “technology transfer.”

In his June 13, 1991 entry, Rafsanjani refers to his discussion with Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, concerning “special and sensitive issues” related to North Korea. On August 4, 1991, Rafsanjani expressed to the North Korean deputy prime minister his interest in importing a “special commodity” in return for Iranian oil shipments to North Korea.

On November 9, 1991, Rafsanjani received Dr. Majid Abbaspour, technical adviser to the president, who reported on the “progress of the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear industries and sought council concerning his [upcoming] visit to North Korea.” Rafsanjani concludes the journal entry with the statement that he insisted upon being provided with unspecified “technical knowhow” from North Korea.  

Rafsanjani’s February 8, 1992 journal entry reads: “The North Koreans want oil, but have nothing to give in return but the special commodity. We too are inclined to solve their problem.” Rafsanjani then ordered Defense Minister Torkan to “immediately arrange a meeting” and organize a taskforce, which ultimately recommended that Rafsanjani accept “the risk of procuring the commodities in question.” Rafsanjani ends the entry with the note: “I discussed with the Leader in more general terms and it was decided to take action based on the [task force’s] study.”

In his journal’s March 9, 1992 entry, Rafsanjani gloats over the U.S. Navy’s tracking of a North Korean ship bound for Syria while missing two North Korean ships destined for Iran. When the two ships are unloaded in the Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, Rafsanjani exults, “The Americans were really embarrassed.”

While Rafsanjani never openly admits to nuclear procurement activities with North Korea, his memoirs raise a number troubling questions. Answers to these questions could help the United States Government better assess the chances for a durable nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic. 

Ali Alfoneh is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Find him on Twitter: @Alfoneh


Iran North Korea