August 13, 2015 | Forbes

The Iran-North Korea Axis of Atomic Weapons?

As U.S. lawmakers debate the Iran nuclear deal, they are rightly concerned about Iran’s refusal to disclose its past work on nuclear weapons. Not only does this refusal deprive inspectors of a baseline for monitoring Iran’s compliance; it also deprives Congress of information about the networks that Iran’s regime might most readily employ should it choose to secretly continue its quest for  the nuclear bomb.

On that note, it should also concern Congress that Tehran is not alone in hiding information on Iran’s history of developing nuclear weapons. Whatever President Obama and his negotiating team might know about such matters, they have been — to put it mildly — less than diligent about informing the American public.

An honest accounting would quite likely reveal something that many press reports have alleged, but U.S. administration officials have never publicly confirmed: A history of nuclear weapons collaboration between Iran and nuclear-proliferating North Korea.

Don’t take my word for it. Let us turn instead to an in-depth article published on August 4, 2003 by a staff writer of the Los Angeles Times under the headline “Iran Closes In on Ability to Build a Nuclear Bomb.” The reporter was no junior correspondent. The article was the product of a three-month international investigation by a veteran investigative reporter, previously a member of a Pulitzer-Prize winning team at the New York Times, Douglas Frantz.

Drawing on “previously secret reports, international officials, independent experts, Iranian exiles and intelligence sources in Europe and the Middle East,” Frantz wrote that “North Korean military scientists recently were monitored entering Iranian nuclear facilities. They are assisting in the design of a nuclear warhead, according to people inside Iran and foreign intelligence officials.”

Frantz added: “So many North Koreans are working on nuclear and missile projects in Iran that a resort on the Caspian coast is set aside for their exclusive use.”

Perhaps Frantz should recycle that article to Secretary of State John Kerry, who while testifying to a congressional panel last month was asked about its allegations by Rep. Christopher Smith, and ducked the question.

Frantz might have a better chance of getting Kerry’s attention; Frantz now works for Kerry. In 2009, then-Senator Kerry hired Frantz as deputy staff director and chief investigator of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Frantz returned briefly to newspaper work in 2012, as national security editor of The Washington Post. Frantz was then hired once again to work under Kerry, this time at the State Department, where Frantz has worked since 2013 as Assistant Secretary in charge of the Bureau of Public Affairs.

At State, Frantz’s portfolio includes engaging “domestic and international media to communicate timely and accurate information with the goal of furthering U.S. foreign policy and national security interests as well as broadening understanding of American values.”

But it appears that as a State Department advocate of a free and well-informed press, Frantz himself is not free to answer questions from the press about his own reporting on North Korea’s help to Iran in designing a nuclear warhead. The State Department has refused my repeated requests to interview Frantz on this subject. Last year, an official at State’s Bureau of Public Affairs responded to my request with an email saying, “Unfortunately Assistant Secretary Frantz is not available to discuss issues related to Iran’s nuclear program.” This June I asked again, and received the emailed reply: “This is indeed an important topic for Doug, but he feels that speaking about his past work would no longer be appropriate, since he is no longer a journalist.”

The real issue, of course, is not the career timeline of Douglas Frantz, but the likelihood, past and future, of nuclear collaboration between Iran and North Korea. Frantz may no longer be a journalist, but it’s hard to see why that should constrain him, or his boss, Secretary Kerry, from speaking publicly about important details of Iran’s illicit nuclear endeavors — information which Frantz in his incarnation as a star journalist judged credible enough to publish in a major newspaper.

If Frantz needs to protect his sources, by all means let him do so. He need not name his contacts inside Iran, or the “foreign intelligence officials” who gave him his scoop. If Frantz’s story was accurate, then presumably the administration has its own sources for such information. Recall that in June, with reference to Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons — the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program — Kerry told reporters “We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.”

So, what precisely were those activities? Congress might want to ask Frantz, or his boss, Secretary of State Kerry, if information available to the U.S. administration supports Frantz’s story of North Korean-Iran collaboration on nuclear warheads. If so, then surely it’s time for the administration to lift the classified veil and share the blockbuster details not only with Congress, but with American voters — who deserve to know a lot more of the history that might yet shape the future of this “historic” Iran nuclear deal.

Of course, the real problem for the Obama administration is that an officially confirmed story of Iran-North Korea collaboration on nuclear warheads could spell further trouble for winning congressional approval of this nuclear deal. North Korea is a rogue state which despite sanctions has long served as a munitions back shop for Iran. If that business has included tutorials on nuclear warhead design, that is very bad news. North Korea has already conducted three nuclear tests, has been threatening a fourth, and appears to be producing bomb fuel — both plutonium and highly enriched uranium — for a nuclear arsenal which by the estimates of various experts could within a few years include dozens of warheads. Under the Iran nuclear deal, Iran would emerge with a lot more money to browse such wares.

According to public statements this year by a number of senior U.S. military officials, North Korea has also acquired the ability –untested, but dangerous — to mount miniaturized nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. In other words, North Korea is becoming a full service shop for nuclear weapons, including the materials and technology to make them and the means to deliver them.

North Korea has a long record of peddling its weapons and related technology abroad, from conventional arms to missiles to the notorious caper in which North Korea helped Iran’s client state, Syria, build an entire clandestine nuclear reactor for no apparent use except to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons (that reactor was nearing completion when it was destroyed in 2007 by an Israeli air strike). Iran and North Korea are longtime allies, veteran smugglers and since the early days of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution have been prolific partners in weapons traffic.

Nor has Frantz been the only journalist to report that Iran and North Korea have worked together on nuclear weapons. For years, there have been reports in the media of Iranian officials attending North Korean nuclear tests, and North Koreans turning up at nuclear weapons research facilities in Iran. In testimony July 28th at a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, a former Congressional Research Service specialist on Asia, Larry Niksch, provided a list of respected news services that have published stories on Iran-North Korea nuclear cooperation. Among them were Reuters, Germany’s Der Spiegel and Suddeutsche Zeitung, Japan’s Kyodo News and Sankei Shimbun. and Australia’sSydney Morning Herald. Broadly, these stories have cited sources such as foreign intelligence agencies and Iranian defectors.

The staple element missing from this picture is any official U.S. confirmation that Iran and North Korea have worked together on nuclear matters. The Obama administration has confirmed dealings between Iran and North Korea in conventional arms and missiles. But, as Niksch stated, “On nuclear collaboration there has been a virtual blackout of public information.”

When asked about allegations of Iran-North Korea nuclear ties, Obama administration officials either retreat behind the classified veil, or deflect the question. A standard response is that they take such allegations “seriously” and will look into them. From that process, to date, no significant public information has emerged.

The likely reason for this cone of silence is that for more than two decades, American presidents have tried to defang first North Korea’s nuclear program, and now Iran’s, by concocting nuclear deals that don’t hold up. In the process, Presidents Clinton, Bush (in his second term) and now President Obama, have each in turn tried to minimize disclosures that could derail their various nuclear deals. The unfortunate result is that instead of stopping nuclear proliferation, they have collectively run cover for some of the most virulent ties between Iran and North Korea. In doing so, they have deprived the American public of information important to assessing any nuclear deal with either North Korea or Iran.

Some secrecy may be necessary to protect intelligence sources and methods. That should not excuse any American president or his team from failure to alert the public to the extent of the Iran-North Korea connection, or refusal to comment in any meaningful way on allegations of nuclear weapons cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang.

President Obama has been telling Congress and the American public that the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — “cuts off all Iran’s pathways to the bomb.” That’s not true. One of the most dangerous aspects of this deal is that it does not sever the longtime alliance between Tehran and Pyongyang. If there has indeed been cooperation between these two regimes on nuclear weapons, it’s time not only for Iran to come clean, but for the Obama administration to stop covering up.

Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project. Follow her on Twitter @CRosett


Iran North Korea