Iran's cooperation with North Korea could enable Iran to get around some roadblocks that have limited its longer-range missile capability. (Photo: AP)

North Korea-Iran relations are a growing source of concern for Western governments. Policymakers in the US and Europe see military cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran as a threat to their geopolitical interests. In the aftermath of a recent visit paid by a North Korean delegation to Tehran, the US State Department said that Washington “will use all available tools, including interdiction and sanctions, to address such activities.”

Iran and North Korea’s cooperation largely stems from alignment of strategic objectives and a shared interest in defending their sovereign decision-making capabilities, especially concerning national defence. Over many years, North Korea and Iran have developed a rather transactional partnership.

Understanding this bilateral relationship’s history brings us back to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Tehran sought allies and partners wherever it could find them amid that gruesome conflict. North Korea established itself as an arms supplier which Iran turned to while many Western and Arab states were backing Baghdad.

With Pyongyang providing Iran with SCUD B ballistic missiles, conventional arms, training, and military advisers, North Korea was one of very few countries worldwide to directly help Iran during that war. In 1989, Iran’s then-President (and current Supreme Leader) Ali Khamenei visited North Korea and declared: “If big countries threaten progressive countries, then progressive countries should threaten them in turn...You have proved in Korea that you have the power to confront America.”

A relationship mostly about missiles

Since the Iran-Iraq War ended, the two countries have continued cooperating with the relationship mostly being about missiles. North Korea has helped the Iranians develop advanced missiles and Tehran has assisted Pyongyang with booster rockets. In the past, the two states have cooperated on submarines and ships while also sharing strategies for circumventing western sanctions and discussing transfers of Iranian oil to North Korea via China. North Korea and Iran are among very few countries that have provided direct military support to Russia in its current war in Ukraine.

“The cooperation is based on pragmatism—both countries are under significant sanctions and are blocked from acquiring technology from other sources—rather than ideology since Iran is a theocracy and North Korea is largely hostile to religion (other than the national cults of personality),” John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, told TRT World.

“Both countries are united in their suspicion of the West, though a large portion of the Iranian population is pro-Western in some form. In general, given the very different nature of the two countries, the lack of an ideological bond, and the geographic distance between them, their military cooperation doesn't pose a huge threat to the US and the West, though coordination on nuclear matters, including ICBMs (Intercontinental ballistic missiles), would obviously alter that assessment,” added Feffer.

Kenneth Katzman, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, told TRT World that growing military cooperation between North Korea and Iran could challenge Western interests because of Pyongyang’s experience with longer-range missiles and the potential for North Korean technology to enable Tehran to advance its missile activities in ways that worry Western governments.

“It's a potential threat because North Korea has more experience with longer-range missiles. Iran made its decision to sort of stop at 2,000-km ranges, which encompasses the region but not beyond the region. But North Korea has obviously experimented and even tested missiles at much longer ranges, bigger payloads, and nuclear-capable payloads. So, there’s a fear that this cooperation could enable Iran to get around some roadblocks that have limited its range ability,” said Katzman.

US and Russia foreign policy variables

Iran’s leadership has adjusted to the deterioration of its relationships with the US and EU members since Washington sabotaged the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal) six years ago and reimposed stringent sanctions on Tehran. To circumvent Western pressure as much as possible, Iran has pursued its “Look East” strategy. North Korea falls under the auspices of this formal premise of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.

“Clearly, we are seeing the consolidation of a bloc of states—comprised of Iran, China, Russia, and the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) —whose global interests lie diametrically opposed to those of Washington and its allies, and who are beginning to gain the confidence and the economic and military clout to flex their muscles. However it is viewed, this is not a challenge to dismiss easily,” Dr. Mehran Kamrava, a professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar, told TRT World.

As Feffer sees it, the future of North Korea-Iran relations will have much to do with how great power competition plays out and Russia’s moves on the international stage at a time in which the Kremlin is seeking to unite more countries into a “broad anti-Western alliance” that includes Pyongyang and Tehran.

“A victory in Ukraine, however Russia defines ‘victory,’ would give such an alliance a boost, which would mean greater coordination between Iran and North Korea within a larger network. But it is also possible that with skilful diplomacy, Europe and the United States could woo Iran back into engagement with the West. The return of a reform-minded leadership would also change the calculus. But of course, the return of Donald Trump to the White House would also push Iran, North Korea, and Russia closer together,” said Feffer.

Given the extent to which alliances and partnerships are fluid in nature, there is no way to be absolutely certain about what’s in store for DPRK-Iran relations. Yet, it seems safe to assume that a result of sanctions on Pyongyang and Tehran remaining in place will be the two countries staying close together. Under these circumstances, North Korea and Iran’s leaders will both see this bilateral relationship serving their interests.

“I think as long as both remain under heavy US sanctions, Iran and the DPRK have every motive to cooperate with each other. The DPRK needs oil and food, and Iran needs military technology. Both can benefit from each other's experience in different fields,” said Dr. Sina Azodi, an adjunct professor at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, in an interview with TRT World.

Lessons learned from Iran’s counterattack on Israel

Experts agree that North Korea had much to observe on April 13 and 14 when Iran carried out its operation against Israel in response to the razing of Tehran’s diplomatic facility in Damascus 12 days earlier. When Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones at Israeli territory, Israel—with help from the US, UK, France, and Jordan—intercepted the majority of them.

The DPRK and Iran “can trade notes on what defence systems were most effective, which were least effective, and that could help North Korea because they’re facing similar technology if they’re targeting Japan or South Korea—a lot of this is US-based technology, so that could be a benefit to Kim Jong Un,” noted Katzman.

According to Feffer, Pyongyang has been reportedly using Iran’s counterattack as “a live test of its missiles to evaluate how they interact with missile defence systems, possibly as a test run for a similar attack on South Korea.” His assessment is that with the North Korean government’s rhetoric about its neighbour to the South becoming increasingly hostile and Pyongyang essentially eliminating any talk of peaceful reunification, there is a disturbing possibility of the DPRK taking such an action.

About the author: Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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