Will North Korea’s long-range missile success help Iran?

With help from North Korea, Iran could become a serious nuclear threat in months... or even weeks.

The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 is seen during its test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July 5 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 is seen during its test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July 5 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Was North Korea’s missile test last Monday a game-changer for Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities? The word is already out on the test: North Korea’s missile test on Monday was an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of G20 summit (credit: REUTERS)
That means, according to most estimates, North Korea’s missile could hit Alaska and a much wider swath of the world than it could have hit before.
What if North Korea transfers this technology to Iran? In June, ex-US ambassador to the UN John Bolton told The Jerusalem Post that “it is only a matter of time” before North Korea successfully places miniaturized nuclear warheads on missiles. “Plenty of people have already done it and the day North Korea gets nuclear weapons, Iran could have it the next day by wire transfer.”
In February, two ex-Israeli intelligence officers wrote an analysis for the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies arguing that there are massive transfers of nuclear-related technology and know-how between North Korea and Iran.
In late June, top analyst and frequent US government adviser Anthony Cordesman summarized decades of analysis on the North Korea-Iran nuclear connection, concluding that even if evidence of the connection should be scrutinized and there were other proliferators in play, “it seems highly likely that Iranian and North Korean cooperation continues at some level.”
And Iran’s state-run news agency issued a statement about “expediting” Iran-North Korea cooperation and a joint visit of high-level officials the day after the North Korea missile test – even if the word “nuclear” was not explicitly in the press release.
So most of the debate is not about whether nuclear advances for one rogue state assist the other, but in which nuclear areas, since there are many obstacles to overcome, and about how direct is the assistance.
While this is debatable, assume for one moment that North Korea transfers its ICBM technology to Iran tomorrow.
There is still another obstacle to a full-blown North Korean or Iranian nuclear ICBM threat.
North Korea has not yet perfected miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to be placed on one of its ICBMs. But some had thought it might take North Korea years to move from launching short-range missiles to ICBMs, which at a certain stage can hit anywhere on the planet.
The US defense establishment has appeared genuinely surprised that Pyongyang pulled off a successful ICBM launch, only admitting that it was an ICBM after initial skepticism.
If top analysts are saying North Korea is still likely a few years away from miniaturizing a nuclear device, what if North Korea surprises them again by outperforming scientific expectations? Or maybe North Korea takes a few years, but on-schedule around 2020 pulls off miniaturizing a nuclear bomb to be placed on an ICBM that can hit anywhere.
What will stop North Korea from transferring the technology to Iran? In some ways this is more a special US-European issue than an Israeli issue.
Iran has had missiles that could hit Israel for years. So North Korea developing an ICBM does not necessarily up the threat level to any worse than it already is.
Yet, North Korea achieving miniaturization and passing that on to Iran would get Iran over the greatest major obstacle it has not solved for firing a nuclear missile, as opposed to a conventional missile.
All Iran might need to do at that point would be to start enriching uranium again. Presuming it has improved its centrifuges, which it is allowed to do under the 2015 nuclear deal with the West, some say it might be able to “break out” in a few months or even a few weeks.
All of this is speculative.
North Korea and Iran have both gotten stuck before. Without advances in its centrifuges, Iran may need up to a year to produce enough uranium for a nuclear weapon and it may avoid the risk of breaking the nuclear deal. North Korea may transfer some things to Iran, but choose not to transfer technology to place a nuclear weapon on an ICBM.
But what if it does?