What’s going on between Iran and North Korea?

Rouhani and North Korea

We here at Redline have been thinking about international double acts recently. It really is so much easier to get things done when you work together. Just look at Han Solo and Chewbacca, Tintin and Snowy and Laurel and Hardy. All masters at what they do. Where would the universe have ended up if they hadn’t worked together? This got us thinking; if Iran was going to choose someone to form a double act with who would it be?

Enter the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK). I mean they are often "ronery". And in Redline’s experience when two lonely people come together they often set off fireworks.

Redline of course has done a little work on Iran’s relationship with DPRK in the past but we are not one to rest on our laurels. So we did a little research and found these reports from 2013 that state Iran is covertly working with North Korea on an 80-ton rocket booster for long-range missiles. That’s a pretty interesting development and one of the most frustrating issues that WMD analysts have to try to pursue: the murky question of Iran/DPRK nuclear cooperation. It’s a frustrating topic because frankly, most of the publicly-available evidence on this issue is actually nonsense. There’s a lot of rubbish out there. And contrary to what you might have read, there are more things not happening than happening on the Iran/DPRK nuclear front:

• There is no compelling evidence that SPND (سازمان پژوهشی و نوآوری دفاعی aka سپند) – or its predecessor organisations have had any dealings with North Korea. • Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (محسن فخری زاده), the head of SPND, has probably never visited North Korea, and almost certainly was not present at any North Korean nuclear test, despite press allegations. • The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran – which operates Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, including its centrifuges and heavy water reactor program – has probably never had any dealings with North Korea, apart from maybe one solitary purchase of fluorine back in 2004. • Even the IRGC SSJO (جهاد خودکفایی) – the organisation responsible for the Supreme Leader’s secret ICBM program – has in all likelihood had no dealings with North Korea.

But at the same time, the Iran/DPRK relationship is one that makes a lot of analysts (including myself) very worried. And we know that Iran and North Korea are deeply, deeply involved in sharing some highly sensitive technology.

So who the heck in Iran is making deals with Pyongyang? And what are the deals for?

In short, it’s a relationship that is almost solely focussed on the transfer of ballistic missile technology – not that we should gain much comfort from that, given the importance of BMs as potential nuclear weapon delivery devices. The main dealmaker on the Iranian side is a sanctioned Iranian missile manufacturer named the Shahid Hemmat Industries Group (ھمت شھيد صنايع گروہ, or SHIG).

How do we know this?

First, because the US Treasury has said exactly that in US sanctions against North Korea. Treasury listings have stated that Pyongyang’s primary arms sales firm, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), has sold missile technology to SHIG. And second, because Iran’s liquid-fuelled ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles – all manufactured by SHIG – bear unmistakeable hallmarks of ballistic missile designs of North Korean provenance. The Iranian Shahab-3 missile (٣-شھاب) is based on the Korean No Dong 1 (로동1); the control engines of the Iranian Safir (سفير) space launch vehicle, or SLV, are taken from the BM 25/Musudan (무수단); and the Simorgh (سيمرغ) SLV borrows technical elements of the Taepo Dong 2 / Unha-3 (대포동 2호/은하3).

(SHIG, by the way, has never publicly acknowledged that it manufactures Iran’s space launch vehicles, as that would belie the fact that the country’s vaunted space program is not entirely a civilian venture. However, because Iran’s SLVs are a) basically really big missiles; b) liquid-fuelled; and c) rely on technology obtained from North Korea, I’d say it’s a dead certainty that SHIG, being Iran’s sole liquid fuelled missile maker and main technology channel to North Korea, is the real manufacturer of these SLVs.)

The known pathway through which Iran/DPRK missile technology transfer occurs looks like this:

SHIG and North Korea

You’ll note that there is no connection – or at least no connection that I know of – between North Korea and the AEOI, SPND or the IRGC SSJO, which runs the Supreme Leader’s secret ICBM project. SHIG seemingly owns, dominates or just hogs the bilateral technology transfer channel.

Why would that be? Perhaps it’s because Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear weapon-related research and ICBM projects are just too sensitive for foreign collaboration. Or we could be missing something. And that gets us back to the deal for the 80-ton rocket motor.

Bill Gertz reported in November 2013:

"Iran is covertly working with North Korea on a new 80-ton rocket booster that can be used in both nations’ long-range missile programs…Intelligence reports indicate that as recently as late October Iranian technicians from the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, a defense organization that builds liquid-fuelled missiles, were in Pyongyang collaborating on the booster development."

That SHIG and North Korea are collaborating on missile technology is nothing new. What’s new in this case is the 80-ton rocket booster – a motor that is larger than anything seen on any North Korean or Iranian missile platform or space launch vehicle. For a rocket motor, 80 tons is big. Really big.

And problematically, we don’t really know what SHIG plans to use it for – a new space launch vehicle or a great big ballistic missile. A rocket motor, no matter how big, is fundamentally dual-use: put on an SLV, it can be used to loft heavy payloads into space; put on an ICBM, to launch nuclear warheads across the world.

If I had to place a bet, I’d say that SHIG is planning a large new SLV that will allow it to safely build long-range missile expertise under the guise of civilian space development so it can eventually make an ICBM. And North Korea – as desperate for hard currency as ever – is gladly helping out.

But there are better places than Redline to find out what exactly is going on. The one man who can probably give us the full story behind the 80-ton rocket booster deal is the man who was effectively in charge of SHIG, Sayyed Mehdi Farahi (فرھى مھدى سيد), the current Vice President of MODAFL and former head of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organisation (ھوافضا صنايع سازمان or AIO).

As AIO head, Farahi was ultimately responsible for the development and production for all of Iran’s space launch vehicles and ballistic missiles– apart from the the IRGC’s ICBM project, which Khamenei presumably never trusted Farahi to run.

Farahi is not publicity shy. Here he is with some very familiar faces, including former defence minister Ahmad Vahidi (وحيدى احمد) and Hamid Fazeli (فاضلى حميد), the head of the nominally civilian (but not really) Iran Space Agency (ايران فضليى سازمان). There’s even a well-known ex-president in there.

Farahi

Farahi is clearly a big player in the world of BMs and SLVs. And in light of that, maybe ask Farahi about North Korea next time you see him. I dare say he could clarify a thing or two about what went down on SHIG’s trip to Pyongyang.

You might also ask him whether he has ever considered asking the North Koreans for their newfangled KN-08 road-mobile ICBM, a sweet ride if ever there was one:

KN-08 ICBM

To state the blindingly obvious, there is no civilian use for that thing. It’s 100% designed to put nuclear warheads on the continental United States. Getting caught trying to buy one of those would not be a happy day for Mr Farahi.

(And one other thing to ask Farahi: who has been running SHIG ever since former head Naser Maleki (مالکى ناصر) left the organisation? It seems that lately Maleki has been helping another ex-AIO man, Ahmad Vahid Dastjerdi (احمد وحید دستجردی), to run one of Khamenei’s shadowy sanctions-busting outfits, the Oil Pension Fund Investment Company (نفت بانشستگى ھاى صندوق گذارى سرمايه شرکت).)

I do hope that SHIG stops working with North Korea now their secret rocket motor deal is out in the open. But much more than that, I really hope that the AEOI, SPND and the IRGC SSJO continue to avoid collaborating with the DPRK. The day you see personnel from any of these entities travelling to Pyongyang is probably a good one to push the panic button.

In the meantime, there’s still plenty to worry about (as always) by way of dodgy Iranians wanting to do business with North Koreans, and vice versa.

Here’s one of them: Iran’s former science minister (and Redline’s favourite plagiarist) Dr Kamran Daneshjou (کامران دانشجو), who in September 2012 met with the DPRK’s foreign minister, Pak Ui-Chun to sign a bilateral agreement on cooperation in science and technology.

Daneshjou, of course, was the manager responsible for Project 111 – the work done under the AMAD nuclear weapons plan to fit a nuclear warhead on a Shahab-3 ballistic missile. Let’s hope that nuclear warhead development wasn’t on the agenda for his meeting with the North Koreans.

North Korea and Iran sign agreement

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