If the report from an Iranian resistance group via Reuters is true, the timing could hardly be worse, at least optically. This is a moment when Iran needs to be doing its best to prove its good intentions to the international community, not flaunting ties to a country with an active nuclear weapons program and a record of threatening behavior.
The nuclear agreement being negotiated between Iran and the major powers – the United States, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany – is already highly controversial and powerful hardline enemies in Iran, the United States, Israel and elsewhere are working to derail it. If Iran’s top leaders really want a deal, which would lift international sanctions in return for curbs on their nuclear program, it is counter-productive to give the opponents more ammunition that could thwart that goal.
There are reasons to doubt the report. The Iranian embassy in Paris has already repudiated it. It was based on information from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has spent years working to undermine the Iranian republic. Although the group’s disclosure in 2002 about Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz was accurate, its track record overall has been spotty.
But even if the report is true, what does hosting North Korean experts say about Iran? It has been known for quite a while that representatives of Iran and North Korea frequently meet and have had dealings on ballistic missiles, which would not be covered by the nuclear deal. In February, a report from the United States intelligence community noted, as intelligence officials have in the past, North Korea’s “export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to several countries, including Iran and Syria.”
And while Iran and North Korea both were customers of A.Q. Khan, the disgraced mastermind of Pakistan’s nuclear program, an American official told me Thursday that the United States government has seen nothing to suggest Iran is cooperating with North Korea on nuclear weapons.
Such cooperation would belie Tehran’s insistence that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon and would necessarily blow up any nuclear agreement. But even if a nuclear deal is reached, the major powers will need to watch vigilantly to make sure that Iran doesn’t switch from developing the technology that could enable it to produce a bomb to buying one from North Korea.
State Department Briefing
Exchange on NCRI revelation
May 28, 2015
Watch the Video Clip About this Exchange
Matthew Lee (AP): On Iran. Have you seen this new report from the Iranian opposition about Iran-North Korea nuclear cooperation? And whether you have or not, can you – well, if you have, can you speak to it? And if you – well, if you haven’t, I’ll —
MR RATHKE: Let me answer that one and then you can follow up. So we have seen these claims, and we take any such reports seriously. If I can perhaps anticipate one part of your follow-up, we’re examining the report but we don’t have any information at this time that would lead us to believe that these allegations impact our ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
QUESTION: If the allegations are correct, how could that not impact the negotiations?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we – these allegations – we’re taking them seriously, we’re examining them. I don’t have a stamp to put on them and say whether we’re we able to verify them or not. We don’t – we have not been able to verify them thus far. We’re examining the report and —
QUESTION: This isn’t the first – this isn’t the first time there have been allegations.
MR RATHKE: That’s true. This group has made —
Liz Labott (CNN): No, but others have also said that Iran – there is a significant amount of cooperation between the two. So are you saying that you have no reason to believe that there is such cooperation, or these particular allegations are unfounded?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not saying that they’re unfounded. I’m just saying we don’t have – we’re examining these allegations. They’re serious. I’m not able to verify them.
LIZ Labott (CNN): So if you haven’t – if you’re not able to substantiate whether they’re true or not, how do you know if they’ll impact the negotiations? I mean, if they’re true, feasibly that would impact your negotiations.
MR RATHKE: Well, based on the information that we have at this time, which is the way I would put it.
LEE (AP): If you say, as – that the allegations are serious, why wouldn’t – is this something that’s not going to come up in the negotiations?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to speak to what’s going to come up in the room. But again, serious allegations and we’re looking at them seriously.
QUESTION: Well, let’s put it this way: cutting off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon is a subject that comes up in negotiations, is it not?
MR RATHKE: Certainly.
QUESTION: Okay. So is sanctions relief, is it not?
MR RATHKE: Sure.
Arshad Mohammed (Reuters): Okay. So you’ve just said two things that are involved in the negotiations. You’ve also said that on the sidelines of the negotiations, the fate or the status of the Americans being held or missing comes up.
MR RATHKE: Yes. Right, that is the case.
QUESTION: Why can’t you say whether allegations of Iran’s – of Iranian cooperation or work with North Korea would come up as part of the negotiations?
MR RATHKE: Well, let me take a step back. First, with respect to North Korea, we continue to work with the international community to exercise vigilance over their proliferation activities worldwide. This is the subject of numerous UN Security Council resolutions. They prohibit the transfer to or from the DPRK of goods, technology, of any assistance related to nuclear ballistic missile or other weapons of mass destruction. You’re familiar with all this, but there is of course a very elaborate international framework, including UN Security Council resolutions, as well as unilateral actions, to address the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs.
And in the same way, any cooperation with Iran on proliferation-sensitive nuclear or ballistic activities would also violate relevant UN Security Council resolutions on Iran, including resolution 1929. So you’ve got UN Security Council resolutions that apply to Iran and to North Korea, and so we follow these extremely closely, but I don’t have more to say on these specific allegations, which we are examining.
QUESTION: Okay. But if it’s a violation, and we’ll take – it’s quite apart from the North – the sanctions on North Korea, you are not negotiating with North Korea at the moment; you have, but you’re not now. You are negotiating with Iran. Iran is in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions dating back years and years and years – still – even though they’re complying with the JPOA —
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — even though you say they’re complying with the JPOA. So why – is bringing Iran into compliance with all relevant Security Council – all the Security Council resolutions, is that not a goal of the negotiations here?
MR RATHKE: Well, the nuclear talks are focused on the nuclear-related issues.
QUESTION: So they can satisfy —
MR RATHKE: So there are other Security Council resolutions that also apply to Iran, and those continue and they will not be affected by it.
QUESTION: So as part of these negotiations, you could reach an agreement with the Iranians – could – without them addressing the nuclear cooperation with North Korea. Is that correct?
MR RATHKE: Well, again —
QUESTION: Allegations of nuclear cooperation.
MR RATHKE: Again, we are focused on shutting down the pathways to a nuclear weapon. I’m not going to get into the details or to preview how exactly we address these in the negotiating room.
Lee (AP): Why didn’t you raise the allegations in the negotiating room since one means to ascertain whether or not the Iranians have any or have had any nuclear cooperation with the North Koreans would be to ask them?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not ruling it in or out. I’m just saying I’m not going to prejudge what —
LEE (AP) : But why would you – why wouldn’t you? How could you not raise it? I mean, if you’re trying to figure out if they’re doing it, how do you not ask them?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we have a variety of ways of trying to verify allegations, especially serious ones. So I don’t have more to say on this than that.
QUESTION: Can I just – it’s my understanding – and I just want to make sure that this is still correct or that it is correct —
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: — that the United States – this Administration, previous administrations, have expressed concern and have talked about intelligence suggesting that there is cooperation between Iran and North Korea on ballistic missiles. And the – although you are aware of reports like this one that came out overnight about nuclear cooperation, there isn’t any evidence so far. You haven’t seen any sign that these allegations, while serious, are actually true. Is it still correct that the Administration believes that there is ballistic missile cooperation, but not necessarily nuclear cooperation, between the two?
MR RATHKE: I don’t really have more to say than we have said. We’ve – there’s an international framework of Security Council resolutions dealing with both countries. We take any allegations of cooperation seriously.
QUESTION: And then just tangentially, there is a report – this doesn’t have to do with Iran – but about significantly increased activity at a North Korean missile – rocket launching site. Have you seen this? Do you know anything about it?
MR RATHKE: I haven’t seen that. I’m not familiar with that one.
QUESTION: Stay on North Korea?