North Korea’s fourth nuclear test could have been a crucial step toward Pyongyang developing thermonuclear capability — and a breakthrough for a second country with potential nuclear ambitions, as well.
Iran has established ties to the North Korean nuclear-weapons program. As The Daily Beast notes, Iranian officials, including Iranian nuclear program head Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, were present during North Korea’s three previous nuclear tests — in 2006, 2009, and 2013.
Testing data is a potential bonanza for a nuclear-weapons program. It could include information about the design and yield of the device detonated — or about the size and configuration of the bomb’s uranium hemisphere or plutonium core. Testing data could indicate the weight and shape of the nuclear device, its triggering mechanisms, or the warhead’s material composition.
As Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has written, there is also some design and technological overlap between Iranian and North Korean-produced ballistic missiles, suggesting the two countries have shared information about nuclear delivery platforms as well.
Last July, Iran reached a deal with a US-led group of world powers in which Tehran agreed to temporary and non-binding limitations on its nuclear program.
Those came in exchange for the eventual lifting of most US and nearly all United Nations and European sanctions on the country, in addition to the removal of embargoes on the country’s conventional arms transfers and ballistic-missile development.
It wouldn’t necessarily be a violation of the nuclear deal for Iran to access information from a North Korean nuclear test. Thomas Moore, a former non-proliferation expert for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Business Insider that he doesn’t think that accessing this information would necessarily be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), either.
Like the NPT, the Iran nuclear deal is deliberately vague on exactly what constitutes a violation. But possession of test data isn’t specifically proscribed under a provision in the Iran agreement that addresses prohibited activities related to nuclear-weapons design.
Under the deal, potential violations will be brought before an eight-member “joint commission” that includes Iran. The commission can then vote on whether an alleged violation is serious enough to then refer ot the United Nations Security Council.
Enforcement of what is inevitably a non-binding agreement is dependent on the political will of the joint commission’s members. And the text itself is elastic in ways that could permit Iran to access information relevant to a push towards a nuclear-weapons capability.
Developing weapons without a test
Two countries have already proven that it’s possible to successfully develop nuclear weapons without carrying out a test.
Pakistan is believed to have possessed nuclear weapons since as early as the late 1980s, but did not carry out a test until 1998.
More pertinently, Israel is thought to have possessed nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, and is believed to have a diverse arsenal of miniaturized strategic weapons for delivery through fighter aircraft and through both land- and sea-based ballistic missiles.
But Israel didn’t need to test a nuclear weapon even during the crucial early years of its program — partly because of the country’s extensive access to French testing data.
“In the early phases, the amount of collaboration between the French and Israeli nuclear weapons design programs made testing unnecessary,” US Army Col. Warner D. Farr wrote in a 1999 study for the Federation of American Scientists’ Counterproliferation Papers.
He continued: “There were several Israeli observers at the French nuclear tests and the Israelis had ‘unrestricted access to French nuclear test explosion data.'”
An outside country’s testing data can be crucial in establishing a clandestine nuclear capability. But even if Iran might have access to North Korean nuclear data, the international community has an incomplete understanding of what the country is currently capable of doing with this information.
An incomplete picture
The implementation of the Iran nuclear deal was contingent on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation of the history and status of Iran’s nuclear weaponization program.
The process was supposed to be essential to establishing exactly how far along Iran’s weaponization activities really are — and to recognising whether those activities have been restarted with an eye toward the future.
In a report published in December, the IAEA found that Iran had been engaged in weaponization work until 2009 — some six years later than generally believed.
But the agency’s final report clocked in at a mere 16 pages, and showed evidence of systematic Iranian evasions on a number of crucial questions, including on the state of its work on nuclear-weapons detonators. Last weekend, White House officials stated that the nuclear deal is still on track for implementation, according to Reuters.
Under the Iran deal, ballistic missile-related sanctions and limits on uranium enrichment won’t be lifted until the agency reaches a “broader conclusion” on the nature and intent of Iran’s nuclear program, a determination that the deal says should be reached within eight years.
The possibility of Iran accessing information from the North Korean nuclear test, and the lingering uncertainty over what that would actually mean for Iran’s nuclear program, shows just how much of a gamble it may have been to have put such a conclusion on the backend of the deal.
An alternative could have been to premise the deal on the international community’s full knowledge of the country’s weaponization activities and infrastructure.
There’s another, more important way in which Iran benefits from the North Korean nuclear test.
Even if Iranian scientists weren’t present at the device’s detonation, or never gain access to testing or design-related data, Tehran is surely noting the remarkable global non-reaction to the North Korean test.
The illicit detonation of what North Korea claims was a hydrogen-boosted atomic weapon (a claim that has drawn scepticism from experts) and that created a fireball one-fifth of a mile wide elicited no military response or even a notable military mobilization from the US or any regional power.
It also only produced a pro-forma condemnation from the UN Security Council that did not include any contingencies for the use of force. The test may have temporarily riled Asian markets, but few experts believe it will be enough to cause China to reverse its financial, economic, and political support for the Kim Jong-un regime.
It took only four tests for a North Korean nuclear detonation to become a banal event. North Korea didn’t just make a potential leap forward in its nuclear weapons capabilities. It also exposed the US and its allies’ apparent lack of effective options in countering behaviour that ranks among the most egregious possible violations of international order.
In a sense, North Korea is continuing a trend from which Iran has already benefited. None of the temporary limitations on Iran’s nuclear program that the country agreed to in July of 2015 is binding under international law.
Moore, the former non-proliferation expert for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Business Insider that the Iran deal’s nuclear-weapons development restrictions might have the overall effect of hollowing out the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“Putting these limits in a nonbinding agreement means, what’s the point of having a binding violating enforced?” Moore said. “And Iran’s stalling of the IAEA’s weaponization probe hasn’t done anything to slow the removal of sanctions under the nuclear deal.”
Iran has to be watching the non-response to the North Korean test and wondering what else it might be able to get away with.
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