Saudi Arabia should push US to cut off Iran’s weapons supply
US President Donald Trump last month met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and signed a joint statement agreeing to North Korea’s security and peaceful relations in the region, as well as, most importantly, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, Trump can gain more from improved relations with Pyongyang, particularly as it concerns North Korea’s supplying of arms and military technology to states like Iran and Syria.
There is a long history of North Korea providing Iran with ballistic missiles. The secret cooperation between the two states began in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War. During this time, roughly 70 percent of Iran’s arms and missiles were provided by North Korea and China. In the 1990s, North Korea and Iran worked together to develop long-range ballistic missiles. This endeavor led to Iran’s Shahab ballistic missiles series that now threaten the Gulf states, Israel and parts of Europe.
The fact that the two states have shared exceptionally warm relations should not be a surprise considering that both have been isolated from the international community and have aimed to destabilize regional peace. Iran has faced isolation since the American hostage crisis after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Since then, Iran has purchased ammunition and medical supplies from North Korea. For the time being, North Korean military equipment is ideal for Tehran, as a substantial amount of its military technology is Chinese and Soviet-made.
A military analyst in the US estimated that, in 1982, “North Korea had provided about 40 percent of the approximately $2 billion worth of weapons, ammunition and equipment to Iran.” Iran, in return, paid North Korea in oil and cash. The same year, intelligence officials in the US stated that North Korea shipped 150 Russian-made T-62 tanks, 1,000 mortars, 600 anti-aircraft machine guns, 12,000 smaller weapons, and ammunition. Pyongyang had acquired the military equipment from China and the USSR and was in need of cash and oil. This illegal transfer of arms has continued since the early 1980s.
Riyadh and Washington must work hand-in-hand to contain Iran and cut its destabilizing influence in the region.
Dr. Farah Jan
Toward the late 1980s, North Korea sent Chinese-made Silkworm missiles that were a major threat to US interests in the region. In 1988, Iranian Silkworm missiles were used to attack an American-flagged ship in Kuwait harbor. The US responded by destroying the platforms Iran was using to launch these missiles.
The strength of the relationship between North Korea and Iran is further demonstrated and marked by the fact that Iranian officials have been present at most of the major missile tests that have taken place in North Korea. Additionally, the two countries have not only cooperated on missile technology, but have also worked together on their nuclear programs since the early 1990s. In 1993, there were media reports from South Korea that Iran, despite its financial crunch, financed North Korea’s nuclear program with $500 million in return for nuclear technology.
Saudi officials and other leaders in the Gulf region must press the White House to negotiate with Kim to limit or cut off military ties with Iran. North Korea is looking for economic opportunities and is interested in improving its relations with other countries. For Pyongyang, its economic interests matter more than its diplomatic ties with Iran.
Trump in a recent tweet stated that he had asked King Salman to increase the Kingdom’s oil production to stabilize global markets. Saudi Arabia can use its status as the biggest oil exporter to push for a change in North Korea’s support for Iran. Riyadh and Washington must work hand-in-hand to contain Iran and cut its destabilizing influence in the region. This must be negotiated with the Trump administration — if the production of oil is to be increased, in return Washington must press North Korea and others to cut the illegal arms supply to Tehran. Although it may appear to be a small measure to convince Kim, in the long run it will be a major step for the Gulf and the Middle East if Iran’s military supply was contained.
– Dr. Farah Jan is an international relations lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on Saudi Arabia-Pakistan relations. Twitter: @fjan1