Con Coughlin of the U.K. Telegraph is reporting that North Korea is helping Iran with preparations for an underground nuclear test, similar to the one carried out by Pyongyang last year. According to the paper, the Iranian test could be conducted by the end of this year, thanks to increased nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea.
Citing an unnamed "senior European defense official," Mr. Coughlin says that North Korea invited "a team of Iranian scientists" to study results of its recent underground nuclear blast, to assist Tehran in preparing for its own test, possibly by the end of 2007. As we've noted in past, there have been credible reports of cooperation between Iran and North Korea on nuclear matters. A team of Iranian scientists reportedly traveled to North Korea for last October's nuclear test that was, by most accounts, only partially successful.
Mr. Coughlin's sources believe that this relationship would allow for "accelerated" development and testing of an Iranian nuclear device, based on the North Korean design. I'll take that a step further. The "successful" detonation of an Iranian device later this year would require a wholesale export of Pyongyang's nuclear technology, including fissile material, bomb and trigger design, and testing expertise. While Iran's weapons program has progressed steadily in recent years, there is nothing to indicate that Tehran could complete the process in the next 10 months or so--unless North Korea is providing the technical know-how and the necessary components.
By most accounts, Iran's uranium enrichment program--considered the most likely track to produce that country's first atomic bomb--is currently producing relatively small quantities of fuel that could be used to power a nuclear reactor. However, the current output and its relatively low purity (less than 10%) are not suitable for weapons production. Reaching the required levels of quality and quantity would require a much larger centrifuge array than the one currently in operation. Those goals could be achieved over the next couple of years, but not in the coming months.
As we've cautioned in the past, there is the likely possibility that Iran is also operating a parallel, covert nuclear program that has advanced beyond the capabilities that Tehran has publicly demonstrated. If that's the case, the timeline for the first Iranian nuclear device would be shortened, but (again) it's difficult to believe that even the covert program could deliver a successful test by the end of this year. It took North Korea's secret program almost a decade to produce the nuclear device tested last October. Full access to Pyongyang's expertise would cut development time for Tehran, but staging an actual nuclear test during 2007 would require much more than the sharing of test and design data--it would likely mean that North Korea plans to ship a finished device (or its components) to Iran, for testing later this year.
If the Telegraph report is accurate, immediate steps should be taken to prevent the full-scale export of nuclear technology (or finished weapons) from North Korea to Iran. The U.S. should implement a full air and naval quarantine of the DPRK, and demand that countries between Pyongyang and Tehran deny landing and overfly rights to all North Korean and Iranian cargo aircraft. Additionally, the U.S. should pressure international air cargo haulers--notably those in Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus--to decline shipments between Iran and North Korea. If necessary, we should be prepared to "buy up" their flight schedules for the forseeable future, to prevent Pyongyang from chartering air freight firms to transport nuclear cargoes. Limiting the movement of North Korean and Iranian nuclear scientists will be much more difficult, if not impossible. However, preventing the shipment of key components (or finished weapons) by air or sea will make their job much more difficult, and help prevent an Iranian test over the short term.