Iran-North Korea-Syria Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Cooperation*

By Kerr, Paul K.; Nikitin, Mary Beth D. et al. | Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Iran-North Korea-Syria Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Cooperation*


Kerr, Paul K., Nikitin, Mary Beth D., Hildreth, Steven A., Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East


INTRODUCTION

Congress has at times expressed concern regarding ballistic missile and nuclear programs in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. For decades, most in Congress have viewed these three countries with unease because these programs, coupled with the governments' strong anti-U.S. positions and their antagonism toward U.S. regional friends and allies, pose what are widely regarded as threats to U.S. national security interests. Congress has held numerous hearings and passed laws designed to slow and deter Iran, North Korea, and Syria from developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Congress has also established reporting requirements concerning these countries' missile and nuclear programs.

This report focuses primarily on unclassified and declassified U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) assessments and reports over the past two decades.1 These assessments indicate that *

* no public evidence exists that Iran and North Korea have engaged in nuclear-related trade or cooperation with each other, although ballistic missile technology cooperation between the two is significant and meaningful, and

* Syria has received ballistic missiles and related technology from North Korea and Iran and also engaged in nuclear technology cooperation with North Korea.

It should be noted that nonofficial assessments, including journal articles, foreign and domestic media reports, and Internet commentaries, are not always consistent with the official assessments summarized in this report. Although such unofficial sources allege a fairly significant and persistent level of cooperation among these three countries on their ballistic missile and nuclear programs, such reports lack the credibility of official assessments because they are often unsourced or attributed to anonymous government officials, frequently at odds with each other, and unverifiable.

This report begins with a description of the key elements of a nuclear weapons program. It then explains the available information regarding cooperation among Iran, North Korea, and Syria on ballistic missiles and nuclear technology. Last, the report discusses some specific issues for Congress.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM ELEMENTS

An effective nuclear weapons program has three major elements, each of which presents its own unique challenges. Each of these elements must work together to create an operational and effective system.

1) The program must produce fissile material in sufficient quantity and quality for a nuclear device. Plutonium and weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) are the two types of fissile material used in nuclear weapons. Plutonium is obtained by separating it from spent nuclear reactor fuel-a procedure called "reprocessing." Weapons- grade HEU is produced by enriching uranium-a process that increases the concentration of uranium-235 (the relevant fissile isotope). Both Iran and North Korea are in various stages of pursuing and producing different kinds of nuclear material. Syria does not appear to be producing fissile material.

2) The program must produce an effective and reliable means of delivering a nuclear weapon, such as a ballistic missile. Both Iran and North Korea have medium-range ballistic missiles, which have been assessed as capable of delivering a nuclear warhead should such a warhead capability be developed and deployed. Moreover, both countries have demonstrated the capability to launch an object into space orbit, but neither country currently has an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. Syria possesses only short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).2

3) The program must produce a nuclear warhead that can be delivered to its intended target, especially at long-range.3 The IC does not assess that any of the three countries discussed in this report has produced such a warhead, although North Korea has conducted several nuclear tests.

Iran, North Korea, and Syria: Major Nuclear and Missile Programs

Iran4

Nuclear:

Iran has a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program and is producing low-enriched uranium. …

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