President Donald Trump last week condemned a ballistic missile test by a rogue state that threatens its neighbours: “Threatening the world, these weapons and tests further isolate [this country], weaken its economy and deprive its people. The United States will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the American homeland and protect our allies in the region.”
This statement, aimed at Kim Yong Un in Pyongyang, could have easily been targeted at the clerics in Tehran. Ballistic missile tests have been conducted regularly by both states since Trump entered the White House in January, drawing the President’s ire and highlighting the two main foreign policy challenges he faces in his first year.
North Korea and Iran are widely considered to be the two most dangerous and unpredictable states in the international community. Both have an extensive history of destabilising their region, in particular through the development of nuclear weapons programmes that bear multiple resemblances and display evidence of cooperation. The US has been involved in fractious disputes with both in the early months of the Trump Administration, and have had military exchanges with both that threatened to escalate tensions to previously unseen levels.
Neither problem appears to be disappearing, but, on the contrary, the disputes seem to be becoming more and more intractable, while the relationship between the two states builds, resulting in increased uncertainty throughout their neighbourhoods. Plainly, the current Administration must treat both as serious threats to the US and their respective regions, and develop a strong, strategic way of countering this axis.
Congressman Ted Poe (R-Tx), writing in The National Interest, explains the shared goal of the two countries:
“Tehran checks every box for being a global menace, just like its friends in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Both are state sponsors of terror, have clear nuclear ambitions, and directly threaten US interests and those of our allies with ballistic missiles. Iran looks to North Korea to support and enable its nuclear ambitions. For years, experts have suspected North Korea as being the key supporter behind Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. Today, many of the missiles Iran would use to target American forces in the Middle East are copies of North Korean designs.
“North Korean engineers are in Iran helping to improve its missiles to carry nuclear warheads, according to a report released last month from Iran’s main opposition movement—the same movement that exposed Tehran’s secret nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak in 2002. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s new report, the Islamic Republic is using North Korean blueprints to build underground missile sites and experts are regularly traveling between the two countries to assist the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ efforts to develop nuclear warheads and guidance systems. This would enable the jihadist state to launch nuclear weapons at the large US bases in the Middle East that restrain Iran’s expansionist ambitions.”
Only this week, the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Assembly of North Korea, Kim Yong Nam, starts a 10 day trip to Iran, where he is expected to discuss with senior Iranian officials “issues of joint concern, including stronger US sanctions against both countries”.
With this kind of collaboration, there is a clear, distinct threat to US assets in the Middle East and to Western allies in the region. With no clear common ideological, historical or cultural links, the deal between Pyongyang and Tehran must be based on other factors, like a shared animosity towards the international community, a belief in striking out against their neighbours and an insular approach that leaves their people stranded behind manufactured barriers and more reliant on the regime.
The foreign policy implications of this make-shift alliance are clear: disorder, chaos and the spread of instability in both the Far East and the Arab world. The US and the international community should actively seek to disrupt this relationship and stem the level of cooperation between the two.