VIENNA: Recent intelligence reports accuse North Korea of secretly helping Iran develop its nuclear programme, raising fresh concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation and Tehran’s atomic intentions.
The United States and the European Union fear Iran is using its nuclear energy programme as a front to develop nuclear weapons and have called on Iran to cease all sensitive atomic work. Tehran says its programme is peaceful and refuses to give up its sovereign right to a full atomic programme.
“In the late 1990s, cooperation began between the two countries, which focused on nuclear (research and development),” said an intelligence report obtained from a non-US diplomat.
“There has been a significant improvement in relations between Iran and North Korea over the past few months,” the report said.
A recent example is what the three-page report described as a “special secret course to provide technological and practical information to outstanding students.” Among the lecturers are senior North Korean scientists and atomic technicians, it said.
“This nuclear cooperation between the two countries has apparently increased significantly during the past year as seen in the arrival of an academic delegation from North Korea in Iran and the existence of this special course,” it said. The secret masters level course at Tehran’s Polytechnic University covered “dual use” nuclear technology that could be applied to civilian or military applications, the report said. “It seems Iran is taking another step to promote its military nuclear project by exploiting North Korea’s extensive technological information in the nuclear sphere,” it said.
A senior Iranian official who was shown the report did not respond to several requests for a comment. A nuclear expert who was involved in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) investigation of Iran’s atomic programme said there was no way the IAEA would get access to this kind of information but he said it was credible.
“Only intelligence agencies can get this kind of information, not the IAEA,” the expert told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the information.
“But it’s credible. No one would be surprised if this was true.”
He added that it was not illegal for Iran to get such training from North Korean experts, though he said any nuclear cooperation between the two countries was worrying. David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security think-tank, said North Korea was the only country that would give Iran sensitive nuclear know-how at the moment.
“No legitimate country would come to Tehran and teach this stuff,” Albright said.
He said he was worried North Korea might even be trying take on the role that Pakistan once played in Iran. “The fear is that North Korea would replace the Khan network,” Albright said. He was referring to a global black market set up by the father of Pakistan’s atomic weapons programme, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, that supplied Iran, Libya and possibly North Korea with sensitive nuclear technology.
Khan’s network has largely been shut down, UN experts say.
US President George W Bush has listed both Iran and North Korea as members of an “axis of evil” of states seeking the world’s deadliest weapons.
Communist North Korea, which withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, says it already has the bomb.
A diplomat from one of the three European Union states trying to persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment programme — France, Britain and Germany — agreed that the intelligence reports concerning Iranian and North Korean cooperation were plausible. .
“The North Koreans are willing to do everything for money,” the European diplomat told Reuters. Several Asian diplomats agreed that the reports were plausible.
There have been other intelligence reports on Iranian cooperation with North Korea. Last month, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper quoted a senior Western intelligence official as saying Tehran was negotiating with North Korea to build a series of underground bunkers to hide atomic equipment in Iran.
Last week, the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun said Japan was worried technology for a long-range cruise missile that can carry nuclear warheads may have been leaked to North Korea from Iran. This information was given to Japan by a US intelligence agency, said Sankei, a conservative daily.
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