Could Iran be the key to disarming North Korea?

Could Iran be the key to disarming North Korea?

Iran and South Korea have unveiled a new series of agreements to expand cooperation on energy, trade, and infrastructure development. While the prospect for increasing future economic relations is a valuable opportunity for Seoul’s economy, President Park is trying to pull Tehran away from the influence of the DPRK.

Seoul’s pivot to Iran

On May 1st, President Park visited Iran for the first official presidential visit since the Republic of Korea established diplomatic relations with Iran in 1962. The talks aimed to promote the expansion of valuable trade partnerships after the lifting of sanctions that affected Iran’s economy for several decades. In the aftermath of the Tehran meeting, both countries agreed to triple the level of bilateral annual trade, which is expected to grow from $6bn to $18bn.

In addition, Iran has unveiled a joint infrastructure project worth $37bn as part of a major energy and infrastructure development strategy. Iran is the world’s fourth largest producer of oil, producing nearly 1.4 million bpd. In the wake of the end of sanctions, Iran’s oil exports have almost doubled. According to Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, Iran’s crude oil capacity will reach four million bpd by 2017. Alongside Tehran’s valuable energy resources, Iran 80 million people represent a large potential market, with a high levels of education, and relatively wealthy demographics: it would represent a valuable market for South Korean companies.

South Korea enjoys an advantage over other nations in dealing with Iran, as the Islamic Republic values Seoul as one of the handfuls of countries, along with China, to maintain economic relations with Iran during six years of sanctions. While Seoul has expressed great determination in renewing its presence, a large number of countries are also currently trying to restore their presence in the Iranian market. For instance Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to visit the country later in 2016, to jump-start economic relations and spur investments.

Tehran’s priorities

The moderate government of President Rouhani is pursuing a foreign policy oriented at fostering the reintegration of Iran into the international community, but Rouhani is also expanding energy, trade and industrial development partnerships. Since the lifting of sanctions, President Rouhani has shaped a new strategy focused on establishing new ties with critical economic partners and attracting countries like South Korea that strongly rely on Iran’s oil for their supply.

South Korea is the fifth largest importer of Iranian oil and it has long been an important partner. Albeit, under the sanctions imposed on Iran, Seoul had to reduce its oil imports footprint, since January, South Korea has quadrupled its imports to 400.000 bpd. The National Oil Company of Iran is currently opening 40 projects for competitive bidding, and expanding the level of cooperation with companies such as the Korea National Oil Corporation.

Tehran is also determined to attract South Korean companies to its large but under serviced market, hoping that this will increase Iran’s credibility and produce a domino effect, attracting FDI. Since July 2015, Tehran has used its return as a global economic actor as an opportunity to shape its economic agenda, but also foster proactive engagement in a region often affected by political and economic turmoil.

Old allies, new faces

President Park has called for Tehran’s support in implementing the recent UNSC resolution against North Korea’s growing nuclear ambitions Iran and the DPRK have been close allies for a long time and have strengthened their strategic cooperation since 1990s. While Tehran has limited opportunity or interest to use its diplomatic leverage on Pyongyang Seoul has certainly a strong interest in increasing Pyongyang’s isolation.

President Rouhani has stressed the need of a world free of weapons of mass destruction, especially in the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East. However, one must remember that Iran’s long-term partnership with Pyongyang was initially established out of the necessity of acquiring military hardware, critical to ensure the self-preservation of the Islamic Republic.

One cannot forget that North Korea-Iran relations were established in the 1980’s, when Iran was highly isolated, affected by an arms embargo and dangerously threatened by Saddam Hussein’s expansionist ambitions. During the eight years of the Iran-Iraq conflict, Pyongyang supplied Tehran with $120 million of military hardware, including Scud missiles but also logistic support via military advisors sent to Iran to train the inexperienced Iran military forces.

In 1985 a joint cooperative missiles development program was inaugurated, and Tehran has benefited from Pyongyang’s military research as seen in the development of its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missiles. The zenith of bilateral strategic cooperation was reached in the field of nuclear proliferation. In 1993, Tehran started to economically support Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for nuclear technology and hardware.

Nowadays, marked geopolitical changes and the strong global efforts to eradicate the threat of nuclear war have ultimately pushed Tehran to embrace a different path. President Rouhani has indeed inaugurated a new foreign policy direction that relies on economic development, the attraction of new FDI in critical sectors such as oil and gas and on the reintegration of Tehran into the international community.

It has been argued that Iran’s reintegration into the global economy and the resultant economic benefits could be critical in persuading Pyongyang to also abandon its nuclear ambitions. Yet, Pyongyang’s unique political and ideological foundation, coupled with its adamant determination to fullfil its militaristic vision make the DPRK a reform-proof system.

From another angle, it is unlikely that Tehran can succeed in applying pressure on Pyongyang, given the failure of a far more influential partner such as Beijing. Radical proclamations launched by Pyongyang regarding its determination to achieve nuclear power status highlights Pyongyang’s goal to prevent any military threat from jeopardising the Kim dynasty. It remains uncertain how Tehran’s limited influence or geopolitical interests could persuade Pyongyang to pursue the path of de-nuclearisation.

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.