In spite of that agreement and the associated UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to avoid work on nuclear-capable weapons, the Islamic Republic has continued to test ballistic missiles, and by some accounts it has also continued to work with North Korea on the mutual improvement of weapons that could be outfitted with nuclear warheads in order to threaten the US and its allies.
On Tuesday, CNBC issued an extensive report on North Korea’s nuclear work in which it quoted former CIA agent Fred Fleitz, now with the Center for Security Policy, as saying there is “pretty credible information” indicating that North Korea and Iran have exchanged missile design and testing know-how in both directions. Fleitz notes that Iranian scientists have apparently attended North Korean missile launches, some of which involved rockets that had originated in North Korean but then been improved by Iran.
This information may well encourage the existing suspicion maintained by the White House and other US officials regarding Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement. Although a recent Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry found that Iranian government had been working to preserve the deal in advance of the Iranian presidential elections, the Trump administration has accused that same government of violating the spirit of the agreement through its missile tests and other activities.
This accusation underscores the escalating tensions between the Tehran and the Trump administration, which has been antagonistic toward the nuclear deal and the Islamic Republic in general since day one. The US president’s assertive Iran policy is likely to go through a new period of development at around the same time that the Iranian national elections are taking place. That is to say, those elections coincide with President Trump’s first official oversees visit, which will start in Saudi Arabia before proceeding to Israel, both of which will be the object of discussions about confronting Iranian influence in the region.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal characterized the planned trip as part of an ongoing effort to encourage traditional US allies to develop a multilateral plan for fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant while also pushing back against Iran, which has a hand in a number of regional conflicts and terrorist activities.
The US’s own strategy in Syria and Iraq has apparently already taken a turn toward forestalling Iranian influence while also trying to complete the destruction of the Islamic State. This was pointed out last week, for instance, by Riyadh Vision, in an article that described US efforts to help local forces close off the ISIL stronghold of Deir Ezzor, which lies along a route that could link Tehran to Damascus, Beirut, and the Mediterranean Sea.
And as The Guardian points out, the emerging competition over Deir Ezzor comes shortly after Tehran abandoned its previously planned route in order to avoid US forces that have built up in northern Syria. Such avoidance is particularly noteworthy in light of the Iranian missile tests and support for North Korean development, as these things had been part of a pattern or defiant gestures and statements implying readiness for war.
As the Islamic Republic tries to avoid direct confrontation and the US continues to push back against Iran’s regional influence, the stage could be set for the White House to pressure the Islamic Republic to back down on its ballistic missile posture as well. This could in turn limit the growth of North Korean missile capabilities while providing new reassurance to Iran’s other adversaries, including Saudi Arabia.