While the West is pondering whether Hassan Rouhani is for real or not, Kyodo reported recently on an Iran-North Korea deal that shows the internal fragmentation of the Iranian political system. According to Kyodo, a delegation of North Korean officials was in Tehran in August to attend Rouhani’s swearing in. But while Kim Yong Nam—head of the Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium and officially #2 in the political system–was meeting with Rouhani, security officials making the trip met with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). More than 100,000 strong, the IRGC constitutes not only an internal security apparatus but fields a parallel army, navy, and air force as well; it also has responsibility for managing Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal. Not coincidentally, it is an influential economic player, with control over a variety of strategic industries and black market activities, including those tied to the missile program. These are not the good guys.
The North Koreans apparently worried that Rouhani’s olive branch to the West would affect Iranian-North Korean collaboration on missiles (and possibly nuclear weapons). Not to worry! The leader of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, purportedly said that the IRGC—and thus the missile and nuclear cooperation between the two states—was not subordinate to the President but to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. We are inclined to give Rouhani a chance, but he may not be driving policy on issues of crucial interest to the US, including two-way technology transfers between Iran and North Korea.
Two weeks ago another curious story about the Iran-North Korea connection broke—and again in a Japanese paper, the Asahi Shinbun. The story hints of a complex deal in which North Korea sought to diversify its sources of oil imports away from China and toward Iran, but working through a Chinese state-owned oil company to do so. It is not clear whether the Chinese firm played a broker role, extended guarantees, or was in it for the refining business; North Korea does not have the capability to refine the condensate on its own. But the deal was large — 500,000 metric tons — and thus involved multiple shipments on vessels registered in an unnamed third country.
When the oil came back through China, however, Chinese authorities towed the tankers to Dalian (Liaoning province) and Qingdao (Shandong province). To add insult to injury, Asahi claims that China asked North Korea to pay about $2 million for storage expenses. Why the red tape? Asahi and the Washington Times suggest this could be a signal—following other signs of Chinese pique—that Beijing has levers to pull vis-à-vis Pyongyang; the Asahi piece claims oil shipments through the pipeline have fallen off dramatically this year as well. Chad O’Carroll of NK news reports that the Iranians have denied any connection to the ship.