Elephants in the Room

Iran’s North Korean Playbook to Protect Its Nuclear Program

Tehran is building up Hezbollah as leverage against an attack by Israel.

Palestinian and Lebanese protestors wave the yellow Hezbollah flags during a demonstration in Lebanon's southern border town of Naqura on Dec. 21,  to denounce the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian and Lebanese protestors wave the yellow Hezbollah flags during a demonstration in Lebanon's southern border town of Naqura on Dec. 21, to denounce the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone watching the systematic consolidation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability over the past decade can’t help but worry about the parallels with Iran. Like Iran, North Korea insisted for years that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes — despite a long track record of deception and lies about its true intentions. Like Iran, it accepted an international deal — the so-called Agreed Framework — that was supposed to terminate its pathway to the bomb in exchange for assistance that propped up its crumbling economy. And, as with Iran, the U.S. president who negotiated the North Korean deal pledged that its provisions, including a tough international inspections regime, would enhance America’s security.

Alas, as we all know, it didn’t work out that way. Within 12 years of agreeing to dismantle its nuclear program, North Korea exploded its first weapon. Now, another 11 years on, its arsenal could be as large as 60 nuclear bombs. And after conducting three tests this year of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea stands on the threshold of being able to deliver a nuclear warhead to any city in the United States, including New York and Washington, D.C. Its ability to wreak nuclear devastation against America’s closest Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, is already a fait accompli.

There’s no doubt lots of blame to go around for the dire situation that we now confront in North Korea. The failure attaches to Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Whether we’re now on course toward a similar policy disaster in Iran remains to be seen. But in light of the North Korean precedent, the Islamic Republic’s longstanding nuclear ambitions and history of military and scientific cooperation with Pyongyang, and the significant shortcomings of the Iran nuclear deal itself, who can be sanguine? Vigilance is obviously called for in an effort to ensure that the mistakes made in North Korea are not repeated with Iran.

One in particular concerns me here. It’s the matter of the overwhelming military threat that North Korea now poses to South Korea — nuclear weapons or not. How many South Koreans would die in a conventional war’s first days from North Korean artillery, rocket, and missile barrages is impossible to say. Casualty estimates cover a wide range — from tens of thousands to a million. Thousands of American residents of South Korea — estimated at about 150,000 — might also be killed or injured. Seoul, the South Korean capital that lies within 50 miles of the border, would suffer incalculable economic loss, social dislocation, and psychic trauma. And that’s not even considering the unintended risks and consequences — both in Asia more broadly and globally — of such a horrific war fought on the doorstep of the world’s other great nuclear powers, China and Russia.

Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, may have grossly exaggerated the consequences last August when he said that, “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” But the larger point that he was making was almost certainly correct. Since at least the 1990s, when the Agreed Framework was negotiated, the potentially catastrophic consequences of any pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear program have heavily constrained U.S. decision-makers. The widely held belief that there is no viable military option that doesn’t render a key U.S. ally a smoking ruin has, without question, been an essential pillar of Pyongyang’s successful strategy for entering the nuclear club.

Which brings me to Iran. Think about what it’s been doing with Hezbollah in Lebanon for the past decade or so. Since Israel and Hezbollah went to war in 2006, Iran has flooded its Shiite proxy on Israel’s northern border with weapons — specifically, with rockets and missiles. The last time Hezbollah squared off with Israel, it had fewer than 15,000 in its arsenal. During 2006’s 34-day war, it fired 4,000 of them at Israel, averaging more than 100 per day despite robust Israeli suppression efforts. The vast majority of these were inaccurate short-range systems that sought to target and terrorize civilian communities in northern Israel. Hezbollah’s much smaller number of medium- and longer-range missiles were largely destroyed in a lightning strike by the Israeli Air Force in the conflict’s first hours.

Nevertheless, some 160 Israelis lost their lives in the war — including almost 50 civilians killed by rocket fire. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes in Israel’s north. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into bomb shelters day after day. Thousands of homes, apartment buildings, businesses, and schools were destroyed or damaged. Economic losses were measured in the billions of dollars.

That was bad enough. But flash-forward to today. Estimates of Hezbollah’s rocket and missile force now range between 120,000 and 150,000. That’s an absolutely stunning number — especially when you consider that the United Nations resolution that ended the war in 2006 allegedly prohibited all efforts to re-arm the terrorist group. It’s also a chilling number that now includes a far larger force of more advanced long-range missiles, capable of delivering massive payloads — upwards of half a ton — to every corner of Israel.

Instead of just over 100 missiles per day, the next war is likely to see Israel experiencing barrages of up to 1,500 rockets and missiles per day. Even with the sophisticated, multi-layered missile defense systems that Israel currently fields (which didn’t exist in 2006), the likelihood that they will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of incoming explosives, at least in the war’s opening days, is very high. With potentially thousands of powerful warheads raining down on crowded population centers, some Israeli planners are preparing for “as many as hundreds” of civilian deaths every day during the conflict’s first week.

It gets worse. Among those longer-range missiles that it has acquired from Iran, Hezbollah almost certainly possesses some that can be classified as “precision” missiles, with advanced guidance systems capable of midflight corrections and a high degree of accuracy. How many is not clear. Relatively early in the Syrian conflict, when Israeli leaders publicly declared that one of their red lines would be efforts by Iran to transfer “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah, stopping the delivery of these types of deadly missiles was uppermost in their minds. Of the more than 100 strikes that Israel has conducted in Syria against convoys, factories, and warehouses, the vast majority have almost certainly been to constrain what it has called the Iranian/Hezbollah “accuracy project.” But as vigilant as the Israelis have been, it’s almost certainly the case that some of those attempted transfers succeeded, with an unknown number of precision missiles finding their way into Hezbollah’s order of battle.

To foil Israel’s attacks on its extended supply lines to Hezbollah, Iran is now also building factories in Lebanon as well as Syria that would provide the group with an indigenous capability to produce large quantities of precision missiles closer to home. At least some of these factories are being buried deep underground — as much as 160 meters — in an effort to make them immune from aerial attack. Senior Israeli officials have been ringing alarm bells about the factories since last summer — with a strong hint that if the United States and the international community don’t take action to stop them, Israel is prepared to act pre-emptively to destroy the facilities before their production lines open. Indeed, there is evidence that several such factories have already been destroyed in Syria.

The strategic significance of the Iranian/Hezbollah accuracy project is hard to overstate. Given its small size and limited redundancy, Israel is extraordinarily vulnerable if even a few dozen precision missiles breach its defenses and strike key targets: a handful of power plants and water desalination facilities; a few oil refineries and offshore gas rigs; the Dimona nuclear reactor; the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces in Tel Aviv; a few vital military industrial sites; Ben Gurion International Airport; or the sea ports at Haifa and Ashdod. Perhaps throw in the Knesset and several high-rise apartment buildings. It wouldn’t take much to inflict unprecedented damage on Israel’s home front, potentially taking a major chunk of the country’s critical infrastructure offline. One former head of Israel’s National Security Council described the potential destruction and casualties that Israel could incur as “unbearable.”

It’s no great leap to see this extraordinary buildup of Hezbollah’s capabilities as part of a systematic Iranian strategy to replicate the North Korea-South Korea dynamic in the Lebanon-Israel theater. In short, this would ensure that the costs of any future war against Hezbollah are so catastrophic for Israel that it — as well as its superpower ally, the United States — will be deterred from ever attacking Hezbollah’s patron in Iran. Once that shield of Hezbollah’s balance of terror against Israel has been established, the Islamic Republic will have the necessary cover to develop nuclear weapons unhindered, at a time of its choosing.

Unlikely? Perhaps. But who could have imagined the extraordinary expansion of Hezbollah’s lethality that we’ve witnessed in just the past 10 years? Where will it be in, say, another decade? Or even more to the point, at the time when — under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — most of the critical constraints on the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program sunset by 2030? During the debate over the Iran agreement, former U.S. President Barack Obama frequently made the point that if Iran did make a dash for the bomb in 15 or 20 years, the United States would have “the same options available to stop a weapons program as we have today, including — if necessary — military options.” It was always a fairly vapid assessment. But it was particularly so in the event that any future president might have to consider that any strike on Iran could trigger a Hezbollah attack that would inflict unspeakable horrors on Israel, the one and only Jewish state and among America’s most important allies.

Stopping Iran’s mullahs from eventually following in the footsteps of North Korea and acquiring nuclear weapons will be hard enough as is. But it will almost certainly be impossible if Iran, through its continued arming of Hezbollah, is effectively permitted to take a U.S. or Israeli military option off the table. Israel is saying with increasing clarity that it will not allow such a balance of terror to consolidate. It will do whatever is necessary to prevent it — even if it risks triggering a broader war with Hezbollah and Iran. Better to face that conflict now, as horrible as it no doubt would be, than to face it later when the Iran/Hezbollah accuracy project is completed and Israel’s well-being, in the most fundamental sense, could be put at risk.

That should be America’s position as well. We’ve seen what happens when the price of stopping a virulently anti-American rogue state from going nuclear becomes the devastation of a critical U.S. ally. The story ends with that rogue state being able to hold all of our great cities hostage to its nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. That’s the North Korean playbook that Iran ultimately wants to follow. The United States has a vital interest in making sure that it fails.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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