CRINK’s Support of Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities

CRINK’s Support of Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities

China, Russia, and North Korea have provided essential support for the Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear capabilities.

Iran is steadily edging towards the dangerous point of becoming a nuclear state. According to the latest assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Iran now possesses enough weapons-grade uranium to produce several nuclear weapons within a month. Iran’s membership in the unofficial Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and North Korean (CRINK) geopolitical grouping is a particularly concerning development. CRINK countries are motivated by their intense animosity toward the United States and its Western allies. Therefore, they might, under certain circumstances, help Iran with its nuclear project.

The regime has made significant progress in two essential components of building a nuclear weapon: enriching uranium to a weapons-grade level and developing the delivery vehicle (missile). According to the latest assessment by the IAEA, as of February 10, 2024, the regime’s stock of highly enriched uranium (HEU) stands at 712.2 kg of 20 percent HEU and 121.5 kg of 60 percent HEU. This amount can make enough weapon-grade uranium (WGU) for seven nuclear weapons in one month, nine in two months, eleven in three months, twelve in four months, and thirteen in five months. Additionally, Iran made substantial advances in its nuclear-weapons-capable ballistic missile program. Currently, Iran has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, and many of its missiles are medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

A viable nuclear warhead is still missing from the program. In June 2022, the Iranians forced the IAEA to turn off its surveillance cameras before expelling three of its inspectors in September 2023. Before then, the Agency believed that the regime lacked the know-how to fabricate a warhead. Since then, it has been far more difficult to verify if progress was made.

History shows that the regime worked on the warhead design under the secret AMAD Plan. AMAD was created in 1989 by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, the chief nuclear expert, to procure dual-use technologies, develop nuclear detonators, and conduct high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material. In 2002, Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), an opposition group, revealed the existence of the program. To avoid sanctions, the regime shelved AMAD, according to Western intelligence services and the 2007 CIA estimate. Israeli and other spy agencies noted at the time that AMAD struggled with the complicated warhead design. Over the years, Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, assassinated several AMAD scientists, such as Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who was killed in November 2020.

Since the IAEA can no longer monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, the regime has likely revived the AMAD Plan. This time around, Iran may be receiving technological support from CRINK members, notably North Korea.

North Korea provided Iran with technological assistance before. Pyongyang helped Tehran with its missile program, namely the Shahab-3, which has a range of 2,000 km, and the Shahab-4, both medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM). Intelligence reports indicate that Russian and Chinese technicians helped engineer the Shahab-3, with Beijing helping design the targeting and control systems. Moscow provided Tehran with high-grade alloys, special metal foils to secure the navigational system, a wind tunnel, testing equipment, and warhead protection from high speeds. The Russians also provided Iran with the technology to avoid antimissile defense systems. According to U.S. Intelligence Agencies, in 1994, 350 Iranian engineers spent time at Moscow’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center to study flight theory.

Aerospace technicians from North Korea, China, and Russia also helped Iran to complete the Shahab-5 missile and Shahab-6 (aka Toqyān). China’s Great Wall Industries, in particular, provided Iran with telemetry equipment for missile testing for its Shahab-5 missile program. Shabab-5 is a two-stage version of the North Korean Taep’o-dong-2 with a range of 4,000-4,300 km, capable of carrying a 1,000 kg nuclear payload. Toqyān is possibly a redesigned model of the North Korean Taep’o-dong-2 powered by Russia’s RD-216 storable liquid fuel. Russia also granted Iran the blueprints of the SS-4, RD-214, and the SS-5, RD-216 storable liquid fuel rocket engines.

CRINK countries also made a tremendous contribution to Iran’s enrichment program. North Korea provided Iran with across-the-board help, ranging from uranium exploration and mining to uranium enrichment. In April, an economic and military delegation from North Korea visited Tehran, the first such visit since 2015. While the specifics of the discussions remain secret, North Korean experts and technicians could assist Iran in overcoming the technical challenges associated with assembling a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile. Iranians have also shown interest in Pyongyang’s Hwason-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of carrying a heavy nuclear payload and reaching the mainland United States.

Similarly, the Chinese offered critical support, which had a military dimension. China provided Iran with different types of critical nuclear technology and machinery and helped Iran master the use of lasers for enriching uranium. The Chinese equipment assisted the regime in experimenting with enrichment technology. The Chinese also provided Iran with the know-how of additional enrichment technologies, chemical separation, assistance in processing yellowcake, and the design of facilities to convert uranium to uranium hexafluoride suitable for making reactor fuel. Later, China reportedly sold Iran anhydrous hydrogen fluoride, which is used in the production of uranium hexafluoride. There is also substantial evidence that many Iranian nuclear scientists were trained in China in the mid-to-late 1980s. The Chinese allowed a team of Iranian military personnel and nuclear experts to observe its scheduled nuclear test in 1996. China also trained Iranian nuclear technicians at its nuclear weapon test sites.

CRINK logic is simple. Assisting U.S. adversaries in obtaining nuclear weapons will diminish American power and increase their combined influence. North Korea is hungry for cash and energy, and they are willing to share nuclear intelligence in exchange for payments or free and discounted oil. Russia would have no problem with a nuclear crisis in the Middle East if it distracted international attention from its war in Ukraine.

An Iranian bomb could trigger a nuclear race in the Middle East and hasten the U.S. withdrawal from the troublesome region, a strategic advantage for China. Standing up to Iran and blocking CRINK’s influence is hard, but the alternative could spell disaster for the Middle East and beyond.

Farhad Rezaei is a senior fellow at the Philos Project.

Image: Saeediex /