Iranian and North Korean nuclear cooperation is “a real risk,” CIA director Mike Pompeo said in a rare public appearance on Tuesday, The Jerusalem Post reports. Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute conference in Washington, he qualified his concerns about that cooperation and where it could lead.
“We think we have a pretty good understanding of what is taking place there today,” Pompeo said.
But boomeranging back to his original message, he then said that he was also “the first person to admit intelligence organizations can miss information… we are dealing with tight spaces… sometimes it is hard to detect when information has been moved.”
“If someone asked: ‘Can you guarantee this?’ Absolutely not. But we are working hard to make sure that does not happen,” said Pompeo about whether the CIA could guarantee that it can block and track any clandestine cooperation.
The CIA director also said that part of the reason the Trump administration is so focused on the denuclearization of North Korea is because “North Korea is a proliferation risk… if they have nuclear weapons, or if Iran makes advances in their” nuclear abilities, “then many other countries” are “going to say, ‘Me too!’” While declining to name those countries, his implication was Middle Eastern countries who could be threatened by Iran.
Iran also came up when Pompeo discussed the need for the U.S. to cultivate Sunni partners, specifically mentioning Sunnis in eastern Syria.
“We have made decent progress… forming coalitions not only against ISIS but against Iran as well,” he said.
Hezbollah also got mentioned by Pompeo when he was listing threats that are getting less public and media attention. He mentioned threats in South and Central America, but then went on to list off, “threats from groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaida, threats like Wikileaks… present real threats to the United States of America.”
Pompeo’s comments came in response to a question about whether Tehran could use its existing cooperation agreements with North Korea to clandestinely advance its own nuclear weapons program without being discovered by the United States or the international enforcers of the 2016 six-party Iran nuclear deal. One option: sending its scientists to Pyongyang to obtain advanced training or even warhead designs.
“It’s a real risk. We think we have a pretty good understanding of what’s taking place there today. Having said that, I am the first person to admit that intelligence organizations can miss important information,” Pompeo said during an appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noting that it was his one-year anniversary on the job.
Pompeo said the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were working overtime to prevent that. They are also scrambling to provide President Donald Trump with options to contain North Korea’s broader nuclear ambitions, he said, and in a way that doesn’t escalate the already intensifying confrontation into open warfare. One of his biggest concerns, Pompeo said, is that once North Korea achieves the ability to mass-produce nuclear weapons – estimated at some time in the near future – it could spur other countries that have resisted such efforts to want the same capability.
Vann Van Diepen, who spent 25 years as a top U.S. counterproliferation official, said the illicit transfer of nuclear weapons technology has been a grave global security threat for decades, especially since the Pakistani metallurgist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan was caught selling Pakistan’s uranium enrichment capability to North Korea, Iran and Libya in 2003. Van Diepen said Pompeo’s remarks were significant for several reasons.
“The CIA director seemed to be suggesting that a nuclear arms race could be triggered by the actual sale or transfer of weapons technology, or simply by other countries suddenly feeling threatened as never before by Pyongyang’s recent nuclear provocations, or future ones from Iran,” he said.
The most obvious countries to want nuclear weapons under such circumstances, Van Diepen and others said, would be Japan, South Korea and other neighbors of North Korea, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries threatened by Iran.