Iran, Russia, and North Korea: The 21st Century Axis Powers Take Shape

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Increased military cooperation between Iran and Russia in recent days signals a noteworthy strengthening of ties between two states with policies largely at odds with American interests. While both countries have had friendly relations in the past, recent events have made the partnership more concrete.

On January 20, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and his Russian equivalent, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, signed a military agreement that calls for joint exercises and military training. It also provides for cooperation with regional and global peace, stability, and security as well as fighting extremism. The Iranian Defense Minister described the agreement as a response to U.S. policy in the Middle East and throughout the world. He explained how Iran and Russia need to combat foreign presence in the region and that America’s “interference in regional and international affairs” requires a joint effort.

There have been reports that Moscow may send the S-300 air defense missile system to Tehran and possibly even the more advanced S-400 missiles. If such an exchange were to occur, it would resolve a dispute going back to 2010 when Russia tried to give the Iranians the S-300 system. Russia had a contract with Tehran but backed out, citing U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic as their reason. The price tag for the order was $800 million, and Iran wanted $4 billion as compensation. But it appears that this issue has been resolved.

While this agreement has brought Russia and Iran closer together, Russia seems to be simultaneously forming a relationship with another American adversary: North Korea. Pyongyang has long been opposed to American policy and a rogue state in the international system. The North’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, has not made a single foreign visit since assuming power in 2011. This might change, however, as Russia recently extended an invitation to Kim to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Pyongyang responded positively to the invitation. While it is not certain whether Kim will attend, Russia’s overture and his apparent willingness to go indicate a potentially growing partnership.

In addition to Russia, North Korea has a positive relationship with Iran, especially with nuclear cooperation. It is common knowledge that Pyongyang has actively helped Tehran by exporting ballistic missiles and related technologies to them, and some believe that part of Iran’s nuclear program has been outsourced to North Korea. Beyond technology, top North Korean official Kim Yong Nam, current president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, has frequently visited Tehran and has met with both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran and North Korea have a strong link that is steadily getting closer.

Iran, Russia, and North Korea appear to be creating varying degrees of alliances amongst themselves, and these partnerships are only showing signs of growing. Each state has common enemies in the U.S. and its allies and are actively defying both American and international rules of law. As a result, they have all been sanctioned recently for both moral and legal reasons but mainly because each state poses a threat to global security. To make the stakes greater, Moscow and Pyongyang have nuclear weapons while Tehran is actively pursuing them. Because these three countries’ actions and goals are in direct contrast to those of America and its allies, many around the world should be concerned about an emerging axis. This three-way network is looking similar to the 1930s with Germany, Japan, and Italy. The international community may need to address this issue to prevent the events of 1939 from reoccurring in the 21st century.

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