(CNSNews.com) - Drawing a link between the two surviving members of what President Bush has called "the axis of evil," the U.S. said Thursday that Iran may have sent observers to witness North Korea's ballistic missile tests early this month.
The allegation came as the U.N. Security Council once again ran into Russian and Chinese attempts to slow down efforts to take a unified stand against Iran's nuclear programs (see related story).
U.S. Undersecretary of State Chris Hill, in response to a senator's question, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee it was his understanding Iranians had witnessed the July 4-5 missile launches.
He agreed that the relationship between the two rogue states was worrying.
"Our understanding is that North Korea has had a number of commercial relations in the Middle East with respect to missiles," he told the hearing.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack later declined to elaborate beyond saying that when it came to weapons, the North Koreans were ready to sell "anything that isn't bolted down."
"I think we've seen that. The bazaar is open."
McCormack said he did not know whether the North Koreans were "trying to show [the Iranians] how good their wares are."
North Korea is believed to possess nuclear weapons, while Iran is strongly suspected of trying to manufacture them. Both have programs to develop missiles -- including missiles that could carry non-conventional warheads.
CIA reports to Congress in recent years have discussed North Korea's transfer of complete missile systems, components and expertise to countries in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.
This had "enabled other states to acquire longer-range capabilities earlier than would otherwise have been possible and to acquire the basis for domestic development efforts," said one 2003 report.
In turn, the exports provided North Korea with a major source of hard currency, which in turn helped to finance its own ongoing missile development and production.
The report said North Korean cooperation had helped Iran move towards self-sufficiency in ballistic missile production, while Russia and China had also helped the effort.
Military experts say Iran's Shahab-3 ballistic missile, whose range of at least 620 miles threatens Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Gulf, is derived from the North Koreans' Nodong design.
When North Korea tested its Nodong in May 1993, Iranian experts attended, according to media reports at the time. Iran subsequently developed the Shahab-3, which was successfully tested in 1998, reportedly with North Koreans observing. Iran's then president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, insisted the missile was "entirely" Iranian.
Since then, North Korea has developed and tested longer-range missiles -- the 1,200-mile range Taepodong-1 in 1998 and, this month, the Taepodong-2, which is designed to fly up to 3,700 miles and reach Alaska, but in the test failed after less than a minute.
Iran, meanwhile, has also been working on longer-range Shahab-4 and Shahab-5 missiles, which experts believe would bring some European capitals within range.
Over recent months and weeks, international concerns about the military activities and intentions of North Korea and Iran heightened as the former tested short-, medium- and long-range missiles, and both refused to yield to international pressure to stop sensitive nuclear programs.
In both cases, Russia and China have countered efforts by the U.S. and its allies to act quickly.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush said North Korea, Iran and Iraq, along with their terrorist allies, formed an "axis of evil" that threatened world peace.
U.S.-led forces toppled Iraq's Saddam Hussein regime the following year.
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