(CNSNews.com) – A State Department spokesman on Thursday was unable to confirm or deny new allegations of nuclear collaboration between Iran and North Korea, but played down the likelihood of them affecting talks aimed at reaching a nuclear agreement with Tehran by June 30.
Jeff Rathke also declined to say whether U.S. negotiators would raise the concerns during the talks with the Iranians.
Rathke said the U.S. had not so far been able to verify the claims – which he described as “serious” – but neither could he say that they were “unfounded.”
“We don’t have any information at this time that would lead us to believe that these allegations impact our ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.
“If you’re not able to substantiate whether they’re true or not, how do you know if they’ll impact the negotiations?” a reporter asked. “I mean, if they’re true, feasibly that would impact your negotiations.”
“Well, based on the information that we have at this time,” Rathke replied.
The claims come from the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a controversial exiled Iranian opposition group which said Thursday that North Korean nuclear warhead experts had secretly visited Iran as recently as late last month – a third visit this year alone -- while Iranian officials involved in nuclear and missile-related activities visit North Korea regularly.
The group attributed the information to various regime sources, including some from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Defense Ministry, and the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (known by its Farsi acronym SPND), which NCRI claims “is in charge of working on the weaponization aspect of the nuclear program.” (SPND is subject to U.S. nonproliferation-related sanctions.)
A reporter at Thursday’s State Department briefing asked why the allegations would not be raised in the nuclear negotiations, but Rathke said he was “not going to speak to what’s going to come up in the room.”
The administration has long said that the talks between Iran and the P5+1 group – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – were focused solely on its nuclear program and that U.S. officials would therefore not raise other concerns, such as Iran’s support for terrorism or its incarceration of U.S. citizens (except in the latter case in bilateral exchanges on the sidelines of the nuclear talks.)
A reporter asked Rathke if it was the case that the U.S. could reach an agreement with Iran without the Iranians addressing the claims of nuclear cooperation with North Korea.
“We are focused on shutting down the pathways to a nuclear weapon. I’m not going to get into the details or to preview how exactly we address these in the negotiating room.’
“How could you not raise it?” Rathke was then asked. “I mean, if you’re trying to figure out if they’re doing it, how do you not ask them?”
“Well, again, we have a variety of ways of trying to verify allegations, especially serious ones. So I don’t have more to say on this than that.”
The group making the allegations, the NCRI, supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a bloody eight year-long war against Iran in the 1980s. Together with its military wing Mujaheddin-e Khalq, it was designated a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law until 2012.
Despite controversies surrounding the Paris-based organization, it has provided the West in the past with valuable intelligence on the regime in Tehran.
A senior member of the group in 2002 helped to uncover nearly two decades of covert Iranian nuclear activity, revelations that resulted in the lengthy standoff between Iran and the international community which the current P5+1 talks are trying to resolve.
While Iran denies working to develop the ability to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear energy program, North Korea has a declared nuclear weapons capability.
U.S. and U.N. officials and security experts have long suspected that the two rogue states have collaborated in the ballistic missile field, a violation of Security Council resolutions relating to both.