World’s Worst Nuclear Proliferation Scandal

A quiet burial of a scandal that will haunt Washington


With global attention focused on the U.S.-led face-off with Tehran over the nuclear issue, Pakistan has ingeniously seized the opportunity to give a quiet burial to the worst proliferation scandal in world history, involving the Pakistani transfer of nuclear knowhow and equipment to three states — Iran, Libya and North Korea.

On May 2, Pakistan announced the closure in the scandal-related case, as it freed from jail the last of the 11 nuclear scientists imprisoned more than two years ago for suspected roles in the covert transfers. The 12th figure, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the ring’s alleged mastermind, was granted immunity from prosecution and has been made to stay at home under tight security since his February 2004 televised confession on illicit nuclear dealings.


Contrast the international crisis being contrived over Iran — a country that would take at least 10 years to acquire nuclear-weapons capability after freeing itself from International Atomic Energy Agency inspections — with the lack of any response to Pakistan’s defiant statement that "as far we are concerned this chapter is closed."

And notice the dramatic irony that at the very time Tehran is under pressure to come clean on its imports of Pakistani nuclear designs and items, the exporting country has announced closure of the probe. A full international investigation could yield answers to several key unresolved Iran-related issues cited by the IAEA in its report released April 28.

It was the Pakistani proliferation ring that gave the Iranian nuclear program its start.

No one to date has been charged, let alone put on trial, in Pakistan for involvement in a clandestine proliferation ring whose international-security ramifications thus far exceed Iran’s enrichment of a minute amount of uranium. None of the actors in the scandal has been allowed by Pakistan to be questioned by the IAEA or any other outside investigators, although Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged transfers of bomb know-how, including complete uranium-enrichment centrifuges, to Iran, North Korea and Libya from 1987 to 2003.

In fact, the principal actors are not A.Q. Khan and his fellow scientists but the Pakistan military and intelligence. To ensure that the role of the principal actors is not exposed, the entire blame was pinned on a group of 12 "greedy" scientists led by Khan, and then these very men have been religiously kept away from international investigators.

What’s more, the military — which has always controlled the nuclear program — claimed that it wasn’t aware that nuclear secrets were being sold until Libya and Iran began spilling the beans. As part of Pakistan’s nukes-for-missiles swap with North Korea, a Pakistani C-130 military transport aircraft, for example, was photographed loading missile parts in Pyongyang in 2002. Yet Musharraf claimed he was in the dark.

No country has concocted a more ridiculous tale than Pakistan as an excuse for roguish conduct. The uncovering of the proliferation ring should have persuaded Islamabad’s Western allies to distance themselves from the military and invest in the only real guarantee for Pakistan’s future as a stable, moderate state — its civil society. Instead, the Bush administration went along with Islamabad’s charade because it sees the Pakistan military as central to U.S. strategic interests in that country. It even lent a helping hand to the Musharraf regime to dress up the pretense as reality.

Such is America’s ability to shape international perceptions that the world has been made to believe that A.Q. Khan, on his own, set up and ran a nuclear Wal-Mart. And that Khan’s network of "private entrepreneurs" had only less than a dozen Pakistani scientists, including his right-hand man, Mohammad Farooq, who has just been freed from incarceration.

It was Libya, seeking to re-enter the international mainstream, that first disclosed the existence of the Pakistani proliferation ring, but the United States took the credit by stage-managing an event in October 2003. With the help of documents Tripoli had turned over to Washington, a German cargo ship was intercepted en route to Libya with centrifuge components routed through Dubai. The 21st-century fable of a Khan-run nuclear supermarket busted by the U.S. has now become part of American nuclear folklore.

Long before Khan turned from a national icon to a national scapegoat, he had been a favorite of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the period when Washington knew that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons. America turned a blind eye to the underground Pakistani bomb program for the same reason that China aided Islamabad’s nuclear and missile ambitions. Not only did the CIA twice shield Khan from arrest in Europe, it also had a likely hand in the disappearance of Khan’s legal files from the Amsterdam court that convicted him, according to recent Dutch revelations.

As disclosed by former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers last August, the CIA protected Khan from arrest and prosecution in Europe in 1975 and 1986. The Dutch government did not take Khan into custody at the request of the CIA, which pretended that it wanted "to follow him."

Khan was sentenced in absentia by Judge Anita Leeser in 1983 to four years in prison for stealing Dutch enrichment secrets on the basis of which Pakistan’s Kahuta plant had by then been set up. After the conviction was overturned on a technicality, U.S. intelligence may have influenced the Dutch decision not to bring new charges against Khan, whose case files, according to Judge Leeser, disappeared "on purpose."

Now, karmic justice has caught up with Khan. After having been assisted for years by the CIA, Khan has become the butt of U.S. vilification.

More broadly, the U.S. should have foreseen the consequences of its action in winking at Pakistan’s covert nuclear program. It is well documented how the Pakistan military helped build nuclear weapons with materials and equipment illegally procured from overseas through intermediaries in Dubai and front companies set up in Europe by its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. What could not be procured from the West was imported covertly from ally China.

With the ISI spearheading operations and Khan as the brain, the military ran the world’s most successful nuclear-smuggling ring. That success only bred proliferation in the reverse direction — out of Pakistan.

There is a long history to how Pakistani nuclear mendacity has been aided by America’s pursuit of politically expedient foreign-policy goals. Now, by whitewashing Islamabad’s official complicity in the sale of nuclear secrets, the U.S. can only spur more rogue proliferation in the future.

Despite a military quagmire in Iraq and instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Bush administration is itching to fashion a continuous arc of volatility between Israel and India by taking on Iran. The White House openly seeks to foment regime change in Tehran while it simultaneously pursues coercive diplomacy, backed by the tacit threat of military strikes, on the nuclear issue.

Compare the Bush team’s leniency toward Pakistan with its belligerence against Iran. America and its allies want a U.N. Security Council resolution that would strip Iran of its legal rights under the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by ordering it to cease all IAEA-safeguarded enrichment and reprocessing activities, including research and development and the construction of a heavy-water reactor. Yet, Washington and its three Tehran-bashing friends — Britain, France and Germany — have said nothing on the Musharraf regime’s use of the downward spiral on Iran to release the last remaining Pakistani scientist from preventive custody and cheekily announce that the proliferation case is over, with no further investigation planned or required.

America’s indulgence toward Pakistan defies logic. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that were not there but has allowed Pakistan, with real WMD and al-Qaida sanctuaries, to escape international censure for its egregious nuclear transfers to three states.

The IAEA demands additional documentation or data from Iran regarding its P-1 and P-2 centrifuges. Consecutive IAEA reports have harped on the Iranian refusal to hand over a 1987 document from the Pakistani ring offering to supply "drawings, specifications and calculations" for an enrichment facility, along with "materials for 2,000 centrifuge machines" and data on "uranium re-conversion and casting capabilities." The IAEA, to "understand the full scope of the offer made by the network in 1987," is also seeking a copy of a second 15-page document.

A good way to get around Tehran’s reluctance to share full information is for Washington and its friends to facilitate IAEA investigations into the Pakistani ring. Several key outstanding issues on Iran could be readily settled if the IAEA were permitted to do the obvious — probe the front part of the supply line in the country where it originated. Yet the U.S.-backed Musharraf regime on May 2 again rejected that idea, declaring, "There is no question of direct access."

Even the task of containing the risks of further Pakistani leakage in the future cannot be met without verifiably unplugging the various links in the elaborate Pakistani nuclear-supply chain. A charade that hushes up the role of the military — in the interest of Musharraf and the U.S. — is hardly the answer to those risks.


Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.
The Japan Times, May 13, 2006
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