Questions Remain After A.Q. Khan's Release

Thursday, 12 February 2009 12:27 By J Sri Raman, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Questions Remain After A.Q. Khan
A.Q. Khan outside of his home in Pakistan. (Photo: Anjum Naveed / AP)

    Many questions have been raised in the wake of the recent release from house detention of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, known in Pakistan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb and to the world as a nuclear smuggler. Some questions, however, remain to be asked. They do not figure in the flurry of political and media reactions to the Islamabad High Court's verdict ending his five-year-long effective incarceration.

    Most of the questions raised already relate to Pakistan. Most of those yet to be asked concern the largest nuclear-weapon power that has continued to make the loudest noise about non-proliferation.

    The most immediate question raised is about the individual fate of Khan. Will he now retire as a free man, playing with a puppy on his lawns as television channels showed the 72-year-old scientist after the verdict of possibly far-reaching importance? Will he walk into the sunset, "spreading education" (as he puts it) instead of nuclear arms, planning nothing more dangerous than a pilgrimage to Mecca, and nursing no network other than that of his personal companions and clan in Islamabad and Karachi?

    What was his "secret agreement" with the Pakistan regime, on which the court ruling was based? How will it affect the not-so-secret nuclear issue that made former President Pervez Musharraf curtail his freedom in 2004? The media says the agreement "obviously" forbade Khan from expressing himself or engaging with the issue in any way. Is it not evident, however, that a secret pact must contain more than obvious provisions?

    Will the Pakistan government go in appeal against the court decision, as it suggests now? Will it take this step, even if it will undo the internal political gain from the release of Khan, immensely popular with Pakistanis who consider nuclear weapons the nation's pride and crown jewels? Will Islamabad also revise its stand on letting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) interview him?

    Among the less-immediate questions, two should represent the largest concerns. In the first place, does Khan's release on the presumed terms of his renunciation of nuclear-related activities spell the end of the smuggling ring that he helped set up? Secondly, and even more important, does it spell the end of such networks in general and a significant advance towards non-proliferation?

    Khan's network hit the headlines after the much-hyped seizure of components and centrifuges for uranium enrichment bound for Libya, aboard a German-owned ship with the curious name of BBC China, in October 2003. Assistance from Libya, which soon abandoned its nuclear weapons program, helped unravel the network and its key players, including Khan. The impressive network was truly international - covering Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, South Africa, Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan, among other countries.

    The exposure did not exactly lead to expedient action. Non-proliferation experts Sammy Salama and Nilsu Goren at the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies reported in March 2006: "In the two years since the operations ... were ... revealed, law enforcement agencies around the globe have pursued investigations and prosecutions against more than thirty individuals involved in the illicit trafficking effort. Results have varied widely, with a seven-year prison term meted out by a German court being the most severe punishment imposed to date. Most alleged participants in the enterprise, however, have suffered limited penalties, if any, for their efforts to provide assistance to nuclear weapon programs in Pakistan, Iran, Libya, and North Korea."

    The experts also noted: "Interested governments have yet to take action against freight forwarders, financial institutions, and other facilitators of Khan's nuclear smuggling operations."

    On the morrow of Khan's release, Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at the RAND Corporation Research Center, said: "I don't think anyone feels confident the A.Q. Khan network was put to sleep. We can't trust the Pakistanis to be forthcoming on this issue because they haven't been." She added: "He's got 30 years-plus not as a rogue actor but as a state actor. So they are not going to let anyone talk to him."

    Those who profess to be the most implacable foes of proliferation have not been forthcoming on the subject, either. The role played by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US in the affair is a matter of record.

    Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, revealed in August 2005 that the Netherlands (where Khan started his nuclear career) was prepared to arrest him 30 years before. The authorities came close to arresting Khan twice, first in 1975 and later in 1986, but the CIA requested that they let him act freely.

    Lubbers said that, while he was prime minister in 1983, Dutch authorities could have reopened the case. Once again, they did not do so because of US pressure. "The man was followed for almost ten years and obviously he was a serious problem. But again I was told that the secret services could handle it more effectively," Lubbers said. "The Hague did not have the final say in the matter. Washington did."

    Lubbers's plausible theory was that Washington allowed Khan's activities because Pakistan was a key ally in the fight against the Soviets. At the time, the US government funded and armed mujahideen such as Osama bin Laden, trained to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. (George W. Bush and Musharraf gave Pakistan an important place in the "war on global terror" too.) By September 10, 2005, the story took a thriller-like turn. The Amsterdam court, which sentenced Khan in 1983, lost his legal files. The court's vice president, Judge Anita Leeser, suspected that the CIA had a hand in the documents' disappearance. "Something is not right; we just don't lose things like that," she told a television show. "I find it bewildering that people lose files with a political goal, especially if it is on request of the CIA. It is unheard of."

    The world, however, has heard much about the role played by the official anti-proliferation crusaders of the US-led West in helping Israel acquire an estimated 75 to 200 nuclear warheads and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering them.

    By 1956, the year of the Suez crisis, France agreed to help Israel build a nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant near Dimona, which used natural uranium moderated by heavy water. Plutonium production started in about 1964. "Top secret" British documents obtained by BBC showed that Britain made hundreds of secret shipments of restricted materials to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. These included uranium 235 in 1959, and plutonium in 1966, as well as highly enriched lithium 6 for production of hydrogen bombs.

    It was also revealed that Britain shipped 20 tons of heavy water directly to Israel in 1959 and 1960 to start up the Dimona reactor. The transaction was made through Norwegian front company Noratom. Official British admission of the operation was forthcoming only in March 2006.

    What did Washington say about it all? In 1969, US Defense Secretary Melvin Laird said that Israel might have a nuclear weapon that year. Later that year, President Richard Nixon, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, pressed Israel to "make no visible introduction of nuclear weapons or undertake a nuclear test program," so maintaining a policy of nuclear ambiguity.

    The CIA's finding was that Israel's first bombs may have been made with highly enriched uranium stolen in the mid-1960s from the US Navy nuclear fuel plant operated by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation. The corporation's inefficiency was blamed, without any connection being made to the US policy on Israel and the Middle East.

    Washington's foreign policy, if it remains frozen, can create many more such situations on the proliferation front. James M. Acton of the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment, in a recent paper on "The problem with nuclear mind reading," warns: "The next proliferator is likely to be a US ally. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - three of the states widely considered most likely to proliferate - are all friends of the United States. The same is true of many states that might seek nuclear weapons over the longer term, including Japan, South Korea, Argentina and Brazil (not to mention Taiwan)."

    The blatantly discriminatory basis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) made it a deadly weapon in the hands of nuclear militarists everywhere, making national icons of people like Khan in their developing countries. The further discrimination between the friends and foes of the US in the pursuit of non-proliferation can only defeat its deemed purpose.

    Khan may be "history," as Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi claims. But nuclear proliferation is not.

Last modified on Thursday, 12 February 2009 13:33