Uranium Revolution?: Abdul Qadeer Khan and Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

When the IAEA recently announced that Iran was possibly in breach of the Nuclear Weapons Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and had likely been developing an enrichment plant in the city of Natanz, the worst predictions of some appeared to have come true. The question on many people’s lips is where exactly they procured the expertise to build such a plant, given that the Russians agreed not to aid this development. Given that the US suspects the anti-western Pakistani scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan of possible collusion with Al Quaeda, is it that much of a stretch to posit that he could also be a prime candidate for the source of know-how for the new uranium enrichment plant in Iran?

A review of Dr Khan’s past involvement in the international proliferation of nuclear weapons makes for long, long… long reading. Dr Khan is most famous for being the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, an achievement which has won him fame and adoration in his home country. His renown has even led to the formation of a Khan’s XI cricket team, quite an honour in cricket-mad Pakistan. But his rise to the top has been gradual. Dr Khan earned his PhD in Europe before going on to work at the joint British / German / Dutch uranium enrichment facility, formed by these countries due to their desire for independence from the US in their own nuclear programs. From there he returned to Pakistan in the late 70s to lead their scientists in developing a domestic nuclear program. Dr Khan was subsequently bought up on charges in Holland for allegedly attempting to steal sensitive information regarding the Dutch nuclear program. The charges were dropped on a legal technicality though he has constantly denied any wrongdoing.

Dr Khan’s personal history and rhetoric may make some in western administrations quite nervous. He is well known for his patriotism, which some might argue borders on nationalistic. This may have been borne of his experience of the division of Pakistan and India as a child when he was mistreated by Indian officials, an incident he often refers to in interviews. His regret at the position of Pakistan during the succession of East Pakistan also seems to crop up occasionally. His constant rhetorical aggressiveness reveals a character somewhat resentful of what he perceives as western arrogance and interference in the affairs of Pakistan and the wider Islamic world. It also reveals a certain belief in Islamic solidarity. “They dislike our god, they dislike our prophet, they dislike our leaders and no wonder they dislike anybody who tries to put this country on an independent and self-reliant path.” In a 2001 interview he dismissed attacks on his decision to pursue a nuclear bomb for Pakistan by saying, “They dislike me and accuse me of all kinds of unsubstantiated and fabricated lies because I disturbed all of their strategic plans, the balance of power and blackmailing potential in this part of the world.” It would perhaps not be too much of a jump to surmise Dr Khan’s sympathy for the plight of Iran given the USA’s latest adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, which serve to surround the Islamic Republic.

As it turns out, Dr Khan has a long history of cooperation with the Iranians. In 1986 he travelled to Tehran where he was largely responsible for promoting the signing of a treaty of Nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and Iran. However, Iran’s nuclear program was all but destroyed by attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, which ended only in 1988. The coming of the Taliban in Afghanistan also meant that Iran and Pakistan relations subsequently soured due to competition for influence in that country. As such, the nuclear cooperation between these powers also fell away.

More recently the US administration has accused Dr Khan of selling his expertise to the North Koreans who are busy trying to restart their own nuclear program. It is believed that Dr Khan visited North Korea as many as thirteen times in recent years. Moreover the US claims to have intelligence of an unannounced Pakistani military delegation to North Korea, perhaps attached to the exchange of missile and nuclear technology between the two countries. The theory goes that the expertise of Dr Khan in matters nuclear was traded for the missile expertise of the North Koreans. In fact, the Ghauri I missile of Pakistan is a modified version of the North Korean Nodong missile of which Dr Khan was able to secure between ten and twelve samples in 1992 (Dr Khan also led Pakistan’s medium range missile program). Involvement in the North Korean program led the US to slap sanctions on the Khan Research Laboratories in May. This has followed massive US pressure in past years on General Musharaf to remove Dr Khan from his official capacity at the head of the Pakistani nuclear program, a demand conceded by the General two years ago. This move simply served to make Khan an independent player, no longer under strict government direction. In fact, the recent complaints of the US show that some of the North Korean program was aided by Khan in a freelance capacity.

It has sometimes been claimed in Dr Khan’s defence that his expertise lay in the area of uranium enrichment rather than the reprocessing that the North Koreans have restarted. Although this is a very weak defence it brings us to the current case of Iran. In 1995, led by Boris Yeltsin, the Russians signed the Bushehr Protocol with Iran, thus agreeing to aid in the building of the Iranian civilian nuclear program. Later in the same year the US secured an agreement with Yeltsin to abandon the element of the deal with Iran, which was to see the Russians build a centrifugal enrichment plant, originally guaranteed in the Bushehr Protocol. It was wisely thought that the construction of an enrichment facility would rapidly advance the military nuclear ambitions of Iran. It is now becoming apparent that Iran has sidestepped this problem.

While there still remains a certain competition for influence in Afghanistan between Pakistan and Iran today, most would concede that relations have warmed, since the recent intervention of the US in Afghanistan. Indeed Iran’s foreign Minister, Kamal Kharazai announced in 2001 that “Differences [between Iran and Pakistan] are now over.” Whilst perhaps a little exaggerated, the claim is indicative of growing ties between the two, ties perhaps allowing a certain renewed freedom to Dr Khan’s earlier ambitions of Iran-Pakistani nuclear cooperation. While nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and Iran is highly unlikely to be given any official endorsement, it remains a possibility that Pakistan has loosened the US-imposed leash on (a now freelance) Dr Khan.

With the announcement by the IAEA of their suspicions that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapons program through the development of a uranium enrichment facility, the spotlight must fall again on Dr Khan as a likely candidate for the provision of the necessary expertise. Here we have a brilliant scientist with expertise in uranium enrichment, a shadowy history, which includes offering aid to anti-Western regimes and a history of cooperation with the Iranians. The strong possibility that Dr Khan has renewed his ties with the Iranians and aided the nuclear ambitions of yet another anti-western government should perhaps now be taken seriously.

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