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US tied over nuclear kingpin
By Kaushik Kapisthalam

The United States is selling the theory that the Pakistan-based nuclear proliferation ring has been broken up and its mastermind, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, has been "brought to justice". He is under house arrest in Pakistan. Unfortunately, as much as the Bush administration would like to wish away the Khan issue, it continues to dog two of the biggest foreign-policy crises for the US.

The first one is Iran. With the re-election of President George W Bush, the neo-conservatives within the administration want to ensure that the Bush second term looks at every option, including a military one, to prevent Tehran from developing and deploying nuclear weapons.

But then again, the neo-conservatives do not want to talk directly to the hardline Iranian regime, and have let Britain, France and Germany do the negotiations with Iran, in conjunction with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) doing the verification. But so far, the Iranians have been playing a clever game of hide-and-seek by agreeing to stop uranium enrichment one day, and denying it the next. And IAEA inspectors, mindful of the Iraq weapons of mass destruction assessments, have been cautious about giving conclusive findings on Iran's nuclear weapons program. In this ambiguity, Iran could stall and dodge its way into presenting the world a set of nukes as a fait accompli.

One man holds the key to this puzzle - Khan. It now appears that Khan not only sold advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges to Iran; he likely sold it an actual nuclear weapon design along with nuclear fuel material, according to a report issued by the US Central Intelligence Agency on November 23.

A direct testimony from Khan, with corroborating evidence obtained by IAEA inspectors, could provide the US and the Europeans with clinching evidence of Iran's violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty pledge and lead to a showdown with the United Nations Security Council. Faced with global condemnation, the Iranian clerics in this scenario may choose to back down and agree to intrusive inspections.

But this could only happen only if Pakistan allows IAEA inspectors to interrogate Khan. Official IAEA reports on Iran reveal that agency's frustration at not being able to nail Iran because of Pakistan's obstructive tactics. Interestingly, other IAEA reports reveal that even the supposedly concluded investigation into Libya's nuclear program hit a roadblock thanks to Pakistan's non-cooperation.

On the other side of Asia, the United States' blow-hot, blow-cold crisis with North Korea appears as calm as a dormant volcano, but is liable to erupt at any time without warning. Prior to the US presidential elections in November, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had been stalling for time, hoping perhaps for a John Kerry victory, which could have resulted in direct negotiations with the US. But with a Bush victory, the Korean peninsula is once again headed toward a possible showdown. Here too, the ambiguity about the North's nuclear program has been a big hindrance for the US.

The bone of contention with North Korea is its clandestine uranium-enrichment program, whose existence it denies. The North contends, not too credibly, that it kept to its end of the 1993 framework agreement and therefore deserves direct talks with the US. In addition, the release of news of an earlier secret South Korean nuclear-weapons program (since abandoned), gives the North a much-needed lever. The North's main patron, China, has long demanded to see proof of the uranium program, even though it should know about it for sure. No prizes for guessing who holds the key to the secret door hiding Kim's uranium program - it's A Q Khan again.

It has emerged that Khan was the main figure behind what is now believed to be Pakistan's nukes for missiles barter deal with North Korea in the late 1990s. Khan's eponymous lab in Kahuta, Pakistan, has been producing the Ghauri medium-range ballistic missile, which is in fact a repainted North Korean No-Dong missile. Part of the payment for this illegal missile transfer is believed to be a complete uranium-enrichment kit from Khan's nuclear bazaar. In addition, the only nuclear device that Khan was entrusted to explode during Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests is now believed to be a North Korean plutonium bomb, which Pakistan tested as a returned favor for North Korean missile transfers. Interestingly, former Pakistan army chief General Jehangir Karamat, whom many experts claim oversaw this deal with North Korea, is now the Pakistani ambassador in Washington.

The European Union has enough belief in this claim to officially ask Pakistan about the test. Of course, for the US to accept this would lead it to face the fact that at least the North Korean side of Khan's business portfolio had state sanction in Pakistan - a situation it desperately wants to avoid.

This brings us to how US policymakers justified their decision to accept at face value Pakistan's "blame it all on Khan" show put on by Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and the accompanying televised confession by Khan. The official US stance was best explained by Robert Oakley, a former ambassador to Pakistan, who told the Associated Press soon after the Khan confession, "The most important thing is to get as much information possible as to where the links [to accomplices] were ... we have to make sure it doesn't happen again."

But George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, while supporting the free pass to Pakistan, warned "there's always the possibility that you are being played by Pakistan: that they will give you just enough information to keep the money flowing, but not enough to root out the real problem".

Ten months since the confession, Perkovich's caveat seems to be proving correct, as evidenced by the Iran, Libya and North Korea investigations. Even efforts to nab other individuals involved in Khan's dealings have been stymied. With Pakistan holding Khan incommunicado, Malaysia, too, seems emboldened to hold the next person in the Khan network, Buhary Seyed Abu Tahir, under wraps, fearful perhaps of Tahir's ties to influential Malaysian politicians coming to light should outside investigators get to interrogate him. Malaysian leaders clearly operate on the reasoning that the US can hardly press Malaysia to make a number two man available when they are mute spectators to Pakistan's denial of access to the kingpin - Khan.

And then there is the possibility that the Khan enterprise may not be the only underground nuclear network around. Even as the Khan expose was unraveling in early 2004, American investigators arrested a South African man named Asher Karni for illegally trying to acquire and sell devices known as spark-gaps, which are used in hospitals but which can also be used in nuclear warheads as part of the triggering assembly. Karni was busted in a sting operation when he procured and shipped 200 spark-gaps, which were disabled before Karni acquired them. And the buyer was a state-owned "lithography" firm in Pakistan, which is now known to have been a front for that country's Inter-Services Intelligence. It can be concluded that Karni was supplying components for Pakistan's nuclear bombs.

Further interrogation of Karni has revealed a network spanning many continents, from South Africa to America to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to Pakistan. The Bush administration, however, has been reluctant to divulge the details of the Karni investigations for reasons that are evident. Karni was part of a loose network that supplied dangerous material to Pakistani state-owned facilities. Khan led a network that brought in material for the Pakistani government-owned facilities and then turned around and sold excess material elsewhere. The only common link between the Khan network and the Karni ring is the Pakistani government. So if one were to focus on a particular person or entity with the aim to ending nuclear proliferation, what would that be - Khan or the Pakistan government? Gary Samore, former non-proliferation expert with the US National Security Council, recently said that the Khan network was not an individual matter but a manifestation of "proliferation as a matter of state policy" by Pakistan.

One may wonder why Pakistan would risk global opprobrium and keep the nuclear networks alive. An obvious reason is that Pakistan needs the black market for the viability of its nuclear-weapons program. Pakistani journalist Shahid ur-Rehman, who wrote an insider chronicle of Pakistan's nuclear-bomb program, recently revealed that Pakistan is still very dependent on underground networks for nuclear weapons components.

The second reason could be that Musharraf feels he is bulletproof when it comes to this issue because the US is paralyzed by the general's oft-repeated claim that if he goes, all (nuclear) hell could break out. In other words, the American brainstrust has decided that pushing Musharraf on nuclear proliferation is a bridge too far and will not even consider it. This gives Musharraf enough confidence to do nothing more than to display some activity, without any underlying action regarding the "investigation" of Khan's dealings.

This is not to say that the US should take knee-jerk action, like taking military control of Pakistan's nuclear assets, or do anything harsh to punish Pakistan. But the Americans can and should ask Musharraf to justify the lavish rewards his nation has been receiving from the US (aid, arms) and not be afraid to bring Musharraf's bad-faith efforts out in the open. One must recall that even though the US had been privately pressing Musharraf since 2001, he allowed Khan to operate until 2004.

As former US Senate non-proliferation expert Leonard Weiss put it to this correspondent, "Pakistan's lack of cooperation on the investigations of the Iranian and Libyan nuclear programs is more likely the result of not wanting more details of their illicit nuclear trade to emerge." In the recent past, other prominent non-proliferation experts, such as David Albright, Joseph Cirincione, David Kay, Kenneth Pollack and many others, have publicly called for the US to press Musharraf to give access to Khan.

For the US to keep hoping that Pakistan will voluntarily reveal key nuclear network secrets, many of which likely implicate key Pakistani figures and state institutions, is illogical and dangerous.

Meanwhile, the nuclear underworld is likely morphing rapidly and moving out of the reach of international investigators. And Iran and North Korea are happily thumbing their noses at America, thanks to America's impuissance with Pakistan.

Kaushik Kapisthalam is a freelance journalist based in the United States.

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Dec 10, 2004
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