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Pakistan: Experts Suspect Nuclear Trail From Islamabad To Iran, Libya, North Korea

  • Ron Synovitz

Pakistan's government denies that it authorized transfers of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. But under international pressure, it is promising to question individuals from its nuclear weapons program. RFE/RL speaks with international experts about why there are growing suspicions that someone in Pakistan did provide those countries with nuclear technology.

Prague, 20 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has confirmed that up to six individuals from its nuclear weapons program have been detained in recent days as part of an investigation into whether they illegally transferred nuclear technology to Iran or other countries.

Faced with growing international pressure about evidence the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has obtained in Iran, the Foreign Ministry admits that individuals in Pakistan's nuclear program may have profited from an international black market for nuclear technology. But the Foreign Ministry continues to insist that the government in Islamabad never authorized nuclear transactions with any other country.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told reporters yesterday that the questioning of scientists and administrators from Pakistan's top nuclear weapons lab -- Khan Research Laboratories -- is nearly finished. "We haven't made our final determinations yet. The inquiry is continuing. The investigations are continuing. And we haven't made any definite conclusions. There is no presumption of guilt. It is probable that some of these people would be cleared. But investigations, we have to conduct," Khan said.

Last November, IAEA officials confirmed they are investigating whether Tehran acquired the designs for its uranium enrichment centrifuges from someone within Pakistan's nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government yesterday said there are indications that North Korea and Libya may also have acquired centrifuges that were developed in Europe and which both Pakistan and Iran are known to possess.

One of the scientists being questioned in Islamabad -- Abdul Qadeer Khan -- is the man credited as the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, the first nuclear bomb in the Islamic world.

Gary Samore is an expert on centrifuge technology at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He says suspicion has fallen on Abdul Qadeer Khan because he worked in the Netherlands during the 1970s for a unit of a British-Dutch-German consortium called Urenco that was developing centrifuges.

Importantly, Samore says, the types of centrifuges now turning up in Pakistan, Iran, Libya, and North Korea are all thought to be based on Urenco's designs from the time that Khan worked there. "I think it's well established that when Mr. Khan worked in the Netherlands for a company that was involved in a European consortium developing centrifuges to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power fuel, Mr. Khan obtained blueprints and technical information for three or four different types of centrifuge machines. And these machines were later reverse engineered and duplicated in Pakistan in order to support Pakistan's nuclear weapons program -- apparently, the same kind of machines have now turned up in Libya, Iran, and North Korea. And that has supported the conclusion that Pakistan, or individuals in Pakistan, were the source of that technical information -- of those designs," Samore said.

Samore explains that a centrifuge is a type of technology for enriching uranium so that it can be used for either nuclear energy or nuclear weaponry. A centrifuge transforms the nuclear material through a spinning process that separates unwanted material from the desirable uranium-235 isotope. "The technical challenge is that an individual [centrifuge] machine is only capable of a small amount of separation. And in order to produce a significant quantity -- enough for a couple of nuclear weapons -- you need to have a few thousand machines. It is an engineering challenge to get those few thousand machines operating together for a lengthy period of time," Samore says.

Samore also says similarities between North Korea's Nodong ballistic missile and a Pakistani missile called the Gauhri suggest that some elements of the government in Islamabad may have been aware of nuclear technology transfers. "It appears that the transfer of centrifuge information to North Korea was part of a barter arrangement. In exchange for providing centrifuge information, and perhaps components, the North Koreans provided Pakistan with surface-to-surface missiles -- a missile called the Nodong. The Pakistanis have produced their own version called the Gauhri. And the speculation is that because this appeared to be part of an official transfer that involved missiles, it is therefore more likely that the government, or elements of the government, would have been aware of the transfer of centrifuge technology to North Korea."

Duncan Lennox is a specialist on ballistic missiles and a 32-year veteran of Britain's Royal Air Force. He is also the editor of "Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems." Lennox tells RFE/RL there is little doubt that North Korea provided technology to both Pakistan and Iran that allowed them to build ballistic missiles with a range of 1,300 to 1,800 kilometers.

"Both the Iranian Shahab-3 [missile] and Pakistan's Gauhri are almost identical to the North Korean Nodong," Lennox says. "And it is quite clear that an agreement was reached in the early 1990s between those three countries for sharing of technology for the Nodong ballistic missile system. There are allegations that, as a quid pro quo, Pakistan offered nuclear technology. But those [allegations] have been denied by Pakistan's government."

Lennox insists missile technology transfers from North Korea to Pakistan are a well-substantiated fact backed up by documentation, as well as by the virtually identical designs of the missile systems. "They reached a deal in about 1992 to transfer the ballistic missile technologies. It isn't a big step to say, well, did they at the same time agree to transfer other technologies, like nuclear warheads? And I think that's why people are putting two and two together. Whether they are making four or five, I don't know. It remains to be seen," he says.

Lennox explains that suspicions Pakistan did trade centrifuge technology for North Korean missile technology stem from the inability of Pakistan to buy the ballistic missile technology outright. "The trail leads to Pakistan because people wonder how Pakistan could have afforded to purchase the Nodong technologies from North Korea, and the coincidence that the Khan Research Laboratory, which developed the Gauhri, is the same laboratory that developed [Pakistan's] nuclear warheads," Lennox said.

Another twist, Lennox says, is that Libya also is now reported to be involved with a Nodong-type ballistic missile program. He concludes that, with Libya now offering greater transparency on its weapons programs, further proof may be discovered by U.S. or international investigators.
Pakistan-based journalist and author Ahmed Rashid also has been following the issue closely. He tells RFE/RL the progress Islamabad has made recently in its relations with India is probably linked to increased pressure on nuclear issues from countries like the United States, Britain, and France.

"People are linking the speed with which Pakistan agreed to its deal with India, and the fact that talks are going to start, as part of the pressure that Pakistan is facing on many fronts -- especially the nuclear front. Pakistan, I think, wants to show the international community that it is moving forward, at least on one problem area -- that is, India -- even if it is being a bit slow on moving ahead on others, such as the accusations that it supplied nuclear materials to Iran, Libya, and North Korea," Rashid said.

Regardless of whether Pakistan's government knew about any nuclear technology transfers in the past, Samore says it is clear that Washington and London will be closely watching whether Islamabad takes steps to ensure there are no such transfers in the future.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has reasserted that his country is a nuclear state and that it will not relinquish any of its weapons. Speaking yesterday in an interview with the state news agency, Musharraf vowed that Pakistan will continue to develop and refine its nuclear capabilities.
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