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Pakistan: Experts Unconvinced Islamabad Didn't Know About Nuclear Transfers

  • Ron Synovitz

The founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program has signed a confession in which he admits transferring nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Islamabad continues to insist that neither Pakistan's government nor its military authorized the transfers. But experts say Khan's confession has not allayed suspicions that Pakistani officials may knowingly have allowed nuclear technology to be traded abroad.

Prague, 2 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in Islamabad say the founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program has admitted he transferred nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s.

A government official, who spoke to reporters today on condition of anonymity, said Abdul Qadeer Khan made his confession in a written statement submitted to Pakistani investigators several days ago. The official said he could not provide further details about the nuclear transfers. But he insisted they were not authorized by Pakistan's government. The official also said an investigation by authorities in Islamabad has concluded that a lapse in security allowed the transfers to take place. No blame has yet been assigned, however.

Islamabad has been under growing pressure about nuclear transfers since experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency obtained evidence several months ago suggesting Iran had received nuclear technology from sources in Pakistan.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry insists the government in Islamabad never authorized nuclear transactions with any other country. Islamabad has stressed repeatedly since it launched an investigation last November that any transfers would have been the work of individual scientists trying to profit from an international black market.

Investigators today said questions have been put to two of Pakistan's former army chiefs -- Generals Mirza Aslam Beg and Jehangir Karamat -- in order to check information provided by Khan and other suspects. But again, investigators are stressing the two generals are not the focus of their probe and that both have denied authorizing nuclear transfers.

International experts remain unconvinced. Analysts are questioning how the powerful generals who oversaw Pakistan's nuclear program could have been unaware of nuclear transfers by closely watched scientists.

Duncan Lennox, a specialist on ballistic missiles and a 32-year veteran of Britain's Royal Air Force, is also the editor of "Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems." He told RFE/RL today that Abdul Qadeer Khan's confession strengthens his belief that state nuclear facilities in Pakistan named after him -- the Khan Research Laboratories -- may have traded nuclear technology to North Korea. "It would appear from the revelations in Pakistan that the nuclear technology of Pakistan was probably used as a barter for the ballistic-missile technology from North Korea and shared between those three other countries -- [North Korea, Iran, and Libya]," Lennox said.

Lennox explained that Pakistan developed its Gauhri missile system only after it had received similar missile technology from North Korea in the early 1990s. The Gauhri missile and North Korea's Nodong missile are virtually identical.

Lennox says it is unlikely that neither Pakistan's military nor its government would have been unaware of such a significant weapons deal -- particularly since the Khan Research Laboratories also developed Pakistan's first nuclear warhead. "[Khan's confession] indicates even more strongly that the ballistic missile technology transfers agreed in 1992-93 have more to them than was thought at the beginning," he said. "It is understandable that they are linked with nuclear technology transfers. It was the Khan Research Laboratories that managed the Nodong program with North Korea and Iran and Pakistan -- the ballistic missile program. And it was [Khan's] laboratory that led Pakistan's development program for the Gauhri missile -- which is the Nodong. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that, as the same laboratory also led [Pakistan's] nuclear program, that the two became linked."

Lennox believes Khan's confession puts an end to speculation about why Iran's nuclear centrifuge technology so closely resembles that of Pakistan. "It does confirm where Iran got its nuclear technology -- or some of it. And I think there's got to be care taken," he said. "Though some nuclear technology may have been transferred from Pakistan, these countries may also have gained nuclear technology from other sources. It's not completely exclusive."

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-e Azam University in Islamabad, is one of Pakistan's most outspoken opponents of nuclear proliferation. Hoodbhoy says it is unlikely that Khan will be convicted in a Pakistani court because of the political backlash from religious parties and a general public that has been led to believe that his development of the nuclear bomb has guaranteed Pakistan's security against nuclear neighbor and regional rival India.

The Muttahida Majlise-Amal, an alliance of five Islamist political parties, is calling for a nationwide strike on 6 February to protest what it calls the "humiliation of leading scientists." The protest was announced yesterday after Khan was removed from his post as the head of the Khan Research Laboratories.

Hoodbhoy says few international experts are convinced by Islamabad's attempts to ascribe all the blame for the transfers to a few greedy individual scientists. In an article that appeared yesterday in "The Washington Post," Hoodbhoy noted that Pakistan's nuclear program has been under army supervision since its inception -- with a multitiered security system that has kept all nuclear installations and personnel under the tightest possible surveillance.

Hoodbhoy concluded, "In such an extreme security environment, it would be amazing to miss the travel abroad of senior scientists, engineers and administrators, their meetings with foreign nationals and the transport and transfer of classified technical documents and components -- if not whole centrifuges."