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Iran: Tehran Denies Link With Top Pakistani Nuclear Scientist

  • Charles Recknagel

Iran is denying it received nuclear technology from top Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who recently said he had passed secrets to Tehran. The denial is the latest twist in a complex story of nuclear proliferation that centers on Khan but the details of which may never become fully clear.

Prague, 9 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran is rejecting a confession by top Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan that he passed nuclear secrets to Tehran for personal profit.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said yesterday that "what is being raised in the media" about Khan's admissions "is not true."

The spokesman acknowledged that Tehran obtained some foreign nuclear know-how from middlemen but made no mention of having received technology made available by Khan on the black market. He said the Iranian government recently provided the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with the names of some of the illicit brokers at the agency's request.

"If Musharraf conducts a full investigation, he is very likely to create domestic political problems for himself -- not only because of A.Q. Khan's popularity but also because Musharraf would be forced to investigate all of his predecessors as army chief of staff, which is likely to cause trouble in the Pakistani Army, and that is Musharraf's principle power base."
The Iranian denial of any direct connection with Khan is the latest twist in a complex story of nuclear proliferation that centers on the top Pakistani scientist. It comes after Khan on 4 February publicly confessed on Pakistani national television to transferring nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea during the 1980s and 1990s.

Khan, who last week received a full pardon from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, said his activities were not authorized by Islamabad. "I also wish to clarify that there was never, ever, any kind of authorization for these activities by the government. I take full responsibility for my actions and seek [the Pakistani people's] pardon," he said.

Nuclear experts say Pakistan is widely believed to be the technology source for Iran's efforts to enrich uranium beyond levels needed for peaceful energy purposes. Those efforts were revealed by an armed Iranian opposition group in exile two years ago, leading to an ongoing IAEA investigation into Iran's suspected covert nuclear weapons program.

Gary Samore, a weapons proliferation expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, described the suspected Pakistan-Iran nuclear link this way: "I think it is generally accepted that Pakistan provided centrifuge technology -- which is a technique for producing weapons-grade uranium -- to Iran back in the late 1980s, and that, on that basis, Iran has subsequently pursued its own centrifuge program. The unknown question is whether or not Pakistan also provided nuclear-weapons-design information to Iran."

Samore says the question of whether Iran acquired additional nuclear secrets from Pakistan arises because it is known that Khan sold such information to Libya. "Now we know, in the case of Libya, because the Libyans have acknowledged it, [that] they paid $50 million to A.Q. Khan and company for a nuclear weapons design," he said. "Whether Iran received a similar design is something that is not publicly known and, hopefully, the Pakistani government -- having investigated A.Q. Khan's activities -- will be in a position to share that kind of information with relevant governments, including the United States, as well as international agencies, like the IAEA."

Analysts say learning the truth about how much nuclear information Tehran received from Pakistan is essential to learning just what weapons-making capabilities Iran may still be concealing from investigators. But Samore says that, despite Khan's confessions, investigating the technology transfers is exceedingly difficult.

The nuclear expert notes that it remains far from certain whether Khan operated independently. Khan -- who is highly regarded at home as the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb -- headed a key government nuclear laboratory until he was forced to retire by Musharraf in early 2001 under intense U.S. pressure.

Samore notes that because Pakistan is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Islamabad -- unlike Tehran -- is under no international obligation to cooperate with IAEA efforts to investigate sales of nuclear secrets. He also says that Musharraf may have little reason to back any wide-ranging IAEA or other public investigation into how Khan sold Pakistani nuclear secrets because the results could be politically explosive.

"Musharraf is in a bind. On one hand, it is very unlikely that A.Q. Khan carried out these activities over the last 15 years without senior members of the Pakistani military and the intelligence service being aware of it, although they might not have known about every detail," Samore said.

He continued, "But, on the other hand, if Musharraf conducts a full investigation, he is very likely to create domestic political problems for himself -- not only because of A.Q. Khan's popularity but also because Musharraf would be forced to investigate all of his predecessors as army chief of staff, which is likely to cause trouble in the Pakistani Army, and that is Musharraf's principle power base."

That means much about how Iran and other states acquired nuclear secrets from Pakistan may never become fully clear.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to travel to Islamabad soon to meet with Musharraf, in an apparent effort to maintain pressure on Islamabad to make sure it curbs the activities of Khan and his associates in the future. No firm date for the trip has yet been announced.

Washington welcomed the Pakistani government's probe earlier this year into Khan's activities and has called Musharraf's decision to pardon the nuclear scientist "an internal matter."
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