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World: Exposing A.Q. Khan's Nuclear Legacy

Abdul Qadeer Khan (undated photo) (epa) NEW YORK, June 7, 2006 -- "Nuclear Jihad," a new documentary by the Canadian film maker Julian Sher, focuses on the nuclear-proliferation activities of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani engineer who made Pakistan a nuclear power and quietly helped spread nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.

When his activities were revealed in 2001, Khan was suspended from his position in Pakistan's nuclear program and denounced by his government. In 2003, Khan was confined to his home in Islamabad, where he remains, forbidden from having contact with the media.
"What is uncertain here is not only which countries purchased [the
technology], but what's left of the network, even with the head cut
off? Clearly there are a lot of elements of the network that can
operate by themselves, and we have still seen Iranians, for example,
importing a fair bit of goods from around Europe." -- David Sanger

David Sanger and William Broad, well-known investigative reporters for "The New York Times," have written several articles exposing Khan's global nuclear-proliferation network and building a case that despite Khan's isolation, his enterprise offers a viable model for aspiring rogue regimes or terrorists.

They've been on Khan's trail together since 2002, trying to find evidence of the breadth of Khan's nuclear network, how much, or how little, of the puzzle has been put together, and in particular, why U.S. intelligence failed to detect his activities until very late in the game. On June 5, they participated in a panel organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy institute.

Business Model For Rogue States

Sanger, who is "The New York Times'" White House correspondent, said the most worrisome aspect of Khan's supposedly defunct network is that it remains a tempting business model others can replicate.

"What is uncertain here is not only which countries purchased [the technology], but what's left of the network, even with the head cut off? Clearly there are a lot of elements of the network that can operate by themselves, and we have still seen Iranians, for example, importing a fair bit of goods from around Europe," Sanger said.

"We don't know whether each of the pieces of this were Khan-related or not. But you have to remember that this was a prototype business, it showed a business model that others can replicate," he added.

Both Sanger and Broad say that apart from suspected efforts by some terrorist groups to get their hands on nuclear weapons, Khan's clandestine activities may have benefited the nuclear aspirations of some regimes in the Middle East, notably Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. These countries, particularly Iran, Sanger said, are in a better position today to obtain nuclear technology than when Khan was active.

"In Iran's case, you have the state that is striving very hard to get there and you've seen the Bush administration trying a series of diplomatic moves to try to stop them," he said. "But these are all diplomatic moves that have been constrained to some degree by our presence in Iraq. And so it is a much more complicated bit of diplomacy now for the Bush administration than it was in the pre-Iraq days."

Second Nuclear Age

A nuclear bomb can only be made with highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Because of the technological complexity of the enrichment process, only governments that have access to significant funds and facilities so far have been capable of doing it.

Broad, who covers science for "The New York Times," said that this reality is changing, that private corporations may one day be able to obtain the technology from a government, turn around, and sell it.

Will private companies soon be able to produce fuel for nuclear weapons? (AFP)

"Pakistan, in the semi-stable structure that it's in today, may not be that way tomorrow," he said. "We know from history that other states that had nuclear weapons went through periods of incredible turmoil, revolution. Soviet Union, China, South Africa; a peaceful revolution, but they had nukes, and that was an open question for a while. So things change."

Broad believes that nuclear technology may spread not only because of the worldwide demand for it, but also through leaks by nuclear workers who have, for example, learned the enrichment process for their job. This latter possibility seems certain to increase in the future, he said.

"We are moving into the second nuclear age, where some of the estimates are that maybe by 2050 we'll have a nuclear infrastructure around the world of 1,000 nuclear reactors going. Today there's what, 250? Just an enormous increase," Broad said. "With that comes a whole kind of nuclear commerce, nuclear infrastructure. People, lots and lots of people who are learning the intricacies of the ‘star guard.'"

Another significant force exerting pressure on the spread of nuclear know-how is technological advance. In the past, enriching uranium or plutonium required an entire nuclear reactor. Today, the necessary equipment has shrunk and is easier to operate, Broad said.

"There's another generation of even more efficient smaller technologies up around the bend," he said. "It's called laser-isotope-separation. It's not real efficient for making commercial fuel but it looks like it could be pretty good for special circumstances where you want to enrich some uranium for a bomb. It's something that the Iranians looked at."

Nuclear Terror

It's unlikely, both journalists say, that Al-Qaeda or a similar terrorist group will seek the capability to set up and run the technological process for producing nuclear weapon fuel themselves. They are more likely to be interested in getting the end product: bomb-grade enriched material. But Sanger and Broad agree that as of now, there is no evidence that Al-Qaeda has obtained a nuclear weapon or fissile material.

The more immediate concern, Sanger said, is how to react if it becomes known that a group has a nuclear device and may use it unconventionally: instead of delivered by plane, which could be picked up on radar, it might be carried to its target in a terrorists' backpack.

"If you think this went to the hands of a terror group, do you retaliate against the country that knowingly or unknowingly slipped this to the terror group? Do you retaliate against the civilian population for the act of a small group of terrorists? It's a much more complex political calculation than it was in the simpler days of the Cold War, where you said: ‘If you take out New York, we take out Moscow,'" Sanger noted.

Sanger and Broad conclude that Khan's legacy is far-reaching. There is no reason to believe, they say, that his supposedly dead enterprise cannot be brought back to life elsewhere. They say there is a market for it, and the technology to do it, out there, and anyone who is enterprising and motivated enough to put it all together just may.

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.