A review of Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan, and the Rise of Proliferation Networks

By Zia Mian | November 18, 2007

Proliferation watchers have kept track of A. Q. Khan’s activities for about 30 years. In 1979, the Washington Post named him as the Pakistani engineer who had left his position at the uranium enrichment centrifuge facility at Almelo, Netherlands, four years earlier with “lists of subcontractors and probably blueprints for the plant.” Khan then returned to Pakistan, where he soon became director of the country’s secret uranium enrichment project at Kahuta, near Islamabad, and a key player in its nuclear weapons program.

To evade the existing system of controls on the sale of nuclear weapons-related technology, Pakistan established a complex multinational effort to purchase components for its enrichment plant from European and U.S. companies–something the international community was aware of even in the late 1970s. By 1978, Pakistan’s nuclear program had created international concern. Washington failed to convince Pakistan that it should place the Kahuta facility under international safeguards, and in April 1979, as required by U.S. law, the United States cut off economic and military aid to Pakistan. Khan later claimed that by 1982 Kahuta was producing weapon-grade uranium. Having succeeded in Pakistan, Khan and his network of suppliers then went on to market centrifuge design information, centrifuges, entire enrichment plants, and even a nuclear weapon design to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks, edited by Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and formerly with the U.S. State Department, where he served as deputy assistant secretary of nonproliferation and at the South Asia desk, is an important addition to the literature on Pakistan’s nuclear program and the dynamics of nuclear proliferation.

The report offers a sweeping, well-referenced review of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, with a focus on how it established and managed a system of embassies, front companies, false end users, friendly countries, and Pakistanis living abroad–paying whatever it took to make a deal–to import material and technology. It concludes, “The weakness of export controls and the fatalism of Western suppliers were the strongest factors abetting the network,” and notes, “Many industrialists reasoned, ‘If we do not do it, others will.'” The effort’s scale was significant: Dutch researcher Frank Slijper has reported claims by Henk Slebos, a key Khan supplier and lifelong friend, that he worked with “maybe even 1,000” European companies. (See Project Butter Factory: Henk Slebos and the A. Q. Khan Network.)

Nuclear Black Markets also looks at Pakistan’s proliferation of centrifuge technology to other countries. On the question of who was responsible for the network’s activities, it observes, “Khan cannot be characterized strictly as either a government representative or a businessman acting independently. He was in fact both, in varying degrees according to the circumstances.” It faults the Pakistani government, which it argues “should have known what key officials, such as Khan, were up to in an area so fundamental to Pakistan’s national security and international reputation.” It may be that Pakistani leaders simply chose not to ask, allowing them to deny any knowledge if confronted by Washington with evidence of illegal or illicit nuclear activity.

In some detail, the report describes Pakistan’s recent efforts to recover from the Khan network being exposed. With help from Washington, Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, the managers of Pakistan’s nuclear complex, say they have brought people, materials, and weapons under tighter control. But the claims of improved security have not allayed concerns. The debate in Washington about the safety of nuclear weapons and materials in Pakistan has resurfaced following Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s recent imposition of martial law and the subsequent public protests. (I recently discussed the security of Pakistan’s nuclear materials and weapons on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation.) Assurances by Pakistan’s generals and nuclear managers and appeals to “trust us” are no substitute for a system of checks and balances that include parliamentary oversight of the nuclear program, an independent judiciary, watchdog groups, determined anti-nuclear activists, whistleblowers, and a free press. It has taken all of this and more to expose the continuing problems in the United States and other nations with nuclear weapons.

Pakistan and Khan are only part of the problem. Nuclear Black Markets observes that the larger proliferation challenge is that “tighter controls on state-to-state technology transfers over the past four decades have resulted in the emergence of the private sector as an additional source of nuclear technology and expertise for proliferant states.” It details how these “black and grey markets” in both nuclear technology and knowledge have been tapped by Iraq, Iran, India, North Korea, and Libya, and to lesser degree by Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Israel, and Syria.

The bottom line is clear: “Export controls alone are not likely to stop illicit trade in nuclear material and technology. Where there is a determined demand and the price is high enough, there is likely to be a supply.” And government agencies are “often underfunded, undermanned, and undermotivated” and cannot hope to stem the tide. Capitalism will prevail over the state.

In its concluding chapter, Nuclear Black Markets lays out some policy options to “preclude nuclear black markets.” It offers the standard U.S. nonproliferation fare–for instance, urging states to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to prevent non-state actors from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction. But it accepts that the resolution “suffers a credibility problem with third world states who believe that obligations should have been established through treaty negotiations” and not imposed by the Security Council at Washington’s behest.

The report suggests other steps as well: educate and help industry manage its nonproliferation responsibilities; severely punish trafficking in nuclear materials; end production of (and block access to) weapons-useable fissile materials; improve intelligence sharing; and seizure of materials in transit through efforts such as the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative. But it’s hard to see how such “more-of-the-same” proposals resolve the core issues that the report raises about the tension between market forces and governments, the industrialization of developing countries, increasingly rapid innovation and diffusion of technology, the nature of bureaucracy, and the demands of domestic politics.

In a triumph of hope over experience, these proposals also assume that states will hold nonproliferation as a top priority. The history of U.S. efforts to curtail Pakistan’s nuclear program, important details of which are curiously missing in Nuclear Black Markets, teaches otherwise. As noted earlier, Washington imposed sanctions on Pakistan in April 1979. Nine months later, the United States offered to waive the sanctions and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid to Pakistan. This was to grow into two multibillion dollar aid packages and was only part of a much larger U.S. effort that would involve Saudi Arabia, other oil-rich Arab countries, Western Europe, and China.

Why did nonproliferation suddenly lose its value? Washington decided that Khan and the Pakistani Bomb were less important than confronting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It mattered even less that Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator intent on creating an Islamic state. This remained the judgment for 10 years. By then, the damage was done: Pakistan had the Bomb, and a generation had been schooled in radical Islam and jihad. It was only when the Soviets left Afghanistan that Washington rediscovered Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and again imposed sanctions. These and other sanctions on Pakistan were lifted as part of the effort to gain Pakistan’s support for the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in 2001. Billions of dollars of military and economic aid again flowed to Pakistan.

The same logic has long informed U.S. policy toward Israel, and now extends to India. For 30 years, U.S. law and international rules have banned nuclear trade with India (and others outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), because India used material and technology supplied for peaceful purposes to make nuclear weapons. But Washington now wants to build a new strategic relationship with India–to counter China and to improve U.S. access to Indian markets. India has insisted on the right to nuclear trade as the price of cooperation, and Washington has obliged.

In the determination to make a deal with India, there’s no looking around, forward, or back. Washington wants the deal to go ahead even though it will enable India to significantly increase its production of fissile materials for weapons. It has already driven Pakistan to ask for a similar deal (since refused) and to begin expanding its nuclear arsenal. (For more on the U.S.-India nuclear deal see “Fissile Materials in South Asia: The Implications of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal”.)

Nor is there any mention now in Washington of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1172, passed unanimously in June 1998 soon after both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. It calls upon India and Pakistan to “immediately stop their nuclear weapon development programs, to refrain from the deployment of nuclear weapons, to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.” The resolution also “encourages all states to prevent the export of equipment, materials, or technology that could in any way assist programs in India or Pakistan for nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear Black Markets fails to see how U.S. nuclear weapons policy is a driver for proliferation. For instance, consider the fact that Washington maintains a declared policy of being prepared to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict and has repeatedly made clear that it would use nuclear weapons even against countries without them. In 1981, Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on U.S. nuclear war planning in the early 1960s, observed, ” Every president from [Harry S.] Truman to [Ronald] Reagan, with the possible exception of [Gerald] Ford, has felt compelled to consider or direct serious preparations for possible imminent U.S. initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing, intense non-nuclear conflict or crisis.” U.S. presidents since have been no different. In Empire and the Bomb, Joseph Gerson documents both the earlier history of U.S nuclear threats and how President George H. W. Bush threatened Iraq with nuclear weapons during the first Gulf War, President Bill Clinton threatened North Korea, and President George W. Bush threatened Iraq and recently Iran. Even presidential candidates now talk of keeping “all options on the table,” as if a willingness to make nuclear threats is proof of being fit for office. It’s hard to imagine a greater incentive for insecure states to seek nuclear weapons.

Now, sadly, a growing number see nuclear weapons as perhaps the only impediment a state in the developing world can impose to blunt U.S. military power. The logic is clear to Washington. As a Bush administration official put it: “It is a real equalizer if you’re a pissant little country with no hope of matching the U.S. militarily.”

The belief that nuclear weapons level the international playing field is clearly shared by Khan and at least some others in the network. Peter Griffin, a member of the Khan network for more than 25 years, responded to British customs officials who asked him if he knew he was helping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the following: “Well, so what? I believe that if everyone’s got a big stick that’s more security for the world than only a couple of people with big sticks.” Similarly, Slijper reports that Slebos believed his business made him rich and served a higher purpose, saying, “I am proud that I have prevented a number of wars . . . I am not proud of an atom bomb as such, but sometimes it can be a necessity that it is there.”

There is a need to counter the spread of a system of social values that seeks security with and profits from nuclear weapons, be it the Khan network or the corporations that manage and operate the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. A good place to start may be for all governments, especially those with nuclear weapons, to reaffirm the November 1961 U.N. General Assembly resolution that declared, “Any state using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.” The resolution called for states to consider convening “a special conference for signing a convention on the prohibition of the use of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.” It’s long overdue, and time may not be on our side.

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