The death of Pakistanís most infamous nuclear scientist has led to much reflection on his role in proliferating nuclear technology around the world. Little reflection is paid to the role of the CIA in allowing this to happen.
Abdul Qadeer Khan passed away aged 85 on October 10 from complications of Covid-19.
He was Pakistanís best known nuclear scientist, whose success in acquiring sophisticated centrifuge technology used to enrich uranium has led many to anoint him with the sobriquet as the ďFather of Pakistanís Nuclear BombĒ (Khan had nothing to do with weapons design or manufacture; that honor goes to Munir Ahmad Khan.) But there is little debate over the critical role that he played in making Pakistanís dream of possessing a nuclear deterrent a reality Ė without the uranium enrichment technology AQ Khan acquired through his efforts, the Pakistan nuclear weapons program could not have existed in its present form.
While taking nothing away from the skill and determination of Khan, the fact is that his efforts at technology acquisition, which focused on stealing blueprints and physical samples from URENCO, a European consortium based in the Netherlands which used centrifuges to enrich uranium for use in nuclear fuel. Khan worked at URENCO between 1972 and 1975.
In mid-1975, the Dutch security services began to suspect that Khan was a proliferation risk. The CIA, however, pressured the Dutch into not arresting Khan, but rather to continue to monitor him in hopes of gaining new intelligence about Pakistanís nuclear ambitions. Khan and his family were able to elude Dutch/CIA surveillance and return to Pakistan in December 1975.
Armed with the limited intelligence that was acquired by monitoring Khan, the US government, at the time led by President Jimmy Carter, placed economic sanctions on Pakistan to pressure it into abandoning its plans for a nuclear weapon.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 changed this. According to Carterís National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Soviet invasion prompted ďa review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy.Ē Carter lifted sanctions and provided Pakistan with $400 million in military aid.
Cold War realities prompted the US to turn a blind eye toward Pakistanís efforts to build an atomic bomb. The importance of this move cannot be overstated; in 2009, Khan told Pakistani television that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ďprovided us with space to enhance our nuclear capability. Given the US and European pressure on our program, it is true that had the Afghan war not taken place at that time, we would not have been able to make the bomb as early as we did.Ē
Unencumbered by US sanctions and accompanying political pressure, Khan was able to assemble a massive smuggling operation which, by 1985, gave Pakistan the ability to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) using stolen centrifuge technology. Enough HEU was produced by 1987 to build a nuclear bomb.
The enrichment capabilities that had been acquired by Khan consisted of a relatively primitive design, known as the P-1, and a more sophisticated derivative, known as the P-2. Once Pakistanís centrifuge center was up and running, Khan was sitting on an excess inventory of P-1 centrifuges and spare parts for the P-2. Using his smuggling network, he reached out to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Syria to sell them, as a package deal, the material and designs necessary to enrich weapons-grade uranium using centrifuges. These nations refused his offer, as did Iraq, in 1990.
Iran, on the other hand, agreed to purchase centrifuge parts and designs for both P-1 and P-2 centrifuges, ostensibly for a peaceful nuclear energy program (Iranís efforts to acquire similar technology on the open market had been rebuffed by the US and Europe.)