A Bullet Waits for A.Q. Khan

13 Sep

A.Q. Khan is “…an extremely stupid and lazy crook“. Crook, yes, but Khan was far too industrious a thief for the world’s good. Pakistan’s “father of the bomb” based a career on stealing first from his employer, Urenco, and now it seems, plagiarizing all the websites he couldn’t read in house arrest. But, Khan still hasn’t told all, even if talking publicly at all is insulting to those who view him as a dangerous proliferator of nuclear technology, and inspirational to Pakistani wingnuts (just check out the comments section of the CSM (H/T to Joshua Keating).

Meanwhile, Iran’s protestations of innocence have been undercut by Mr Khan’s explanation last month to “Islamabad Tonight”, a television talk show in Pakistan, of how in the 1980s Iran secretly sought his help with nuclear technology. “We” wished Iran to acquire such technology, he said, implying official backing for the deals eventually done through his network. “Iran’s nuclear capability [would] neutralise Israel’s power,” he added.

Similar job-lots of centrifuge equipment for enriching uranium, potentially fissile material for a bomb, delivered by Mr Khan and his associates to Libya had come with the design of a nuclear warhead thrown in. Caught out in 2003, Libya handed over both the design and information that helped expose the Khan network. Had Mr Khan sweetened the deals with Iran and North Korea in the same sort of way? Nobody knows. Arrests of his associates in Switzerland turned up digitised versions of an even more sophisticated warhead than that passed to Libya.

North Korea is now boasting that it has completed experiments to enrich uranium, giving it potentially a second stream of fissile material (it has already tested two plutonium-based bombs). That is discouraging, but hardly a surprise. In 2002 North Korean officials privately admitted to the Americans what they were up to (before later denying it again publicly). But no one knew how far they had got.

Mr Khan would neither confirm nor deny—“maybe” was all he was prepared to say, and “at the moment”—that he had supplied North Korea with such equipment. He implied that whatever he had done anyway had state backing. But General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president, had already revealed that in the 1990s Mr Khan had supplied North Korea with some 20 of the necessary centrifuge machines, with instructions on running them.

Either way, even with Mr Khan out of the picture and some of his network rolled up, there is scope for mutual help between his customers. North Korea is known to have secretly built a nuclear reactor for Syria, of the sort it used to make the plutonium for its own bomb; that structure was destroyed in an Israeli air raid in 2007.

North Korea’s claim (assuming it is true) that it can now enrich uranium opens up a another dark possibility. Centrifuge machines are hard to operate. North Korea will have needed help in getting them up and running. North Korea and Iran are already known to co-operate intensively in developing nuclear-capable missiles. So what is to stop them helping each other with their nuclear programmes? North Korea has plutonium and warhead-building skills. A master tunneller, it could also help any country wanting to hide its nuclear efforts from satellites. Iran, meanwhile, has the uranium-enrichment skills that North Korea previously lacked. Small wonder Iran thinks it can enrich on happily.

As some might recall, I’ve read and blogged about Khan’s industrious thievery over the years. For all the evil he’s done, he didn’t do it alone. Although I could support any number of possible punishments, A.Q. Khan I fear will continue to annoy because his abettors and bumbling adversaries are keen to avoid the spotlight. But, the grabby doctor should get around to talking about his life, not salvaging his savaged reputation with dumb computer tricks. His friends and enemies could be fickle.

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