An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 24 February 2004

The fact that India, Pakistan, Israel and South Africa are not parties to the NPT means that the treaty is in shambles and with stories of nuclear proliferation coming in thick and fast, there is every reason to believe that several other countries may in the days ahead decide to get better nuclear technology for bomb making. Today both India and Pakistan are accepted as nuclear weapon states outside of the NPT. This makes matters very interesting. South Africa too had tested its bomb and possibly also showed its efficacy to Israel in the 80s and then decided to roll back. We already know of the attempts of Libya, Iran and North Korea.

Alok Gupta of the National Law University, Jodhpur has pieced together the entire story of the recent proliferation saga, which enfolded in Pakistan. He writes, “I am sending the first article on the issue, which includes only the revelations by Pakistan and the reactions within Pakistan and the guarded response of the United States. In the next article I would include international and Indian responses and a comprehensive analysis related to the strategic implications of nuclear proliferation.”

Nuclear Proliferation by Pakistan: Revelations, Responses, and Strategic Concerns Part 1

By Alok Kumar Gupta*

The recent exposure about nuclear proliferation has not come as a surprise to India, which is a power to be reckoned with in the South Asian region. India has been making efforts to convince the international community since long that Pakistan not only has acquired nuclear capability, but is also clandestinely involved in proliferating it to other countries mainly the ones which are branded by US as the ‘axis of evil’. It has also come to light that most of this was known to big countries of the world. Within US also there were attempts by newspapers and senators from time to time to make it explicit but all such attempts were ignored, probably owing to the compulsions of United States to use Pakistan in its war against international terrorism and to efface Taliban and Al-Qaeda form the earth. Pakistan was of immense importance in this endeavor of US.

However, it is unprecedented in the history of nuclear proliferation that a person directly involved in the preparation of a nuclear bomb had resorted to sharing of nuclear know-how with other countries. Thus, the covert nuclear proliferation so far has become overt now. In December 2003 Libya said it would allow international experts to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. This led to lot of speculation about sources of Libya’s weapons of mass destructions. Subsequently, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, famous as “Father of the Islamic Bomb” reportedly told an investigator on February 04, 2004 that he did transfer nuclear technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran with full knowledge of top military bosses.

Later, the former head of the Khan Research Lab (which was, incidentally named after him) conceded in media that nuclear proliferation activities have taken place on his behest. Here is the text of Mr. Khan’s statement on Pakistan television:

“.....The recent international events and their fallout on Pakistan have traumatized the nation. I have much to answer for it. The recent investigation was ordered by the Government of Pakistan, consequent to the disturbing disclosures and evidence by some countries, to international agencies relating to alleged proliferation activities by certain Pakistanis and foreigners over the last two decades. The investigation has established that many of the reported activities did occur and that these were inevitably initiated at my behest. In my interviews with the concerned government officials, I was confronted with the evidence and the findings and I have voluntarily admitted that much of it is true and accurate…..I wish to clarify that there was never any kind of authorization for these activities by the Government.”

A report in the February 05, 2004 issue of Dawn quoted an official as saying that Dr. Khan, in his signed statement, had accepted supplying old and discarded centrifuge and enrichment machines together with sets of drawings, sketches, technical data and depleted Hexafluoride (UF6) gas to North Korea. According to the official, Mr. Khan also accepted supplying centrifuge and enrichment equipment along with a set of drawings to Iran under the pressure of late Gen. Imitaz (then advisor to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto between December 1988 and August 1990). The official also revealed that the proliferation started in 1989–91 because of flawed security arrangement.

Imperatives of Proliferation

  • Pakistan might have needed the financial assistance and missile technology that Libya and North Korea respectively could offer in exchange for assistance in the development of the nuclear program.

  • However, the provision of expertise to Iran was particularly ill-considered given Pakistan’s strategic situation. Iran and Pakistan competed fiercely for the leading role in Afghanistan for much of the last decade. Iran was also incensed at the treatment meted out to Pakistani Shias by the Sunni majority. While the Iranian program is not believed to have advanced to the weapons stage, Islamabad should surely have thought more carefully before helping a potential rival.

Chronicles of Proliferation by Pakistan

Pakistan’s decision to share its nuclear expertise was, in some ways, an offshoot of the mindset it adopted over most of the 1980s and 1990s. It believed that the alliance with the US in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan immunized its nuclear program from international scrutiny and that it could even get away with a degree of clandestine proliferation. Dr. Khan was one among several prominent Pakistanis who propagated the view that the nuclear arsenal had given the country a leading position in the Islamic world and that it was morally obliged to share some of its knowledge. Pakistan had thought all along that it could forever retain the capacity to deny any role in the weapon programs pursued by other countries. Recent developments have exposed the fundamental flaw in this thought process. Pakistan might have been able to retain deniability if the three countries to which it allegedly provided know how continued to withstand pressure to comply with non-proliferation norms. Once Iran and Libya threw open their nuclear facilities, international inspectors were bound to track down the sources of their weapon program. Therefore, repeated claims of Pakistani State that it was a responsible nuclear power have been severely undermined by the subsequent details contained in the public statement made on Pakistan television by the ‘hero of the nation’, Dr. Khan.

Responses within Pakistan

The sensational disclosure of the complicity of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, architect of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, in the export of nuclear equipment to Iran, Libya and North Korea led to an embarrassing situation for Pakistan. This is because according to the reports in The Washington Post Dr. Khan informed the investigators that he helped North Korea design and equip facilities for making weapons-grade Uranium with the knowledge of senior military commanders, including General Musharraf. This could have given a fillip to the demands that the military also be brought under the purview of the investigation into the scandal. According to a friend of Dr. Khan and a senior Pakistani investigator quoted in the Post, Dr. Khan told investigators that Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the Pakistani Army Chief of Staff from 1988 to 1991, was aware of the assistance Khan was providing to Iran’s nuclear program and that two other Army chiefs, in addition to Gen. Musharraf, knew and approved of his efforts. As reported, Mr. Khan also urged the investigators to question the former Army Commanders and Gen. Musharraf, asserting that “no debriefing is complete unless you bring every one of them here and debrief us together”, according to the account given by his friend (who has met the scientist twice during the past two months). Later on the basis of Dr. Khan’s claims, investigators have questioned Beg and another former Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Jehangir Karamat, who occupied the post from 1996 to 1998, but both have denied any knowledge of the transactions. As reported, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Shaukat Sultan declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations but asserted, “Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf neither authorized such transfers nor was he involved in any such deals, even before he was President.

The Disclaimer

Pointing a finger at an Army Chief and President in Pakistan cannot be tolerated by the establishment. The Pakistani establishment to overcome the embarrassing situation tried to make a distinction between “institutional” and “individual” proliferation. General Musharraf says that “nuclear leakages” have been done at the behest of individual scientists like Dr. A.Q. Khan and that military did not know about them. Khan, in the meantime has owned up responsibility for the leakages in a televised statement on February 08, 2004 and asked for mercy form Musharraf. And as expected, he got the mercy, because allegedly it is a part of the deal between the two. This appears to be part of an effort to create the impression that proliferation activity was conducted by a few rogue technicians, without the knowledge or permission of the political leadership.

Pak President’s Response

The Pak President told The New York Times that he suspected at least three years ago that Dr. Khan was sharing nuclear technology; but that Washington had not come up with convincing proof and that it was not until October 2003 that administration officials in Pakistan provided necessary evidence. He added, “If they knew earlier, they should have told us. Maybe, a lot of things would not have happened.” He also argued that while there were ‘suspicious movement’ with respect to the laboratory where Dr. Khan worked and that there were signs of Dr. Khan having ‘illegal contacts’, there was also the concern that investigating a national hero like Dr. Khan would have a domestic political backlash.

He termed the issue as extremely sensitive and said that he forced Dr. Khan to retire from his position as the head of the nuclear laboratory in early 2001 so as to prevent any more transfer of nuclear secrets. He said, “We nipped the proliferation in the bud, we stopped the proliferation. That is the important part.” He further added that since Dr. Khan 'had acquired a larger-than-life figure for himself, one had to pardon him to satisfy the public, and I think it has gone extremely positively.'  He denied any barter deal struck with North Korea by Dr. Khan and that he was looking into the details where exactly things went wrong. He also defended the Brigadier General in charge of the top secret nuclear laboratory by saying that person-in-charge did not know what was going on.

Prime Minister’s Remarks

The Pakistan Prime Minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, said after the revelations that Pakistan would not allow any other country, including India, to intervene in the domestic affairs of the country. This statement was in response of comments by Indian External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, that the pardon granted to Dr. Khan on the nuclear scandal was not an internal affair of Pakistan. He also argued that Dr. Khan is a Pakistani citizen and scientist and it was the prerogative of the Pakistan Government to decide the fate of Dr. Khan for any of his mistakes. He further added that forgiveness had a special importance in the teachings of Islam and it was heartening to see that a very sensitive issue had been resolved amicably.

Protests Within Pakistan

Opposition parties have accused the government of making Dr. Khan a scapegoat and shielding the military top brass that had total control of the nuclear weapons program. Leaders of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) (an alliance of six religious parties) and chief of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Quazi Hussain Ahmad, called a strike on February 06, 2004 to express solidarity with Mr. Khan. Mr. Hussain demanded an open trial of the scientists in accordance with the law of the land. The JI argued that Pakistan had not signed the CTBT or the NPT and as such there was not breach of any contract or agreement. He added, if the nuclear technology had been transferred to any other country, there was no breach of any contract. MMA had termed it as framing of Dr. Khan and his colleagues by the Government under pressure from the US. Later the strike called by them lost its relevance with the confession of Dr. Khan on television. However, senior leaders of the religious parties’ alliance have been harping on the theme that Dr. Khan had made the confession under duress and if voice is not raised against the episode, the day is not far off when America would demand that Pakistan roll back its nuclear program.

Nuclear Proliferation by Pakistan United States Reponses

Handling of the entire issue of recent nuclear proliferation by United States raised a number of questions. It also questioned the genuineness of its intentions in Iraq, which it attacked on the pretext of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and restoring democracy. The recent incident is being considered as another big failure on the part of US in nuclear intelligence. The United States, which is always hypersensitive to efforts made by other countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction, has played its part in this attempt at obfuscation. It was not chagrined even when its initial claims, that Pakistan had not exported weapon technology after President Pervez Musharraf took office, became questionable. The US administration has been able to hold the rest of the international community to the view that it would be better to work with General Musharraf as he tries to fulfill promises to plug loopholes at the technical level and to recast his country’s world view.

Bush’s Lays Open the Clandestine ‘Khan Network’

Mr. Bush, in an address on February 11, 2004 described Mr. B.S.A. Tahir — a Sri Lankan who ran the Dubai-based firm, SBM Computers — as a ‘deputy’ to Mr. Khan. He also accused Mr. Tahir (a key figure in an international nuclear black market network headed by the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan) of being the chief financial officer and money launderer as well as the shipping agent of Khan’s network. He accused him of using his firm as cover for the movement of centrifuge parts to various clients. He also said that the businessman directed the Malaysia facility to produce these parts based on Pakistani designs, and then ordered the facility to ship the components to Dubai. The shipment was then transferred on to a German ship with the eventual destination of Libya. The Malaysian company, Scomi Precision Engineering, later admitted making parts found on a ship headed for Libya, but said it was not aware of their final destination and believed they were meant for the oil and gas industry.

However, this was declared as mere speculation and baseless allegation by Sultan bin Nasser Al Suwaidi, Governor of The Central Bank of United Arab Emirates. The Governor said that an investigation into the activities of Dubai-based businessman Mr. Tahir’s alleged links with Libya and Iran’s nuclear weapons program could be launched only if some concrete proof emerged.

Bush exclusively credited intelligence agencies of the US and Britain with exposing it and assured that Mr. Musharraf had promised to share all the information he learns about the ‘Khan Network’ and will ensure that his country is never again a source of proliferation. Mr. Bush also proposed several measures that included using Interpol to bring to justice those who indulge in this deadly trafficking business.

Bush’s Concern about Proliferation by Non-State Actors

The US President also expressed concerns about the new dangers from the nuclear black-market operatives who are motivated by greed or fanaticism or both. While addressing the National Defence University on February 11, 2004, he called on the international community to step up the fight against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He said, “The greatest threat before humanity today is the possibility of secret and sudden attack with chemical or biological or radiological or nuclear weapons. These terrible weapons are becoming easier to acquire, build, hide and transport. America and the entire civilized world will face this threat for decades to come. We must confront the danger with open eyes and unbending purpose. America will not permit terrorists and dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most deadly weapons.”

Response of the State Department

Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman said (as reported in the newspapers), “I do not think it is a matter for the United States to sit in judgement on. As far as the specifics of what happens to Dr. Khan, other than making sure that he and whatever other individuals or networks in Pakistan might have been involved in this trade do not transfer anything again; as far as the specifics or sentencing or pardons or whatever, that really is a matter for Pakistan to decide”. He further added that what really mattered were two things: the network and individuals must be found out and stopped; and the information shared with the international community as the network had extended far beyond the borders of Pakistan.

When the spokesman was asked if it was all right for nations to proliferate as long as they told the United States about it and agreed not to do so again, he replied, “No, it is not okay. No. It is for Governments to find out and prevent this kind of thing. What penalties, sanctions, controls or steps are used to prevent it from happening again are up for individual governments to decide.”

Powell Talks to Musharraf

US Secretary of State talked to Pakistani President on phone and impressed upon him the need to ensure that the remnants of Dr. Khan’s network do not exist and foolproof steps must be taken to ensure non-recurrence of the scandal.

Reports in the Media

The Washington Times warned that Washington should not soft-pedal its concern over nuclear proliferation, but should blunt the impact of its measures by directing all actions through international organizations. It also warned that Mr. Khan’s contrition does not put to rest proliferation issues. The paper also reported that if US officials are calculating that turning a blind eye towards proliferation will produce a tied and shackled Osama bin Laden, compliments of Pakistan, they are probably mistaken. The newspaper notes that as Pakistani experts maintain, Islamabad fears that given the history of US-Pakistan relations, producing Osama bin Laden would produce an incremental end to US courtship. While an Osama capture cannot be ruled out, such a move (if tactically feasible for Pakistan) would probably be poorly timed in Islamabad. More recent media reports however suggested that Osama bin Laden had been located in the border region of Pakistan and crack British and American troops had been dispatched to capture him.


The exposure has established that the global black market in nuclear technology is based in Pakistan. Moreover, the role of Dr. Khan in proliferation exposed, he can expose each ruler of Pakistan, since he knows too much. He can spill the beans and implicate each General who has headed the all-powerful Pakistan Army. He can also expose all the politicians involved in the proliferation business. There is little doubt that Musharraf has had to strike a deal with him and all but let him off by granting him mercy.

Bush administration seems to have endorsed the decision of the President to pardon Mr. Khan. Critics of the Bush administration have been repeatedly making the point that the US has been letting Gen. Musharraf off the hook on many serious issues especially in the realm of proliferation. It is being alleged that US does not want to get on the wrong side of the Gen. Musharraf especially in the context of the cooperation on the war on terror. And in the immediate case the Republican administration has not publicly criticized Pakistan for fear of adding to the political pressure of Gen. Musharraf.

In the next article we would include Indian and other international responses on the issue and the strategic implications for the South Asian region and the World, along with a critical analysis of the whole episode.


  1. N. Gandhi, “Hero to Zero” Sahara Time, February 14, 2004.

  2. Prakash Nanda, “Double Standard” Sahara Time, February 14, 2004.

  3. B. Muralidhar Reddy, “Nuclear Home Truths” Frontline, vol.21, no.4, February 14-27, 2004.

  4. Praful Bidwai, “Global Nuclear Bazaar” Frontline, vol.21, no.4, February 14-27, 2004.

  5. B. Murlidhar Reddy, “Musharraf, predecessor knew about n-technology transfers” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 04, 2004.

  6. B. Muralidhar Reddy, “MMA calls for strike in support of A.Q.Khan” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 03, 2004.

  7. B. Muralidhar Reddy, “Musharraf to address nation of nuclear scam” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 02, 2004.

  8. “To curb proliferation”, The Hindu, New Delhi, January 27, 2004.

  9. Amit Baruah, “Scientist’s admissions expose Pakistan” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 06, 2004.

  10. “Hardliners rally behind A.Q. Khan” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 07, 2004.

  11. Sridhar Krishnaswami, “Proliferation nipped in the bud: Musharraf” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 11, 2004.

  12. B. Muralidhar Reddy, “Pakistan will decide Khan’s fate, says Jamali” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 09, 2004.

  13. B. Muralidhar Reddy, “Khan issue: MMA strike fizzles out” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 07, 2004.

  14. B. Muralidhar Reddy, “Powell talks to Musharraf on probe into Khan episode” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 09, 2004.

  15. Sridihar Krishnaswami, “Hope nuclear row does not recur: U.S.” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 07, 2004.

  16. Sridihar Krishnaswami, “Step up fight against spread of WMD, says Bush” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 12, 2004.

  17. Sridihar Krishnaswami, “Bush urged not to soft pedal Pakistan nuclear issue” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 09, 2004.

  18. Atul Aneja, “Proof needed for probe into Khan associate’s dealings” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 17, 2004.

  19. M.R. Srinivasan, “Pakistan’s nuclear deals” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 13, 2004.

  20. C. Raja Mohan, “Responding to Pakistan’s proliferation” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 12, 2004.

  21. V.S. Arunachalam, “Proliferation and after” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 13, 2004.

  22. Pervez Hoodbhoy, “Nuclear noose round Pakistan’s neck” The Hindu, New Delhi, February 07, 2004.

  23. C. Uday Bhaskar, “The Tale of Exposed Feathers” Sahara Time, February 21, 2004.

  24. S. Sreedhar Rao, “Lifting the veil and beyond” Sahara Time, February 21, 2004.

  25. J.N. Dixit, “Qadeer a mere pawn on the chessboard” Sahara Time, February 21, 2004.

(*Alok Kumar Gupta is a Lecturer, at the School of Policy Science, 
National Law University, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.)

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