Closing Pandora's Box: Pakistan's Role in Nuclear Proliferation

By Squassoni, Sharon | Arms Control Today, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Closing Pandora's Box: Pakistan's Role in Nuclear Proliferation


Squassoni, Sharon, Arms Control Today


Has the threshold of proliferation tolerance now risen to the point where the U.S. is seeking to sidestep laws aimed at penalizing states that supply nuclear technologies?

On February 4, 2004, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, self-styled father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, appeared on Pakistani television to apologize to his nation. Revealing few details, Khan stated that a government investigation, which followed "disturbing disclosures and evidence by some countries to international agencies" (read "Iran and Libya to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]"), confirmed "alleged proliferation activities by certain Pakistanis and foreigners over the last two decades." Khan admitted the allegations were true and said "there was never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by any government official." Pakistani officials a few days earlier claimed that Khan provided technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.1

On February 5, Khan was pardoned by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, with no mention of confiscating the millions of dollars he had acquired in more than 20 years of nuclear moonlighting. When asked about Khan's pardon, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher replied, "I don't think it's a matter for the United States to sit in judgment on."

In fact, it is critically important for the United States to judge whether Pakistan has adequately addressed Khan's proliferation behavior. The administration's failure to do so may be symptomatic of a deeper problem in its nonproliferation strategy. By focusing on "hostile states and terrorists"2 as the main proliferation threat, the Bush strategy ignores friendly countries, such as Pakistan, that host terrorists, place insufficient controls on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and are threatened with political destabilization. Ironically, the threat of terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction is probably greater in Pakistan than in Iraq, Libya, North Korea, or Iran-all targets of Bush couiiterproliferatiori policy. Even more, Pakistan has remained locked in a nuclear confrontation with India, which has several times escalated to the point of all-out war.

The Khan case illustrates a practical reality: separating "good guys" and "bad guys" in this fashion will not work over the long term. The reason is the phenomenon of secondary proliferation. Whereas 20 years ago we worried about single states acquiring the bomb, Khan has raised the stakes. Although some may argue that Khan acted independently and that his role is unlikely ever to be replicated, Pakistan's continuing struggle with Islamic fundamentalism makes the prospect of rogue nuclear-weapon scientists even more problematic than government-directed proliferation. If Khan is not unique, how effective is the Bush administration's targeted counterproliferation policy? Can tweaking supplier controls, as President George W. Bush recently suggested, stop this kind of proliferation? What practical routes are left for slowing nuclear proliferation?

Is Khan's Role Unique?

The press has focused on the sexier aspects of Khan's story: money launderers in Dubai, Swiss and British intermediaries, plants in Kuala Lumpur, and shipments intercepted in Mediterranean ports. Yet, nuclear proliferation is no stranger to intrigue, spies, and foreign travel. What may be most shocking about the unfolding tale of Khan's nuclear weapons marketing is how utterly familiar it sounds. To be sure, leaks of high technology used to emanate mostly from North America, Europe, and Russia.3 Sources now have expanded to Asia and Eurasia, despite attempts to strengthen supplier controls and nuclear safeguards in the wake of Iraq's embarrassing nuclear shopping spree before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

If the modes of covert nuclear commerce appear to have changed little, what is particularly egregious about the Khan case? One answer may lie in Khan and his associates' apparent ability to provide "one-stop shopping. …

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Closing Pandora's Box: Pakistan's Role in Nuclear Proliferation
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