A.Q. Khan at a court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in January, 2010.(Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
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Dangerous People

A recent book takes a detailed look at the A.Q. Khan network, which helped supply Iran’s nuclear program

Robert Jervis
August 17, 2010
A.Q. Khan at a court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in January, 2010.(Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

From the beginning of the nuclear era we have focused on states and national leaders who decide whether to seek nuclear weapons. What is new and central to recent efforts to join the nuclear weapons club are the role of supplying companies, some witting, others acting with studious inadvertence, and still others duped by the real end-users of the technologies that they peddle. At the heart of this story is the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who in the early 1970s worked for a Dutch centrifuge company that was a partner in the European URENCO uranium enrichment consortium. A patriot enraged by both the 1971 war with India that resulted in the loss of the eastern part of his country (which became Bangladesh) and the 1974 Indian nuclear test, Khan offered to provide his government with blueprints for enrichment centrifuges that he planned to steal from his employer. Returning to Pakistan in late 1975, he played a central role in constructing an extensive procurement network that permitted Pakistan to buy sophisticated enrichment and bomb-making equipment that it could not produce by itself. As a result, Pakistan got the bomb sometime in the mid-1980s, openly tested one in 1998 following Indian tests, and Khan himself received 61 “medals and awards” (according to his website), including the highest civil honor that his government confers (twice).

Khan, the nuclear patriot, then turned profiteer. With the likely blessing of at least part of the Pakistani security apparatus, he used his procurement networks to sell as well as buy equipment, helping to advance the rogue nuclear weapons programs of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Libya. Although British and U.S. intelligence finally convinced Libya that its efforts could not succeed and pressured President Pervez Musharraf to place Khan under house arrest (from which he has been recently released), the Western governments were slow to penetrate Khan’s nuclear proliferation scheme and to put in place effective counter-measures.

Khan, who exaggerated his scientific credentials and claimed exclusive credit for developing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, is described on his website this way: “It is rare that a person in [a] single life time accomplishes so much. This is done only by men who are endowed with special abilities by God.” Khan’s assessment of his own preternatural abilities may be correct: He did enormous damage, and the pathways created remain for others to follow.

Compared to David Albright’s recent Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies, the outline of the Khan story was recounted in a simpler and more readable form by Gorden Corera in Shopping for Bombs. Albright’s book supplies much greater detail and points to loopholes that the nuclear powers should close. Although URENCO, its suppliers, and the European governments were not sufficiently vigilant, they were well aware of the possibility of someone stealing secret plans. But plans by themselves could not enrich uranium, let alone produce a nuclear warhead, anymore than a training manual can produce an army in the field.

Khan’s spying failed to generate much alarm because Western governments were confident that they could prevent Pakistan from buying an enrichment plant. They were slow to see what Khan and Pakistan had already realized: They did not need to buy an entire plant, but instead could do so piecemeal, by buying components and sub-components from different companies around the globe. Many of the purchases were legal under existing regulations because the equipment had legitimate civilian uses. Furthermore, Pakistan of course did not have its nuclear agency directly buy this material, but rather used fronts, had intermediary trading companies contact suppliers, falsified end-use certificates, went through third countries—or a series of them—and utilized “turntable” countries, especially the United Arab Emirates with its free trade zones. These efforts were not universally successful, and companies and governments prohibited or intercepted a number of shipments. But as long as the network remained intact, Pakistan could and did simply try the next company or deceptive technique until it succeeded.

It is trite but nevertheless true to see the Khan network as one of the dark sides of globalization. Many companies throughout the world can now make the complex equipment needed for nuclear programs, and so much dual-use equipment is traded that a leading firm estimates that “smuggling networks make up less than a tenth of one percent of the total number of enquiries” that it receives. Khan knew his suppliers through his academic training, co-workers, and business contacts, and he was able in turn to tap into their own chains of connections to further expand his network.

But states have not been displaced, let alone replaced, by globalization. What is crucial to Albright’s story is that the Pakistani nuclear program was not invented by A.Q. Khan but rather led by the leaders of Pakistan and backed by the resources of the state. State-to-state diplomacy was vital. Pakistan shielded itself from U.S. efforts to prevent it from gaining nuclear weapons thanks to its pivotal role in supplying the Afghan insurgency, which helped bring down the Soviet Union—a goal that was deemed more important than non-proliferation.

Yet one superpower’s decision to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions was hardly sufficient to build a Pakistani bomb. While Khan and his network could not supply blueprints for a warhead, China did, along with a significant supply of weapons-grade uranium. China also may have hosted the first test of the Pakistani bomb in 1990. The full story of China’s proliferation of nuclear material and missiles is beyond the scope of Albright’s book and is not entirely known. Shared animosity toward India and the Soviet Union were probably the main motives, although Chinese behavior still seems reckless. It was predictable that India would increase its nuclear efforts in response to the Pakistani nuclear threat and that India’s increased capacity would in turn threaten China. Furthermore, there was no way for China to be sure that its nuclear blueprints would stay in Pakistan.

They did not. The fact that Khan’s network was selling plans and materials to other countries came as a shock. No governments (and no individuals that I know of) even dreamed of the sort of widespread proliferation activities conducted by private individuals, perhaps without the knowledge of top political leaders. An underestimation of the power of the profit motive, a lack of understanding of Khan’s desire for glory, a focus on state interests, and a lack of imagination conspired to blind observers to what was happening. An additional impediment to understanding was the fact that intelligence services understood that Khan’s network was buying material for Pakistan, and this gave them a ready explanation for what they saw. It took more time and a deeper penetration of Khan’s network to grasp that material was flowing to other countries.

The biggest and most dramatic transactions were with Libya. The decision to help Libya acquire nuclear capacity brought much greater profit, but, as Albright notes, “its sheer scale would also lead to [the network’s] undoing” as the number and size of the transactions led to more and more information reaching the British and U.S. governments. Although not all of the story is known, it is clear that this was both a great intelligence success and a great failure. Khan had been selling material and plans (including Chinese warhead blueprints) for 15 years, contributing to the programs of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. As a leading member of the Iranian nuclear team in the 1980s put it, “Iran could not do nuclear by itself.” Indeed, without Khan and his network Iran and North Korea might not be in the process of becoming significant nuclear menaces and the United States might not have invaded Iraq. It is hard to find another set of private citizens who have done so much damage to the world.

The situation was complicated by the fact that here, as in other cases, there was a trade-off between gathering information and acting on it. As Albright notes, “intelligence agencies were more interested in following the activities of Khan’s accomplices, receiving information from them whenever possible, than in actually arresting the smugglers.” This was not idle curiosity. Until quite late in the game the available information was scattered and fragmentary, and it appears that it was only in early 2002 that the CIA learned much about the extent of Khan’s assistance to Iran. Understanding what individuals and companies were involved, what techniques of procurement and transfer were utilized, and exactly what was being provided were all vital for shutting down the entire network, goading friendly governments into cooperating, and designing anti-proliferation policies. But the cost was that the longer the activities went on, the greater the dangers grew.

Even now, there is a great deal about Khan and his network that we do not know. Western ignorance has been fed by Pakistan’s refusal to let Western intelligence question Khan, and some of his agents and suppliers may still be hidden. More important, we do not know exactly what he transferred to Iran and North Korea. It seems likely that the latter’s bombs were built from blueprints of a Chinese weapon that Khan had supplied. He provided this to Libya as well; did he include it in the sales to Iran? The second remaining mystery is the extent to which Pakistani officials were complicit in the Khan network’s operations. It is hard to believe that they could have remained in the dark, but their willingness to spread nuclear technology far and wide is also hard to understand.

Albright makes a good argument that to prevent further such episodes states need to close the many loopholes in their export-control laws and cooperate more with one another and the technology companies to stanch the flow of sensitive material. Indeed, perhaps his most important contribution is to argue that the suppliers are “the first line of defense.” Albright shows how one company that initially had been a lucrative supplier reformed itself, instituted an effective system of detecting bogus orders, and adopted a companywide ethic of turning away sales whose legitimacy was not clear.

Albright does an excellent job of showing how Khan and his network were peddling peril. But perhaps he is doing some peril-peddling himself, albeit for the best of motives: to energize the world to remain vigilant against nuclear proliferation. While agreeing that this is a good cause, I want to raise three questions/objections. First, although Albright is level-headed in his evaluation of nuclear-armed terrorists, he may somewhat exaggerate this threat. Wanting nuclear weapons and being able to get them are two very different things, and the fact that the obstacles in the way have been surmounted by only a few states gives us reason to think that they are simply insurmountable for even the best-organized and most skillful terrorist group. Even though Iran and North Korea have made good use of the information of the materials supplied by Khan, not all countries could do so. Libya’s efforts failed miserably, and his understanding that they were not likely to succeed was one of the reasons why Muammar Qaddafi decided to come in from the cold. Two other experts, Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman, are only slightly too dismissive to say that “when selling the Ferrari of fratricidal physics to a young driver, it helps if the driver knows how to drive.”

A third question is whether further proliferation is likely, or, if it is, whether the route is likely to involve illicit networks. If—and this is a very big if—the United States and its allies can close down the programs of Iran and North Korea, few other countries are likely to seek nuclear weapons under currently foreseeable circumstances (although circumstances have a way of turning out to be unforeseeable). Of course if Iran and North Korea continue on their current trajectory, their neighbors will face heightened incentives to match them. But it seems unlikely that illicit networks would be central. I think good old-fashioned state-to-state assistance is likely to play a much larger role in the future of nuclear proliferation than private networks, which may have lost have some of their potency thanks to the fact that we are now alert to the threat that they pose.

Robert Jervis is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University.

Robert Jervis is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University.