July 14, 2019


One Screw Short: a review of Pakistan's Nuclear Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence and Deviance by Hassan Abbas (Owen Bennett-Jones, July 2019, London Review of Books)

The story begins with Iran in the mid-1980s. In the face of repeated Iraqi chemical weapons attacks, the government in Tehran decided to revive the shah's nuclear programme - overcoming Ayatollah Khomeini's reservations about the bomb's sharia-compliance. Iran needed help to get started and turned to Pakistan's military dictator, General Zia, who authorised Pakistan's nuclear scientists to engage with their Iranian counterparts. At the time Washington was threatening Pakistan with sanctions for its work on the bomb, and Zia may have calculated that low-level nuclear co-operation with Iran could be used as a negotiating chip to be traded in later: the co-operation could always be ended if sanctions looked imminent, as a way of averting the threat.

So the general, always adept at managing the relationship with Washington, directed his officials to help the Iranians - but not to give them anything substantial. Between 1986 and 2001 Pakistan provided Iran with designs for a uranium enrichment facility as well as key components needed to make a bomb. By the time the co-operation began, Khan had already put together an international network of suppliers and middlemen to procure the materials Pakistan needed for its own nuclear programme - a network that eventually included businessmen and engineers in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Turkey, South Africa and Switzerland. A front company in Dubai, Gulf Technical Industries, was run by a British businessman who lived near Swansea. This loose confederation saw Iran as a potential new customer; Khan's name gave their sales pitch credibility. In 1987, Pakistan sent Iran two used centrifuges which, in line with Zia's directives, were of limited use: Khan himself was already working on a more advanced model. Abbas believes the person in charge of the day to day management of the nuclear relationship with Iran was General Beg, at the time vice chief of army staff, who once claimed that Tehran had offered him $10 billion for nuclear weapons technology. In the event Pakistan sold it much more cheaply.

An indication of quite how tight a grip Pakistan's military kept on all this is that Benazir Bhutto knew nothing about it until well into her first term as prime minister - and even then found out only by accident. In the autumn of 1989, as she told Abbas and others, she was at a conference in Tehran when President Rafsanjani invited her into a quiet corner to discuss a sensitive matter. He said he wanted to reaffirm the agreement their two countries had reached on 'special defence matters'. Unaware of any such arrangement, Bhutto said: 'What exactly are you talking about, Mr President?' 'Nuclear technology, Madam Prime Minister, nuclear technology,' Rafsanjani replied. Back home, Bhutto asked the president and army chief what he'd been talking about; they pretended they hadn't a clue.

Abbas concludes that the initial phase of co-operation with Iran was conducted without the army's institutional support - but that Khan had the tacit backing of a small number of senior individuals. It's a rather odd way of looking at it. If a serving army chief makes major strategic commitments to a foreign power it's hard to see how the outcome can be considered a freelance or rogue operation.

Then there was the deal with North Korea, which came about during Bhutto's second term in office. This time, more aware of the need to placate the Pakistani deep state, she offered to do its bidding. The journalist Shyam Bhatia, who had known Bhutto at Oxford, interviewed her in Dubai in 2004. In the course of their conversation, Bhatia says, Bhutto revealed that in 1993, while she was prime minister, she had personally carried discs with data on uranium enrichment into Pyongyang. She had even bought an overcoat with especially deep pockets so as to conceal the discs on her journey. Loyal friends of Bhutto have rejected the claim outright, insisting that she and Bhatia were only distant acquaintances. But when you listen to the tape of the 2004 interview - and hear them discuss Bhutto's brother Murtaza, whom Bhatia had met in Damascus - it's clear that the two knew each other well. Frustratingly, the comments about taking the data to Pyongyang weren't recorded - Bhatia says Bhutto asked that the tape recorder be switched off before she told the story.

There were of course other senior Pakistanis involved in the arrangement with North Korea. Khan has claimed that three army chiefs, Generals Kakar, Karamat and Musharraf, knew all about it. Karamat's possible involvement, first publicly alleged in the Washington Post in 2011, is particularly interesting. The Post claimed that in 1998, in order to secure military support for the deal, Khan gave Karamat - chief of army staff at the time - half a million dollars of North Korean money in cash, for use in 'secret army funds'. Apparently this was not enough to win him over, so Khan hand-delivered him another $2.5 million - some of it hidden in a cardboard box under a layer of fruit, some in a canvas bag.

The story's provenance was rock-solid: the source was a British journalist turned Washington think-tanker, Simon Henderson, who had established a relationship with Khan in the 1970s while working in Pakistan as a stringer for the BBC and the Financial Times. They kept in touch. Khan had good reason to unburden himself to Henderson. In 2004, after Pakistan's involvement in nuclear proliferation became known to the world, Khan appeared on TV to make a confession: he himself took 'full responsibility' for the nuclear deals, which 'were inevitably initiated at my behest'. He added - in words which the state presumably insisted he include - that 'there was never any kind of authorisation for these activities from the government' or the military. He was under house arrest for the next five years, and being made a lone scapegoat must have rankled. So once he was released he started naming names in public. Eventually he sent Henderson a copy of a letter from a North Korean official that detailed the secret payments.

Given the seriousness of the allegation, the Post put considerable resources into verifying the document. Having satisfied themselves that it was genuine, they splashed it on the front page. Karamat strongly denied the allegation but chose not to sue. The fate of what should have been a world-class scoop was instructive. Washington was heavily invested at the time in trying to improve relations with Pakistan so as to further US goals in Afghanistan: no one in the administration could see any advantage in holding the Pakistani army to account, and with the exception of the Post the press toed the government line. Khan must have been deeply frustrated. Having got the story published on the front page of a major Western newspaper he should have been in a position to begin a conversation about nuclear proliferation that involved a central pillar of the Pakistani state. But nobody took any notice.

Posted by at July 14, 2019 7:08 AM