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Josh Pollack on A. Q. Khan

by | March 11th, 2014 | 07:05 am
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At a conference in Berkeley over the weekend, I caught up Brookings’ Jonathan Pollack. Jon’s son is also in the North Korea business, with useful pieces recently on enrichment (with Scott Kemp) and North Korea’s missile sales in the Non-Proliferation Review. But we missed an interesting profile he did on A.Q. Khan for Playboy back in 2012 (.pdf here, minus the graphics). Pollack speculates on an outstanding puzzle in the non-proliferation community: whether there was a fourth country beyond Libya, North Korea and Iran that received enrichment technology from the Khan network. Could it have been none other than India?

Khan’s undoing began with IAEA findings in early 2003 that some of Iran’s enrichment equipment bore traces of highly-enriched uranium. The Iranians claimed it came from Pakistan. The unraveling of the Libyan side of the network occurred after Qadaffi decided to cash out his nuclear program for an easing of relations with the West. When inspectors descended on Libya, they started pulling on the various threads linking Khan to the production of centrifuge equipment in Malaysia and intermediaries in Dubai.

To this day, the North Korea side of the story is the least well-known. Khan apparently told a senior Pakistani general that he had supplied the North Koreans in the 1980s, but they were unable to use it. According to a letter Khan wrote to his wife the day he was arrested, the transfers that occurred in the 1990s began with a $3 million dollar bribe from Pyongyang and the ultimate exchange of North Korean missiles and missile technology for “some drawings and machines.” To this day, there is still no inventory of what the North Koreans actually had and whether it was worth scrapping the Agreed Framework for, as the Bush administration effectively did in late 2002.

But the Libyan investigation raised puzzles. Despite the best forensic efforts of the IAEA’s Olli Heinonen, who led the investigation, not all shipments emanating from the Malaysian production operation could be tracked to earth. Was the equipment simply missing, dumped or destroyed? Or was there possibly a fourth customer?

Based on Khan’s travels, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were all raised as possibilities, as was Turkey. But Pollack makes an interesting speculation that it might have been India.

Pollack’s speculation is rooted in a psychological profile of an A.Q. Khan bent on getting the better of India. Khan grew up in Bhopal, but experienced the humiliations imposed on Muslims at the time of the separation of India and Pakistan after 1947, when Khan and his brothers moved to Karachi. The defeat at the hands of India in the 1971 war and the first Indian nuclear test also sparked Khan’s interest in besting his erstwhile national competitor. In addition to his determination with respect to Pakistan’s nuclear program, Pollack details Khan’s interest in sponsoring higher education in the sciences in Pakistan through the founding of the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology. Underneath these efforts was an ongoing desire to show his Indian counterparts that Pakistan was their equal.

Enrichment technology was a perfect proving ground since India had not yet mastered it. Sometime before 1992, India started to pursue enrichment, and over the next decade and a half, shopped openly on the international market for needed inputs; Pollack claims that at one point, the Indian government even placed newspaper ads soliciting components.  This was, of course, exactly the time that the A.Q. Khan network was at its peak.

But Pollack brings some other evidence to the table, albeit circumstantial:

  • According to Pollack, India’s centrifuge technology “almost mirrors the G-2 centrifuge,” a design that Khan stole from the European consortium URENCO in the 1970s and later reproduced as Pakistan’s P-2 centrifuge.
  • The Indian and Pakistani procurement networks overlap, particularly in Gerhard Wisser, a German living in South Africa, and a Swiss national he worked with named Gotthard Lerch. Could these men have been feeding both the Indian and Pakistani procurement networks and in the process leaking information on designs?
  • Although Khan’s testimony has never been released, Musharraf’s memoirs suggest that Khan’s Dubai operations may have been penetrated by Indians. According to Pollack, Khan’s own version of events is constantly changing, but at various points he has suggested that he was sold out by people in the Dubai operation as well.

There is an air of conspiracy hanging over the whole story; we don’t know whether the missing shipments went anywhere at all. But the A.Q. Khan network provides plenty of evidence for conspiracies. A good read at least; we certainly don’t have anything that is Playboy-worthy.