Pakistani Probe Cites Top Scientists
Iran Nuclear Effort Said Aided in Secret '80s Deal
By John Lancaster and Kamran Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 24, 2004; Page A01
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani investigators have concluded that at least two of the country's top nuclear scientists -- including Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb -- provided unauthorized technical assistance to Iran's nuclear weapons program in the late 1980s, according to senior Pakistani officials.
The scientists allegedly provided the help under a secret agreement between Pakistan and Iran that was supposed to be limited to the sharing of peaceful nuclear technology, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The findings pose a political dilemma for Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president. Islamic hard-liners have rallied to the defense of the scientists, who are regarded as national heroes, and have accused the government of pursuing the investigations to gain favor with the Bush administration.
Musharraf acknowledged on Friday that it appeared Pakistani scientists had sold nuclear secrets abroad "for personal financial gain" but reiterated his government's position that there had been no official involvement, the Reuters news agency reported from Davos, Switzerland, where Musharraf was attending the World Economic Forum. "There is no such evidence that any government personality or military personality was involved in this at all," he said.
Pakistani officials identified the second scientist as Mohammed Farooq, a high-ranking manager at the country's premier nuclear weapons laboratory, which is named after Khan. Some investigators have recommended charging Farooq under Pakistan's Official Secrets Act, which carries a possible prison term, the officials said. Farooq has been in government custody since his arrest Nov. 22.
Musharraf will make a final decision on whether to pursue charges against either scientist -- and perhaps others -- after he returns from Davos this weekend. "A legal examination of the probe is underway, but it seems that Dr. Farooq will be charged with violating the Official Secrets Act," said a senior intelligence official, adding that Farooq had implicated Khan in the course of his discussions with investigators. "Dr. A.Q. Khan was questioned in view of Dr. Farooq's statement," the official said.
Pakistan launched its investigation in November after the International Atomic Energy Agency provided information suggesting Pakistani scientists had helped Iran develop centrifuges used to make enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. U.S. officials have said that Pakistan over the years has provided similar assistance to North Korea and that they suspect its scientists of doing the same for Libya; they have also said they accept Musharraf's assurances that any collaboration with North Korea has stopped.
The investigation has been widely condemned by Pakistanis as further evidence that Washington is meddling in their country's internal affairs, and some government officials also question the aggressiveness with which it is being pursued. An aide to Musharraf acknowledged that a public trial of Farooq or Khan could prove highly embarrassing if it led to further disclosures, especially concerning the role of the military, the main power center in Pakistani politics and for decades the overseer of its nuclear program.
"Any trial of a nuclear scientist -- particularly any gesture of public disgrace for A.Q. Khan from the government -- will open a Pandora's box," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Bygones are bygones, let's move forward -- this is what the president believes in these crucial moments."
The uniformed establishment has largely escaped scrutiny in the probe, which is being conducted primarily by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, a branch of the military, and is said to be days away from completion. Officials acknowledged, for example, that investigators have yet to interview retired Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, who openly advocated a military alliance with Iran during his tenure as army chief of staff from 1988 to 1991.
Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan, a former cabinet-level assistant to then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said in an interview Thursday that Beg approached him in 1991 with a proposal to sell nuclear technology to Iran. [color=red]Former U.S. ambassador Robert Oakley said Beg personally told him in 1991 that he had reached an understanding with the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards to help Iran with its nuclear program in return for conventional weapons and oil.
Later, Oakley said, Sharif and Pakistan's president at that time, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, told Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that the Pakistani government had no intention of carrying out such an agreement. That, however, "did not necessarily mean that Beg and A.Q. Khan did not go forward," Oakley said.</font>
In interviews Thursday and Friday, Beg acknowledged that he had maintained close ties with Iranian generals but denied that he ever authorized the transfer of nuclear technology. "It never happened," he said, describing allegations as "part of the conspiracy against me."
Beg acknowledged, however, that he worked out an agreement with Iran on sharing expertise on several types of conventional-weapons technology but that the planned collaboration never took place.
Although several retired military officers of lower rank have been detained in connection with the probe, its focus on the cream of the civilian nuclear establishment has prompted charges by opposition politicians and family members, among others, that the scientists are being singled out under U.S. pressure.
"My father is being made a scapegoat," Asim Farooq , a physician and the son of the detained scientist, said in a telephone interview Friday. "He is just a scientist, not a decision maker. He only did what was best for Pakistan." An open trial, he said, "will expose the whole truth."
Khan, who has been questioned but has not been detained, did not return a telephone message left at his home here Friday. A strident nationalist who has accused the West of hostility to Islam, he was forced out as director of the nuclear lab in 2001, partly under U.S. pressure, and currently serves as an adviser to the government of Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali.
Information Minister Rashid Ahmed said in an interview Thursday that there was "no need" to interview Beg or other senior military officers because the country's nuclear program "was not under the control of the military" during the period when Beg was army chief. Most of Beg's tenure coincided with the first government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was forced from power in August 1990 by President Khan and succeeded by Sharif.
Bhutto claimed that the army engineered her ouster because she had tried to exert control over its activities, including the nuclear program.
In an e-mail response to questions, Bhutto, who lives abroad, said that as prime minister she had limited influence over the activities of the Khan Research Laboratories, known as KRL, and that the facility's "security was in control of the military." Her attempts to "control the direction of nuclear policy" were "much resisted," she added. In Washington, U.S. officials expressed skepticism about the vigor of Pakistan's investigation and its denials of high-level army complicity. On the other hand, said a Bush administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity, "it's not lost on us that it's a fragile situation there. We are sensitive to the pressure that Musharraf is under from Islamic extremists."
The official suggested that with international pressure mounting on Pakistan following revelations of its nuclear dealings with South Korea, some of which allegedly took place as recently as 2001, Musharraf apparently felt he had no choice but to follow up on the latest allegations concerning Iran, even though they relate to a period that long predates the 1999 coup that brought him to power. "They couldn't stick their heads in the sand any longer and say, 'It wasn't on our watch,' " the administration official said. "Outside pressure would be too great."
While Iran has not directly named Pakistan as a supplier, IAEA inspectors who examined the country's nuclear facilities last fall concluded that that its centrifuges were probably based on Pakistani designs, a finding the U.N. agency shared with Islamabad in a two-page letter in November.
Authorities subsequently have acknowledged detaining at least 11 current or former employees of the Khan laboratory, including eight picked up for what officials described as "debriefing" last week. Several have been released but most, including Farooq, remain in custody. Two other nuclear scientists were barred this week from traveling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on the annual Muslim pilgrimage, according to Ahmed, the information minister.
Officials described Farooq as a close confidant of Khan who has worked at the lab since the 1980s and, like Khan, is an expert in centrifuge technology. The purpose in detaining him and several other close associates of the former lab chairman, including Nazir Ahmad, a former director general of the lab, is to "scan the whole range of Dr. A.Q. Khan's activities in the past 15 years or so," a senior intelligence official said.
The leakage of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, officials said, apparently originated in 1987, when former president Mohammed Zia ul-Haq secretly approved a long-standing request from the Iranian government for cooperation in non-military nuclear programs.
A former senior scientist in Pakistan's nuclear program, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Iranian scientists had expressed interest in "non-peaceful nuclear matters." The scientist said that when he called this to Zia's attention shortly before the general's death in 1988, Zia "asked me to play around but not to yield anything substantial, at any cost."
The scientist said the Iranians also pursued the matter with Beg but that he did not know what became of their efforts because by that time he had left the program.
Nisar Ali Khan, the former cabinet official under Sharif, said the army chief of staff argued in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War that "if America is able to overwhelm Iraq, next it will be the turn of Pakistan and Iran." Beg proposed that to keep that from happening, Pakistan should sell its nuclear technology to Iran as part of a "grand alliance" against the United States, Nisar Ali Khan said. "He was generally saying that if America comes down hard on us in response to this alignment, we could easily take advantage of our new technology financially."
Nisar Ali Khan said neither he nor Sharif took the proposal seriously.
Beg denied the conversation ever took place. "It was always under the chief executive," he said of Pakistan's nuclear program. "To think that Dr. Qadeer [Khan] or I would transfer technology to any other country is, I would say, preposterous."