Mar 10, 2014
Andrew Cockburn on the Islamic Bomb
Posted on Dec 6, 2007
The history of American foreign policy as an ongoing exercise in hypocrisy is a rich field, as a glance at the familiar photograph of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein back in 1983 will confirm. Almost any area, from trade policy to arms control, carries a record of posturing and specious affectation, but nuclear proliferation seems to bring out the hypocrite that lurks in the breasts of our rulers more often than most. Take, for example, the story of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Once upon a time, the U.S. government stood solidly behind a plan to sell Iran as many as 20 nuclear reactors, as well as a reprocessing plant to turn spent fuel into plutonium. This was, of course, back in the mid-1970s. No one, including proponents of the deal such as White House chief of staff Dick Cheney, appears to have had the faintest qualm about encouraging a Third World country to develop nuclear weapons. All that mattered was that Iran was ruled by our friend the shah, and he had money. As one U.S. diplomat explained, “This was commerce.” The Westinghouse corporation, to name but one of the interested parties, stood to rake in $6.4 billion from the deal.
The Nuclear Jihadist
By Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins
Twelve, 432 pages
Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons
By Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark
Walker & Company, 608 pages
America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise
By David Armstrong and Joseph J. Trento
Steerforth, 288 pages
Iran and the Bomb: The Abdication of International Responsibility
By Thérèse Delpech
Columbia University Press, 160 pages
Once the shah was turfed out, things changed utterly, of course. In recent years, President Bush had no trouble uniting almost our entire political and media establishment in execration at the possibility of a nuclear Iran. The admission by U.S. intelligence agencies—irked at having feebly endorsed so many administration lies in recent years—that Iran does not in fact have a nuclear weapons program has disturbed the official consensus, but not dispelled it. Such a contrast serves as a striking reminder of the essential point about nuclear proliferation: It’s absolutely OK so long as the proliferator is performing some useful service on behalf of the United States. (Though in the case of Israel it may be the other way around.) Otherwise not. Furthermore, if the would-be bomb builder does not have Washington’s endorsement for his efforts, it doesn’t really matter how many secrets he steals, or components he smuggles in. He is unlikely to succeed.
A quartet of illuminating books on Pakistan now being published confirms this truth in all pertinent details. “The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World’s Most Dangerous Secrets and How We Could Have Stopped Him” by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins is probably the most cogent and informative. “Iran and the Bomb: The Abdication of International Responsibility” by Therese Delpech argues the now officially discredited case for the Iranian bomb program. “America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise” by David Armstrong and Joseph Trento and “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons” by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark tell more or less the same sordid story:
A.Q. Khan, born in what is now India in time to witness the sectarian massacres of his fellow Muslims during the arrival of independence, grew up in Pakistan nurturing resentment and suspicion of the land of his birth. Sent abroad to be educated in Europe, he turned into a talented physicist, employed by a Dutch company engaged in cutting-edge research into uranium enrichment for civilian nuclear power. Although there were rules prohibiting access by foreigners like Khan to especially sensitive technologies, these were routinely flouted on his behalf in the interests of getting the work done. Khan was therefore able to help himself to all the technical data about uranium enrichment that an aspiring bomb maker might need, knowledge that he ultimately took home to Pakistan, along with his Dutch wife, and used to win himself a leading (but not unchallenged) role in the Pakistani bomb program.
Along the way, Khan, having ultimately seen off his bureaucratic rivals, became hugely rich and, thanks to his energetic self-promotion, an iconic figure in Pakistan. Islamabad regimes came and went, but the nuclear program continued undisturbed, ultimately producing the Pakistani deterrent. Following this success, he turned to the export market, selling plans and components for nuclear weapons systems to North Korea, Iran and Libya (the last having earlier helped finance the Pakistani program). Such nuclear outreach, allegedly organized by Khan single-handedly, sealed his reputation as “the nuclear jihadist,” a real-world Dr. Evil.
As we shall see, there may be less to the secret trade in nuclear weapons than has met the eyes of these reporters. Nevertheless, the story of how Khan was able to help himself to sensitive enrichment technologies from the Dutch plant where he was initially employed and transport them back to Pakistan unmolested is an intriguing tale, with many familiar aspects. As in most cases of espionage disasters, from Pearl Harbor to the CIA traitor Aldrich Ames, large numbers of people were in on the secret but did nothing about it. Dutch security learned as early as 1975 what Khan was up to but dutifully checked in with the CIA before sending for the paddy wagon. Langley replied that he should be left alone, in hopes of finding out more about the network of suppliers then being assembled by the Pakistanis.
In public at least, Washington did direct a certain amount of bluster at Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program, including some mild economic sanctions. Attempts to impede the concurrent plutonium initiative were pursued with greater vigor, but, coincidentally or not, the plutonium project involved a Pakistani contract with the French to supply a reprocessing plant, and nobody minded beating up on the French. The bluster abruptly ceased when leftists took power in Afghanistan, followed at the end of 1979 by a Soviet occupation force. Zbigniew Brzezinski, as quoted by Armstrong and Trento, defined what would become U.S. policy for years to come. The “Afghan resistance,” he declared, should be supplied with money and arms, while the United States should “concert” with Islamic countries both in a propaganda campaign and in a covert action to help the rebels. That, of course, required full Pakistani cooperation, which would, Brzezinski underlined, “require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy.”
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