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.

book cover

The Nuclear Jihadist

By Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins

Twelve, 432 pages

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Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons

By Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark

Walker & Company, 608 pages

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America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise

By David Armstrong and Joseph J. Trento

Steerforth, 288 pages

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Iran and the Bomb: The Abdication of International Responsibility

By Thérèse Delpech

Columbia University Press, 160 pages

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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.” Thus, any passing concern about what the Pakistanis liked to call “the Islamic Bomb” was swept aside in the fervor of the anti-communist jihad. Asked in January 1980 for his views on Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan summed up the official attitude: “I just don’t think it’s any of our business,” he replied. Torrents of U.S. aid were already pouring into Pakistan, where the regime was devoting energy and funds to the construction of thousands of “madrasas” — Islamic religious schools — with the enthusiastic encouragement of the American paymasters. Thus the United States simultaneously acted as an enabler for the construction of the “Islamic Bomb” and the molding of the Islamists who might one day control it.

For the sake of appearances, Washington had to retain the posture of an ardent anti-proliferator. So portions of the bureaucracy labored on as if U.S. policy really was to prevent Pakistani acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hence the sad but by no means unique story of Richard Barlow, the CIA analyst who told a congressional committee about Pakistan’s extensive nuclear component smuggling network. Telling the truth while his superiors were blithely lying ruined his career at the Agency. After transferring to the Pentagon, he pursued the same course and soon suffered the same punishment. Dick Cheney, defense secretary in the elder Bush’s administration, argued forcefully for a benign attitude toward Pakistan on the issue — after all, there was a lucrative sale of F-16 jet fighters at stake. When customs agents plotted a sting to catch a key member of the Pakistani network, their quarry escaped thanks to a timely tip-off from a high-level State Department official.

The indulgent fostering of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions is, however, just part of the story of these books. A.Q. Khan was elevated to mega-villain status in the Western press only when it emerged that components and expertise from the Pakistani bomb program had been finding their way to countries that were apparently not on the U.S.-approved list: Libya, North Korea and Iran. In reality, despite suggestions by Frantz and Collins that Khan was acting without the knowledge or approval of his government, it is beyond the bounds of probability that Khan could have shipped sensitive material out of the country on military aircraft without authorization. Be that as it may, the story of Pakistan’s nuclear export drive is instructive on two levels. First, as the various authors make clear, there were no great impediments placed in the way of the technology transfers either from Pakistan itself or its various overseas suppliers, certainly not from the CIA, which had recruited Urs Tinner, an important executive in Khan’s smuggling network, to keep Washington informed.

Second, the “secret trade in nuclear weapons,” a phrase that Levy and Scott-Clark breathlessly use in the subtitle of their book, doesn’t seem to have helped anyone actually build a nuke. This is not a point that gets much attention in an anti-proliferation industry vegetating in assorted think tanks and bureaucracies, international and domestic. Moammar Kadafi, for example, who was simultaneously paying billions to Cheney’s Halliburton to build the “great man-made river” irrigation project, seems to have barely unpacked the various pieces of machinery by the time he traded them away to the Americans for Washington’s blessing and newfound friendship. The North Koreans, despite having handed over useful missile technology to Islamabad, never got anywhere with their Pakistani-supplied uranium enrichment facilities. The bombs they did build came via their indigenously developed plutonium production program.

That left Iran. Despite the inanities spelled out by Therese Delpech in “Iran and the Bomb: The Abdication of International Responsibility,” the most notable feature of the ayatollahs’ bomb program is that it was so unsuccessful, which may be why they abandoned it in 2003. (Delpech confirms the old axiom that there is no more unappealing spectacle than that of a French intellectual aping American political fashions; in this case a crude neoconnery complete with the usual casual misrepresentations of Iranian statements and policy.) After all, it took Iran’s nuclear scientists 21 years of research and seven years of sporadic experiments to get a mere 164 centrifuges spinning away to produce a nugatory quantity of enriched uranium. That was a year ago, and Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t seem to think they have put on much of a spurt since then. It would be nice to think that the authors of the recently unveiled National Intelligence Estimate rebutting claims of an ongoing Iranian bomb program were inspired by ElBaradei’s observation that “everybody [should] have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons,” but bureaucratic self-interest seems a more likely stimulus.

Does nuclear proliferation matter that much anyhow? The assorted pundits and bureaucrats, not to mention hard-working journalists such as the authors of these books, would be aghast even to hear the question asked, but it must be admitted that India and Pakistan have stopped fighting full-scale wars since they both got bombs. If, however, the answer is yes, perhaps an imaginative counter-proliferation strategy would be to sponsor A.Q. Khan to export his technology, on the grounds that it never quite appears to work. Come to think of it, that seems to be what we did.

Andrew Cockburn is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.”

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