February 9, 2009

Pakistan releases AQ Khan - how about some answers?

US State Dept photo Last week, the Islamabad High Court ordered the Pakistan government to release nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan from house arrest. Khan was placed under house arrest in 2004 after he confessed to operating a nuclear weapons technology proliferation network - the so-called "AQ Khan network."

The in-home confinement was the extent of his punishment - he was pardoned almost immediately after his confession by then-President Pervez Musharraf. Khan confessed to transferring nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

When Khan later denied providing technology to Iran and North Korea, American intelligence agencies requested the opportunity to question the scientist. All such requests have been denied. The Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) has provided only limited answers to question provided by the United States. It is doubtful that more answers are forthcoming to questions about exactly what the AQ Khan network provided to Iran and North Korea. Khan is regarded as a national hero in Pakistan.

US DOE photo

Centrifuges acquired by Libya via the AQ Khan network

North Korea has agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program, however, Iran remains a major concern for both the West and Israel. Iran has undertaken a major nuclear research and development program which it insists is for peaceful purposes and the generation of nuclear power.

Iran's stated program goals are almost laughable for a nation awash in oil and natural gas. Iran flares off more energy from its oil and gas wells than the potential power that could be generated if all of Iran's declared nuclear facilities were dedicated to the effort. The program has all the trappings of a nuclear weapons program. Given Iran's interest in long-range ballisitic missiles and its threats against Israel, most analysts have concluded the country is intent on developing nuclear weapons.

During my recent visit to Israel, Israeli intelligence analysts reiterated their concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions. They assess that Iran could have enough low-enriched uranium to further refine into weapons grade fissile material sufficient for one nuclear device by the end of this year.

The Israelis do not know if Iran possesses the capability to turn a device into a deliverable weapon. For that, they (and we) would like to have some answers from AQ Khan. Did he provide that type of information and technology to Iran? If they enrich enough fissile material for a weapon, do they already have a design? If there is a design, it is for a missile warhead or an air-delivered bomb?

Pakistan claims to be an ally of the United States. If AQ Khan did in fact violate Pakistani law, the ISI should provide answers to questions about what was provided to whom. That said, I will not hold my breath.