New details are emerging about Pakistan’s role as both a customer and supplier of materials and equipment with potential nuclear weapons applications as international investigations pry deeper into the country’s clandestine procurement networks.
Islamabad admitted in early 2004 that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father” of its nuclear weapons program, had been running a clandestine proliferation network that supplied countries such as Iran, Libya, and North Korea with uranium-enrichment technology. Khan developed the network through contacts he had cultivated while obtaining materials and equipment for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
Uranium enrichment increases the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope, producing either low-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium (HEU). If enriched to high enough levels, HEU can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.
Khan’s network supplied Iran and Libya with technology and equipment for gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium hexafluoride gas by spinning it at very high speeds. In the Libyan case, Tripoli has acknowledged that the network also supplied Libya with uranium hexafluoride and designs for a nuclear weapon.
The United States has repeatedly stated that there is no evidence that Pakistan’s government was involved with or supported the Khan network. Washington has repeatedly expressed satisfaction with Islamabad’s cooperation, despite Pakistan’s refusal to allow any outside officials to question Khan.
Pakistan as Supplier
Pakistan has recently stepped up its cooperation with an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into the sources of some enriched uranium particles found in Iranian facilities. Iran has admitted to enriching uranium to very low proportions of uranium-235, but IAEA inspectors have found particles enriched to much higher levels. (See ACT, April 2005.)
As part of the investigation, IAEA inspectors have already taken environmental samples at several locations in Pakistan to determine where the uranium might have been enriched. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri told reporters April 1 that Islamabad has now agreed “in principle” to send centrifuges to the IAEA for additional sampling, but will not allow agency inspectors to interview Khan or inspect Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reported last November that the IAEA’s evidence so far “tends, on balance, to support” Iran’s claim that the particles came from imported centrifuge components, but indicated that there could be other explanations for the uranium’s presence.
The United States has recently publicly disclosed an intelligence assessment that North Korea supplied Libya with uranium hexafluoride via the Khan network.
Speaking to an audience in Seoul March 6, then-U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill indicated that Washington has “evidence” that the material originated in North Korea and “was brokered through Pakistan with the knowledge that it would end up in Libya.”
A March 22 Department of State press statement emphasized that Washington “has no evidence that the Government of Pakistan authorized the transfer.” Several months ago, National Security Council officials briefed Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean officials about the intelligence.
Press reports of the shipment, which perhaps added a new piece to the Khan network puzzle, first appeared almost a year ago. Tripoli had disclosed that it had the nuclear material following its December 2003 decision to give up its nuclear weapons efforts, which included a uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, March 2004.) The IAEA has since reported that Libya ordered 20 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride from the Khan network, but it has not yet disclosed the material’s country of origin. Malaysia’s inspector general of police reported in 2004 that uranium hexafluoride had been shipped from Pakistan to Libya.
North Korea has indigenous supplies of natural uranium, but whether it can produce uranium hexafluoride is unclear. In February interviews with Arms Control Today, government sources expressed skepticism that Pyongyang was Tripoli’s uranium supplier. (See ACT, March 2005.)
Pakistan as Customer
The recent indictment of a Pakistani businessman for violating U.S. export control laws came shortly after a March 15 Reuters report that Pakistan is continuing to acquire material and equipment from overseas for its nuclear weapons program.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, announced April 8 that a federal grand jury in Washington had indicted Humayun Khan for violating U.S. export control laws by acquiring material with potential nuclear weapons applications.
ICE also revealed the same day that Asher Karni, an Israeli citizen living in South Africa, had pled guilty this past September to assisting Khan’s acquisition efforts.
According to court documents, Karni had oscilloscopes and triggered spark gaps shipped from U.S. firms to his company in South Africa, called Top-Cape Technology, at Khan’s direction. Karni obtained three oscilloscopes between March and August 2003. He then re-exported them to two companies in Pakistan.
Karni also obtained 66 spark gaps from a U.S. manufacturer and then sent them to Pakistan via the United Arab Emirates. However, U.S. officials who had been alerted to Karni’s efforts persuaded the manufacturer to disable the spark gaps.
Oscilloscopes can be used to obtain data from tests of nuclear weapons and related components. Spark gaps can serve as detonators for certain types of nuclear weapons.
Karni was arrested in January 2004 as he attempted to enter the United States. Khan remains in Pakistan.
An ICE official told Arms Control Today April 21 that the investigation is ongoing, adding that additional domestic and foreign entities could have been involved in the scheme.
Mohammed Sadiq, Pakistan’s deputy chief of mission in the United States, told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn April 10 that Khan “was not involved in procuring triggers or other equipment for Pakistan’s nuclear programme.”
ICE also announced that Karni pled guilty to exporting items to India that are “controlled for nuclear non-proliferation reasons.” It did not elaborate.