Nuclear threats in a changing world: revisiting Pakistan

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about nuclear proliferation at the World Affairs Conference in Toronto. The WAC is an annual student-run conference hosted by Upper Canada College. I co-presented along with a Carleton University professor, Trevor Findlay, a veteran of the Australian diplomatic service who now heads the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC), a research unit at Carleton. My speech followed the general lines of my post “Lock and Burn”; you can read the actual text of the speech here.

There aren’t many things more inspiring than speaking with a group of bright students who are genuinely interested in world affairs. The WAC student attendees were obviously well prepared, and asked Dr. Findlay and me excellent questions. One was simply put: which country poses the greatest risk of nuclear proliferation? We both responded immediately: Pakistan.

My own reason for that response is fairly simple. Pakistan, through the efforts of A.Q. Khan, was the conduit that brought uranium enrichment technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Khan is also known to have been in contact with Saddam’s Iraq in 1990; given his dealings with Iran, it looks like Khan sought to profit by playing off two mortal enemies against each other.

Khan publicly apologized in 2004 for these and other activities. On hearing the apology, the Pakistan regime—shocked, truly shocked—placed Khan under house arrest, where he stayed until 2009. The regime considers the Khan matter closed. You see, the guy confessed—publicly. That’s that.

If you really think the matter is closed, I have some fantastic Florida property to sell. Just send me your credit card number and we can get started.

There is no way Khan did all this on his own. He had to have had help from somebody in the Pakistan government. From how high in the government did help come? The U.S. and British intelligence communities probably know. When Moammar Gadhafi realized, in October 2003, that his regime might topple as easily as Saddam’s had in April 2003 and for the same reason, he decided it might be wise to renounce his own nuclear weapons program.

Libya’s program was based on uranium enrichment equipment and expertise Gadhafi had bought from A.Q. Khan. Gadhafi was apparently quite generous in giving details about Khan’s network to American and British intelligence. How generous? When the convicted-then-released Lockerbie bomber flew home in 2009 to a hero’s welcome in Tripoli, America and Britain officially sputtered with outrage and that was about it. The British were apparently eager to see the bomber released. Could that have been because Gadhafi was still releasing information about Khan?

No doubt the west’s knowledge of the extent of official Pakistan’s collusion with Khan has helped in applying diplomatic pressure on Pakistan in the Afghanistan effort. But the fact remains that Pakistan was the proliferation conduit to at least three of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable regimes. It is conceivable that those who colluded with Khan still hold positions of influence. Gadhafi might have been a good source of information about Khan’s operations up to 2003, but revelations about Gadhafi’s change of heart would have compelled Khan and his collaborators to cover their tracks. There is significant informational asymmetry between Pakistan and western intelligence on the Khan issue.

There are also significant limitations to western influence in Pakistan. Pakistan released Khan after five years of house arrest; the U.S. strongly opposed that.

And now Pakistan seems set to overtake Great Britain as the fifth biggest nuclear weapons state. According to a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, this is not such a big worry:

Pakistan’s entry into the “nuclear 100 club” [countries having more than 100 nuclear weapons] does little to change the strategic situation in South Asia, nor does this determined pursuit of nuclear weapons signal a major policy shift in Pakistani behavior. In fact, Pakistan’s nuclear buildup is unlikely to affect US, Pakistani, or global security in the short term.—“Pakistan doubles its nuclear arsenal: Is it time to start worrying?” in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 11 February 20011

Well, given Pakisan’s record described above, it is a big worry. Pakistan is a desperately poor country that is nowhere close to being politically stable. We should keep this in mind when we consider the Arab countries that are undergoing political upheaval as I write this. At least two of those countries, Egypt and of course Libya, have had strong nuclear weapons aspirations. Is there any guarantee that those aspirations will stay submerged?

Of course there is no guarantee. If I were in any of those countries and I wanted to start a weapons program, I’d talk to Pakistan. And if I were in Pakistan and in a position to trade nuclear technology, I might be open to such a conversation.

The Bulletin piece goes on to say “[r]egulating the behavior of the nuclear non-signatories of the NPT (Pakistan, India, and Israel) will likely be the defining nonproliferation challenge of the twenty-first century.” Really? Of those countries, only Pakistan stands out. India has never proliferated, and Israel’s collaboration with South Africa ended when South Africa renounced its own weapons.

I’m more concerned about the behaviour of countries that did sign the NPT only to directly violate it. Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, Libya, and Syria fall into that category.

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9 years ago

Did you talk with Findlay afterwards about his work on CIGI’s nuclear reports?
(You were critical of this work.)

Steve Aplin
9 years ago

crf, you are right — I did not care for that CIGI report (anything that cites Amory Lovins might as well cite Greenpeace). Unfortunately I did not get a chance to take it up with Dr. Findlay at the venue in which we co-presented. There will hopefully be an opportunity at another time; we’re in the same city.

I should say that he did not come off as anti-nuke in his presentation or in his interactions with the students—in fact, his presentation was pretty solid, what you’d expect from an academic who knows his stuff. He said the atom must play a role in de-carbonizing the economy (paraphrasing).

Generally I would say he also agreed that the civilian industry is not a proliferation conduit, though he and I might disagree on interpretations of Iran’s enrichment program.