Pakistan’s nuclear safety credentials are once again under serious scrutiny after the Australian government blocked the export of two dual use instruments to a Lahore-based firm suspecting it to be part of a proliferation network.
Early April, Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner stopped the export of two atomic absorption spectrophotometers costing $115,000 on the ground that there were ‘unacceptable risks’ in the sale of equipment which might land in wrong hands. He invoked the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act to block the sale by an Australian firm, GBC Scientific Equipment, based in Victoria, to Lahore’s Capital Engineering Services.
The spectrophotometers are used to measure the contents of metals in various substances. They can also be used to analyze metals used in centrifuges and missiles.
Though the firms involved in the sale as well as the Pakistan government contended that the spectrophotometers were to be used for commercial purposes, the Australian Defence Ministry feared that the instruments could be put to use in military and nuclear weapons programmes.
Such fears are not unfounded when it comes to private and even government entities in Pakistan importing dual use instruments.
In January 2004, an Israeli salesman, Asher Karni, was arrested at Denver, US, after intelligence agencies discovered that he was brokering a deal to supply 200 triggered spark gaps, a dual-use instrument, to a Pakistan firm in Islamabad.
FEARS NOT UNFOUNDED
Triggered spark gaps are a dual-use item; they can be used to detonate nuclear weapons or to separate missile stages, but they can also be used in lithotripters, medical devices used to break up kidney stones without surgery.
What raised the red flag in the US was the owner of the Pakistani firm, Pakland PME, based in Islamabad, Humayun Khan. Khan was a known supplier of military hardware to Pakistan Army.
Interestingly, Humayun Khan had no connection with the other Khan, AQ Khan, who ran a global Wal-Mart of nuclear proliferation, buying and selling nuclear materials and equipment, till the Americans decided to bust the game.
US AWARE OF KHAN NETWORK
Not that the Americans were not aware of what AQ Khan and his agents were doing in different parts of the world, they were not convinced that the proliferation activity of Khan and his men posed a threat to them or their allies.
What really rankled the Bush administration was the possibility of Khan’s network being used by the other AQ, al Qaida, to carry out a nuclear attack against the US.
Although Pakistan Army denied any hand in the AQ Khan network, it was quite clear from the enormous amount of evidence gathered by different intelligence agencies in the world that Khan was nothing else but a proxy for the Army’s illicit attempts to buy or steal nuclear technology and materials.
This remains the single reason for the Army to refuse the Americans access to AQ Khan, six years after he was put under house arrest.
PROXIES STILL AT WORK
But even after the Khan network was discovered and reportedly dismantled, Pakistan Army used other proxies to procure materials and equipment to speed up its nuclear weapons programm which, the experts say, remains one of the fastest expanding programmes in the world.
For instance, in 2005, the British intelligence agency, MI5, compiled a list of 360 companies operating in different countries, involved in the clandestine nuclear trade. Significantly, the Pakistan High Commission in London was high on the list.
The 17-page document titled Companies and Organizations of Proliferation Concern identified 96 Pakistani organizations and government bodies involved in this clandestine trade.
The MI5 report only strengthened suspicions about Pakistan Army’s continued role in nuclear proliferation activities raised by different intelligence reports. In May 2004, Switzerland’s Annual report on national security revealed that the Khan network had twice tried to acquire Russian nuclear technology through a Dutch and a Swiss firm.
The report said various that front companies for the Khan Research Laboratories made attempts to procure 120 tons of Russian aluminum tubes for enriching uranium.
In 2006, another British intelligence estimate revealed that Pakistan, Iran and Syria of buying technology and chemicals required for enriching uranium. The document, belying Pakistan’s claims of dismantling the Khan network in February 2004, pointed out that “since the beginning of 2004 extensive procurement efforts for the Pakistan nuclear sector have been registered.”
The document said the quantity and range of equipment and materials bought clearly pointed out that a significant amount was meant for resale.
The clandestine manner of the Australian deal only raises fears about Pakistan continuing with its proliferation activities, putting the world in general at risk.
(* This news first appeared on www.policyresearchgroup.com)