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#2833, 24 March 2009
AQ Khan and Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Reshmi Kazi
Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
e-mail: reshmikazi@gmail.com

Abdul Qadeer Khan was released from his five-year house arrest this February with assurances that he will not be involved in any future proliferation activities. The release orders passed by the Islamabad High Court were premised on a “mutual agreement” between the federal government and the nuclear scientist. Expressing concern over the Court’s ruling, Washington sought assurances that Khan will not be engaged in any proliferation activity. Pakistan, while ending Khan’s house arrest, declared the infamous nuclear black-market spearheaded by him as a closed chapter. As for Khan, he has declined to “talk about the past things”. Pioneer of an extensive network for proliferation of nuclear materials and equipment, he is a free man now, which poses great risks for the non-proliferation regime. 

AQ Khan was arrested in February 2004 by former President Pervaiz Musharraf for peddling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya. During these last five years, the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made several requests for meeting Khan. In September 2008, the Commission on Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Proliferation and Terrorism sought a meeting with him, which had to be cancelled because the hotel in which the meeting was scheduled was blown up hours before the Commission could arrive in Pakistan. 

Khan’s release without any investigations leaves several questions unanswered, like whether the Pakistani government was complicit and whether Pakistani authorities profited from the sales made by Khan. Reports indicate that beyond the three named beneficiaries there is a fourth country that has profited from the illicit nuclear trade. Pakistan government’s uncooperative attitude has prevented any conclusive investigation being made. With Khan a free man, more convincing answers to the several unanswered questions related to nuclear proliferation remain virtually impossible. 

Political expediency facilitated Khan’s release. Pakistan defended Khan for not violating any Pakistani laws on exports, which were not formulated then. Khan was also absolved of having breached the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) because Islamabad is not a signatory to the NPT nor is it a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). But these politico-legal technicalities can be ignored since Khan did violate Pakistan’s Official Secrets Act. Khan encouraged North Korea and Iran – both signatories to the NPT - to flout their obligations to this multilateral treaty. Khan also flouted another basic tenet of non-proliferation – refrain from transferring nuclear technology to others. 

The politics of expediency was once again visible when the court order was issued following the ‘mutual agreement’ between Khan and the federal government, the details of which were not made public. Khan informed that he had been freed with the “blessing” of the Pakistani Government, which had been “very helpful.” Time will tell whether Khan and Pakistan will keep to their obligations on the mutual agreement. But what is clear is that the latter would not like the details of the agreement to be scrutinized by the domestic and international communities. This image falls far short of a responsible nuclear nation demanding nuclear energy cooperation similar to the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The release of Khan constitutes a defeat for the nonproliferation regime. The Court ruling is being interpreted as a vindication of Khan’s claims that he was not involved in illicit nuclear trade. This would encourage others with access to sensitive materials in Pakistan to follow Khan’s example. The risk of proliferation has also increased with Khan’s release. With thousands of middlemen involved in the proliferation of dual-use technology racket (who are still active), Khan may rope in others to front for him.

The ill-effect of the nuclear black market pioneered by Khan will not die despite Pakistani claims that the AQ Khan affair is a closed chapter. The Commission on the Prevention of WMD published a report – World at Risk, identifying Pakistan as the “intersection of nuclear weapons and terrorism”. In a 2007 Foreign Policy Magazine poll 74 per cent of 117 non-governmental terrorism experts opined that Pakistan might transfer nuclear technology to terrorists in the next three to five years. The freed nuclear scientist remains a potential risk. But what is worrying is the prevalence of a culture of impunity in Pakistan that can encourage others with access to sensitive nuclear materials and technology. The NPT Review Conference is scheduled for 2010. It is time for the international community to act and “convincingly” close the chapter on AQ Khan to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.

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