The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor
By William Langewiesche
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Interest in the Pakistani nuclear marketeer A Q Khan has reemerged recently with news of his rather inane denial of his activities and about the relaxing of restrictions on his movements. Yesterday there was an alarming piece of news suggesting that Khan might have sold blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon to an international smuggling ring. Incidentally I just finished William Langewiesche’s rather disturbing book The Atomic Bazaar, the majority of which is devoted to Khan’s life, times and deeds.
The book is disturbing because its premise is simple; that nations who choose to get nuclear weapons will get them under any circumstances. This is not only because nuclear weapons provide unparalleled leverage in foreign policy and the greatest bang for your buck, but also because it’s not at all easy for other nations to stop nuclear proliferation. This is because of a complex web of reasons that encompass political problems, economic necessities and personal grudges and perceptions. Note that we are not talking here about whether countries have incentives to acquire nukes in the first place. They may or may not and some have and others haven’t, as has been documented lucidly in Joseph Cirincione’s Bomb Scare. What Langewiesche is saying is that assuming that a country does have such incentives, it’s very difficult to stop it from building such weapons. While the fact that this is technologically not too difficult has been demonstrated before, Langewiesche also sheds valuable insight on other reasons why this may be easy.
Langewische describes Khan and concomitantly Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs as a typical case of such proliferation. Many facts conspired to make both Khan’s and Pakistan’s success possible. What is galling in case of Pakistan is that countries such as the US turned a blind eye to the weapons program because of other geopolitical interests that were deemed more important, as sometimes they unfortunately well may be.
Langewiesche traces Khan’s development as a nuclear proliferator from his early days working for the European nuclear consortium URENCO in Holland. Khan started out as a metallurgical engineer having no connection to nuclear issues. His speciality was machine parts of the kind that are used in centrifuges. He largely joined URENCO because that was the best job he could find at the time, and also because he had married a Dutch woman. It was an unfortunate coincidence of fate that he ended up working for a company that manufactured centrifuges for uranium enrichment. By all accounts Khan was not a brilliant or exceptional scientist, but a sincere and hard-working individual. He was affable and liked by his co-workers.
Khan’s interest in nuclear energy developed simultaneously and ominously with political developments in Southeast Asia. Ever since India had launched its nuclear energy program, Pakistan had wanted to build a nuclear weapon. India and Pakistan had gone to war in 1965 and India had won that conflict. Right after this event prominent Pakistani politicians started making noises about wanting nukes. Foremost among these was Zia-ul-Haq, later Pakistan’s prime minister. Famously and rather inanely, he said that the Pakistanis would develop nuclear weapons even if they had to eat grass. India’s 1971 war with Pakistan in which Pakistan suffered a crushing defeat further and greatly reinforced Pakistan’s convictions about acquiring them.
It is to be noted here that this set of decisions puts to rest a commonly held myth about the driving force for Pakistan’s nuclear program. It emphatically was not developed only in response to India’s program, although the Indian program certainly expedited its urgent manifestation. Pakistan almost certainly would have developed nuclear weapons even if India had no nukes right up to the present. This was because it was quite clear to Pakistan that it could never win against India’s vastly larger conventional forces, a point driven home after Pakistan’s defeat in 1971. This is emblematic of one of the fundamental reasons why nuclear weapons are so alluring; they can substitute many times for the lack of advantage in conventional forces that a country has and quite cheaply at that, and since most developing and underdeveloped countries lack large conventional forces, this reason alone could be instrumental in their nuclear weapons development, as was the case with Pakistan.
India’s nuclear weapons test in 1974 sealed Pakistan’s decision to proceed with the program. Long before prime minster General Zia had heard of A Q Khan, he had convened a meeting of Pakistani scientists to embark on a nuclear program. The preliminary thrust was in the development of a plutonium-based weapon and reactors were constructed with American and Chinese help whose secret purpose was to transform Pakistan’s generous reserves of uranium into plutonium.
In Holland, Khan was quietly observing these developments and seething with rage at Pakistan’s humiliating 1971 defeat. What I find upsetting was his religious fundamentalist resentment for the “Hindu bomb” and an overweaning ambition to answer with an “Islamic bomb”. In fact Pakistan, as the first Islamic nuclear actor, has been a role model for countries like Iran, a perception that’s hard to erode from the minds of many fundamentalist Muslim citizens around the world.
Since Khan was in the centrifuge business, he quickly saw that he could contribute to the Pakistani program. Boldly he scheduled a meeting with General Zia himself who he quickly convinced. The General decided to play it safe for the moment and instituted a parallel uranium enrichment program essentially in competition with the plutonium program which was under the auspices of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.
What happened next is disconcerting and points to the kinks in systems for keeping nuclear proliferation at bay. For one thing, security at URENCO was rather lax, with employees free to appropriate spare centrifuge parts. Khan casually took blueprints and parts home and noted information about them in Urdu, aided by his wife. Even when an alert co-worker who was a friend became suspicious, Khan quite brazenly continued his activities. It was only when the co-worker talked to the Dutch authorities that URENCO began to investigate Khan. Even then they could come up with no substantial evidence against him. And by 1975 Khan left for Pakistan for good, armed with enough information to jump-start a uranium enrichment unit in his home country.
The next disturbing part of the story is how Khan slowly built up his nuclear empire in the next few years. One problem with stopping nuclear proliferation is that, apart from nuclear material itself, most other equipment used for building either nuclear reactors or weapons is dual-purpose. Most of the parts needed for building centrifuges can be bought from companies making machine tools or parts. You can put a ball bearing in a juice blender or you can install it in a uranium enrichment centrifuge; it’s a fundamental aspect of technology. Khan banked on this fuzzy nature of the nuclear market and placed orders for parts from European companies that had no explicit nuclear connections. Over the years, he formed a network of trusted suppliers that could ship him large and readymade orders of equipment. He himself set up companies in Dubai and Malaysia that were false fronts for backdoor equipment transfer. Most of the companies he dealt with could be vaguely suspected of taking part in nuclear proliferation but their dual-use capacity made them part of a gray market, hard to explicitly label as black, and hard to garner strong evidence against. Many businessmen and officials in Europe were complicit in these transactions; their true numbers and identity may never be known. Khan deftly exploited this fundamental gap in manufacturing and legislation and finally set up a vast network of uranium centrifuges. Pakistan started churning out its first batches of weapons-grade U-235 in the early 80s.
Perhaps the most galling part of the whole story is how the United States did not and in fact could not stop Khan and Pakistan even when they knew about their activities. Through the 1970s there were some American agents and journalists who knew about Khan’s shenanigans. They managed to convince the US government to keep a tighter watch on US companies who might correspond with Khan. Strict laws did stop US companies from doing this. But in Europe it was much more difficult. For one thing European laws and policies were not as strict as those in the US. But more importantly, and I find this point crucial, European governments were cynical of US efforts to curb proliferation when the US itself possessed upward of 20,000 nuclear weapons. It was again about credibility, the same factor that’s keeping countries such as Iran today from taking the US seriously about stopping nuclear proliferation. Khan himself despised the five nuclear powers from preaching non-proliferation when they themselves were continuing to build vast arsenals.
In the 1980s, Khan started essentially running his nuclear material pipeline in a reverse direction, looking around for customers who wanted the same kind of technology. There were eminently many who jumped at the opportunity to buy a readymade nuclear plant or even better, a small nuclear bomb shipped directly to their doorstep. As we know now, North Korea, Iran and Libya were all eager customers of Khan. In turn they paid Pakistan not only in cash, but in complementary technology, like the North Korean missile technology that’s now installed in Pakistan’s missiles. Khan personally gained an enormous amount too; he now was one of the most respected men in the country, he spent lavish sums on palatial mansions, fleets of the latest cars, and on charity. He took pleasure, as many politicians in corrupt countries do, in building luxurious houses in places where construction was formally banned by law. He dined with the prime minister and held parties for Pakistan’s most affluent at his houses.
A lot of this was known to the US, but by this time, they needed Pakistan’s help in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Reagan, Bush and Clinton all turned a blind eye towards Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal because they wanted Pakistan as an ally in fighting their enemies, a mantle they inherited from their predecessors, a favored policy pursued for almost 50 years in the interests of geopolitical strategy. Some agents were asked to keep quiet, others were transferred to other cases. The consequences are there now for everybody to see- a monster that was nurtured in the form of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a black market of nuclear proliferation that has been unprecedented in its scope. Today the US essentially continues its financial and political policy towards Pakistan while the country continues to provide a safe haven for fundamentalists and terrorist training camps.
The trends continue and the whole story seems to have a strange and ominous air of inevitability to it. Iran seems to signify the same convictions in acquiring nukes as Pakistan did, and it seems difficult to make the Iranians change their course. After all, the nuclear strategy worked well with North Korea and the Bush saber-rattling has been much more moderate towards that country. Iran has a good lesson to learn there.
We can sum up four principal reasons quoted by Langwiesche that lead to the rise of the “nuclear poor”:
1. The age-old incentive especially for poor countries to acquire relatively cheap nuclear weapons that will provide the biggest bang for their buck and quickly make up for the lack of an advantage in conventional forces.
2. The gray nature of the nuclear market and the dissonance among international trade laws that allows proliferators to cleverly skirt regulation and acquire much needed nuclear material.
3. The personal relations and rivalries that prevent countries from cooperating and fighting the proliferation genie together; the European inertia about not heeding the US’s urgent warnings to heel in their corporations is a good example.
4. As a related and very important point, the geopolitical interests that sometimes inevitably bind a nation’s hands and make it difficult or impossible for it to enforce strict policies to stop proliferation. In this case, the US deemed its relationship with and support for Pakistan so important that it turned a blind eye to Khan’s activities.
So what is the solution to stop the nuclear poor from flourishing? For one thing, as I noted earlier, the nuclear poor will get their hands on a nuclear weapon only if they want to. What we need to to is to convince them that they would genuinely be much better off without nuclear weapons. For that, and this point really cannot be reiterated enough, the nuclear powers of the world and especially the US must have credibility. As of now, the US has the least amount of credibility among all the powers. In the current scenario it’s inevitably going to be extremely difficult to convince Iran or any other country to disarm. If he does get elected, the new President Obama will hopefully bring about drastic reductions in the current arsenal, while I don’t see the new President McCain doing so.
It is a very simple element of foreign policy that a country’s safety can only lie in the safety of its enemies, a principle that the US has largely neglected in the last eight years. Whether it’s Iran or North Korea, it is a simple fact of human nature that they are are not going to feel secure if they continue to see the US saber-rattling and engaged in messianic rhetoric.
Secondly, there can sometimes be very simple incentives for countries to give up the idea of nuclear weapons. The country that led to the fall of Khan, Libya, is a shining example. Khan was almost about to deliver a readymade weapon to Libya’s doorstep when Quadaffi realized that here was his chance to gain significant political leverage as well as financial benefits from announcing the existence of this secret atomic bazaar and to give up his nuclear ambitions. If a country truly realizes that its security and self-interest lies in not possessing nukes, it could give up its nuclear ambitions in a heartbeat.
All hope should not be lost. If nations decide to build nuclear weapons, then it’s disturbingly possible for them to do so. But much can be gained if we can work together to convince everyone that the best kind of nuclear weapon is not just one which is never used, but one that’s never had.