Pakistani scientists helped Iran: WP
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: “Evidence discovered in a probe of Iran’s secret nuclear programme points overwhelmingly to Pakistan as the source of crucial technology that put Iran on a fast track toward becoming a nuclear weapons power,” the Washington Post reported on Sunday quoting US and European officials familiar with the investigation.
The 2,500-word exclusive report filed from Vienna, headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) relies heavily on briefings and reports provided by the agency officials as well as material supplied by the Washington-based Institute of Science and International Security, a nuclear watchdog headed by David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq.
According to the report, the serious nature of the discoveries prompted a decision by Pakistan two weeks ago to detain three of its top nuclear scientists, including Farooq Mohammed, for several days of questioning, “with US intelligence experts allowed to assist”. The scientists have not been charged with any crime and Pakistan continues to insist that it never wittingly provided nuclear assistance to Iran or anyone else, the report notes.
The story claims that documents provided by Iran to UN nuclear inspectors since early November have exposed the outlines of a “vast, secret procurement network that successfully acquired thousands of sensitive parts and tools from numerous countries over a 17-year period”. It adds that while Iran has not directly identified Pakistan as a supplier, Pakistani individuals and companies are “strongly implicated as sources of key blueprints, technical guidance and equipment for a pilot uranium-enrichment plant”.
“Although the alleged transfers occurred years ago, suggestions of Pakistani aid to Iran’s nuclear programme have further complicated the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, a key ally in the war against terrorism,” says the newspaper. Another article in the same issue on Sunday by columnist Jim Hoagland says, “The United States has exerted heavy pressure on Pakistan to halt its clandestine nuclear cooperation with Iran”.
“Iran’s pilot facility, which is now functional, and a much larger uranium-enrichment plant under construction next door are designed to produce enough fissile material to make at least two dozen nuclear bombs each year. China and Russia also made significant contributions to the Iranian programme in the past, the IAEA documents show. Both countries were the focus of a long-running US campaign to cut off nuclear assistance to Iran,” according to the Post.
The blueprints of the uranium enrichment facility, which the IAEA has reviewed, “depict a type of centrifuge that is nearly identical to a machine used by Pakistan in the early years of its nuclear programme, according to US officials and weapons experts familiar with the designs. The plans and components, which were acquired over several instalments from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, allowed Iran to leapfrog over several major technological hurdles to make its own enriched uranium, a necessary ingredient in commercial nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons.”
“The possession of detailed designs could allow Iran to skip many difficult research steps,” David Albright told the newspaper.
Last month, in the face of mounting international pressure, Iran’s leaders agreed to open the country’s nuclear facilities to surprise inspections and to turn over hundreds of pages of documents to the IAEA. These documents show that Iran was intent on keeping its nuclear acquisitions secret, and that it sought a range of technologies far beyond those typically found in countries with commercial nuclear power programmes.
A draft report by Albright’s group, based on experts familiar with the Iranian machine, describes the Iranian plant as a “modified version of a centrifuge built decades ago by Urenco, a consortium of the British, Dutch and German governments. The design is one of several known to have been stolen in the 1970s by a Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Pakistan modified the Urenco design and manufactured a number of the machines before abandoning the centrifuge for a sturdier model,” said Albright. The blueprints obtained by Iran show distinctive modifications similar to the ones made by Pakistan. Traces of highly enriched uranium on centrifuge components in Iran indicated they had been used before. Most of the contaminants are of a type of highly enriched uranium believed to be “consistent with material produced in Pakistan,” Albright said.
The Post report goes on to suggest, “The evidence collectively supports a view widely held among nuclear experts and non-proliferation officials that Iran obtained cast-off parts and designs from a centrifuge that was no longer needed by Pakistan.”
“The particular machine that Iran is using is not the mainstay of the Pakistani programme,” said Gary Samore, now the director of studies at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London. “Pakistan had these used aluminium-rotor machines that it no longer needed. The most plausible explanation for what happened is that Pakistan sold its surplus centrifuges, which have now turned up in Iran.” Albright also believes that “Iran appears to have secretly achieved self-sufficiency in centrifuge manufacturing”.
The Washington Post recalls that in early December, there were reports in Pakistan about the disappearance of nuclear scientist Farooq Mohammed, a colleague of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan in the creation of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. First thought to be missing, government officials later confirmed he had been detained by Pakistani security officials for extended questioning. Two subordinates were also picked up, according to a western official knowledgeable about the incident. “A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman denied that any Americans were involved in rounding up the scientists, but other officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the US government was aware of the incident and had been allowed to participate in the questioning. The episode followed what one official described as high-level requests by both the IAEA and the US government asking Islamabad to respond to new evidence suggesting that Pakistan’s nuclear secrets had been passed to Iran,” said the American source.
Some experts see the detention of the scientists as a hopeful sign, suggesting that Pakistan is preparing to increase its cooperation with IAEA investigators. “The Pakistanis know the Iranians have fingered them,” said Samore. “They know the IAEA is asking questions. This could be the beginning of what Richard Nixon used to call a limited hangout operation,” he said.