US not finished with Pakistan yet

Posted in Broader Middle East | 21-Mar-05 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

KARACHI - The United States is exerting maximum pressure on Pakistan to provide a detailed and "authentic" list of all of its nuclear cooperation with Iran over the years.

Contacts in the highest echelon of Pakistan's strategic quarters tell Asia Times Online that during her visit to Islamabad on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appraised Pakistan of the latest - and strong - US demands.

Many in the Bush administration believe that Iran's nuclear energy program is a smokescreen for developing nuclear weapons. Tehran has agreed with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it will temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Last week, Pakistan publicly admitted that Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the mastermind of the country's nuclear program, had given centrifuges - rather than just blueprints - to Iran as part of a package of materials that could be used to make a nuclear bomb, but only in "his personal capacity". Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium.

Now the US wants hard evidence of this and all of Pakistan's other dealings so that it can build its case against Iran. This will include full scrutiny of Pakistan's nuclear program, especially from the late 1980s until the early 1990s, when Pakistan developed the nuclear device, which it eventually tested in 1998.

Importantly, and to the consternation of Pakistan, the US demand includes direct access and interrogation of Pakistan's former chief of army staff, General Aslam Beg, who has on many occasions openly endorsed nuclear cooperation with Iran, former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan (August 17, 1988 until July 18, 1993) and Dr Khan.

The exhaustive US demand has sent shock waves through General Headquarters Rawalpindi. To date, the belief had been that Pakistan's cooperation has been sufficient to avoid people like Dr Khan from being handed over.

The contacts tell ATol that the initial reaction in Rawalpindi is that the requested people will not be placed in the hands of US interrogators. It is not known what "inducements" Washington is offering Islamabad for its cooperation, or, conversely, what stick it is waving for not cooperating. Pakistan has for a long time wanted F-16 fighters from the US, especially since India is reported to also be in the market, and already receives financial and other US military aid for collaborating in the "war on terror".

"The [Pakistan proliferation] issue is of such critical importance that as soon as it broke out [last year], the Pakistani leadership decided at once what to do. They placed Dr Khan under house arrest so that nobody could meet him. After completely isolating Dr Khan, Pakistan extended all cooperation to the US, which was of value to the US and to its satisfaction," a top strategic expert maintained.

"But US interrogation of personalities like Ghulam Ishaq Khan, A Q Khan and General Beg will mean a complete exhibition and access to all strategic secrets and would be tantamount to compromising Pakistan's integrity," the expert said.

"Now, though, the US means business and it is collecting evidence [against Iran] which Pakistan is meant to provide. But the US has been asked to submit its queries concerning proliferation, and they will get a reply through Pakistani channels. Inquiries are continuing by Pakistani officials with all concerned officials, including General Beg, and their answers are being submitted to the US. It will continue in the future as well.

"You can match the situation with the South Waziristan operation. At the start, the US was convinced through its intelligence that all high-value targets [such as Osama bin Laden] were holed up in South Waziristan [tribal region]. Washington urged Pakistan to allow US troops to operate in the terrain to win the 'war on terror' once and for all. However, from the beginning Pakistan drew a line on its cooperation under which it fully cooperated in the hunt for militants and in defeating pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda elements, but it refused to allow US troops to operate in Pakistani territory, though on occasions Pakistan turned a blind eye on US advancement in its territory," he added.

Pakistan is obviously extremely sensitive about the proliferation and black market side of its nuclear program - which it still insists was carried by individual elements without the knowledge of the establishment.

The public saga of Pakistan's nuclear program began some years ago at the wedding ceremony of then editor of the Muslim, Islamabad, Mushahid Hussain, a journalist-turned-politician and now general secretary of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.

He introduced Dr Khan to a senior Indian journalist, Kuldeep Nayyer. Thinking that he was speaking off the record, Dr Khan briefed Kuldeep, only to his horror - and to that of the establishment - to then read a full article on Pakistan's nuclear program.

As a result, Dr Khan was given the same security and protocol as the president of Pakistan.

But once Pakistan acquired nuclear capability, Dr Khan's security situation became lax and and he was allowed to move around and make statements in public, and even travel outside the country.

"It was a fact that he was elevated as a celebrity in the country, and even for generals he was the heroic figure who equipped them with deterrence against Indian military might," one strategic expert told ATol.

This hero-worship backfired. A classified interrogation report of Khan Research Laboratories' (KRL) security chief, Brigadier Tajwar, accepted that he knew about the movement of centrifuges outside KRL, but he dare not stop Dr Khan and ask about the purpose of the transportation. Pakistan's nuclear program was mostly developed at KRL.

Although Dr Khan has been individually blamed - and publicly accepted responsibility for - Pakistan's proliferation, Iran handed over a list of about two dozen Pakistani scientists to the IAEA for alleged involvement in Iran's program.

"US pressure came very late. Before Pakistan even knew of Dr Khan's involvement in proliferation and despite intense public reaction, Dr Khan was removed as head of KRL and banned to enter its labs. Only for the sake of face-saving in public he was appointed as an advisor to the president," said the expert.

The fate of Dr Khan remains unclear. He is under virtual house arrest under heavy security in his residence near Islamabad, and he can be expected to live like that until his end, when he will take all his secrets with him.

"Unfortunately, this is the most likely scenario. The US pressure is maximum, there is no doubt. That Pakistan will stand firm there is no doubt either. The situation will not change, even in the next two years. However, the ultimate reaction of a world superpower is only determined by its geostrategic requirements, not by any fixed ideas or rules," the strategic expert commented.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at