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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The shady side of nuclear (nuclear black market)

Not nearly enough attention is being paid to the well-organized underground network of suppliers who have made illicit nuclear build-up possible.

Commentary by Sara Kuepfer for ISN Security Watch (23/08/06)

Following Tehran’s announcement that it intends to proceed with its nuclear enrichment activities, world attention has again focused on Iran and the question of how to prevent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from acquiring nuclear weapons. Surprisingly, much less attention is being paid, both by world leaders and the media, to black market nuclear supplies who make illicit nuclear build-up possible.

Some believe that Iran would not be as dangerous a threat to its enemies today had it not been for an international smuggling network led by the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, a hero to the Pakistanis.

In fact, the earliest document indicating contact between Khan’s network and Iran dates back to 1987. In the mid-1980s, some Pakistanis were said to have had ideological motivations to help Iran with its nuclear ambitions. As investigative journalist Steven Coll explained in an interview with Blake Eskin of the US magazine The New Yorker this month: “Some Pakistani generals apparently believed that it was in Pakistan’s interest to form an alliance with the revolutionary government of Iran, in strategic defiance of the United States and its European allies, even though some of the Iranian ideology was not compatible with Pakistan’s approach to Islam or even to regional politics.”

Still, what Pakistani nuclear scientists actually provided Iran with in terms of nuclear technology remains a mystery for investigators with the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Money has always been a prime motivator as well - perhaps even more so for Khan’s suppliers of nuclear technology in the West.

Although the Khan network was exposed in the spring of 2004, with Khan himself placed under house arrest in Pakistan, it is likely that its remnants continue to operate. Khan’s network spanned the globe, involving dozens of countries, companies, salesmen, secret bank accounts and production plants. Untangling this shady and complex network is difficult, and only a handful of participants have been apprehended so far. And it seems likely that US president George W Bush's claim that "we put them [Khan's network] out of business" should not be accepted with any amount of certainty.

The first criminal trial of an alleged key figure in the Khan network took place this spring in Mannheim, Germany. However, the trial was suspended partly due to the unwillingness of key witnesses abroad to testify. The defendant, German engineer Gotthard Lerch, had worked for the German engineering firm Leybold-Heraeus GmbH, a company that manufactured components for uranium enrichment plants. Lerch left Leybold-Heraeus in 1985 to set up his own engineering company, allegedly taking with him blueprints of nuclear enrichment components from his former employer. Coll says German prosecutors believe he made as much as US$20 million on illicit nuclear dealings with Libya alone.

Although the German authorities are considering a retrial, the collapse of the proceedings is a setback for international non-proliferation efforts, as the trial could have provided important information on the Khan network. Lerch, who is believed to have been in direct contact with the Iranians since the late 1980s, might have been able to shed light on the progress of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

In May 2005, authorities in Switzerland arrested Swiss engineer Friedrich Tinner and his two sons, Urs and Marco. They were suspected of building and shipping gas centrifuge parts to Libya between 2001 and 2003, and possibly even Iran, intended for their nuclear weapons programs. Formal charges have not been brought against them as prosecutors are having difficulty obtaining pertinent information from the US regarding the case, though Libya has promised to provide additional evidence.

With the nuclear black market spanning the globe, information-sharing among prosecutors and government investigators in the various countries concerned has been slow at best.

Further complicating the disclosure of the smuggling network is Pakistan’s refusal to allow the IAEA and foreign governments to question Khan freely.

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