Earlier this year, stories citing US intelligence documents reported that Pakistan now had the capacity to enrich uranium to 93 percent. In other words, Pakistan could produce its own weapons-grade nuclear material. This is perhaps the single most difficult step in manufacturing nuclear bombs.
Few persons who had been following Pakistan’s efforts were surprised by this news, or doubted its accuracy. In February 1984, Pakistan’s general-president, Zia ul-Haq, confirmed that Pakistan had made its first enrichment breakthrough, to the 5 percent level needed for research and nuclear power purposes. From that point it was only a matter of time before the country’s nuclear technicians achieved weapons-grade enrichment capacity.
Two men are mainly responsible for putting Pakistan on the threshold of the door to the nuclear club — a politician and a scientist. The politician is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The scientist is ‘Abd ul-Qadir Khan.
Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan in 1971, following the war with India that helped make East Pakistan into the independent state of Bangladesh. Within two months of taking office, Bhutto convened a meeting of top Pakistani scientists in the city of Multan and proclaimed a crash program to develop nuclear weapons capability. Bhutto had already laid the groundwork for such a decision. Between 1958 and 1971, Bhutto had been foreign minister and minister for fuel, power and nuclear resources. In a testament written in jail as he awaited execution in 1978 at the hands of Zia ul-Haq, Bhutto described his objectives:
When I took charge of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission it was no more than a signboard of an office. It was only a name. Assiduously and with granite determination, I put my entire vitality behind the task of acquiring nuclear capability for my country…. A country does not have to be merely wealthy to possess nuclear capability. If that were the only requirement, every OPEC country would have nuclear capability. The essential prerequisite is the infrastructure.
For this reason I gave the highest priority to train thousands of nuclear scientists in foreign countries. Now we have the brainpower, we have the nuclear power plant in Karachi. All we needed was the reprocessing plant…. We were on the threshold of full nuclear capability when I left the government to come to this death cell…
In 1973, with Bhutto at the helm, Pakistan began negotiations with France for the construction of a large reprocessing plant at Chashma. It would be capable of processing enough spent nuclear fuel to produce plutonium for perhaps 30 weapons. But this amount of spent fuel was more than five times that produced by Pakistan’s one Canadian-supplied power reactor. In 1975-76, the Bhutto government budgeted for an ambitious power plant construction program — one every two years from 1980 through the end of the century. In fact, not a single one has been built.
Pakistan’s intent to build weapons, especially clear after the Indian nuclear test of 1974, eventually generated US pressures on France and an arms embargo against Pakistan. In mid-1977, France began to delay its contract performance and added new conditions, hoping to provoke Pakistan to cancel the contract. France stopped performing under the contract in August 1978, but French personnel continued work and suppliers continued some exports until late in 1979. Pakistani attempts to continue building the plant from existing blueprints and specifications apparently came to naught. Pakistan had also initiated construction of a smaller, secret reprocessing plant, New Labs, near Rawalpindi. As of 1984, it had not become operational.
While an international embargo seems to have stifled Pakistan’s reprocessing project, the government began work on a second method of acquiring weapons-grade material: uranium enrichment. Securing uranium was no problem. Pakistan has some natural reserves of its own, and in the late 1970s it acquired plenty of “yellowcake” from Niger, directly and via Libya. But natural uranium contains only .7 percent of bomb-grade U-235. One method of enriching uranium — separating out the U-235 — is the ultracentrifuge process. A European consortium, URENCO, was building an ultracentrifuge facility in Holland in the 1970s. Here is where ‘Abd ul-Qadir Khan steps into the picture.
Khan is a Pakistani metallurgical engineer who studied in Holland and Belgium between 1963 and 1972. Married to a Dutch woman, in 1972 he told Dutch officials that he intended to take up citizenship there. For the next three years he worked for a subsidiary of a prime contractor for the URENCO project. He reportedly took detailed notes and lists of equipment. These he sent to Pakistan, where officials quietly began purchasing key components. Khan returned to Pakistan in 1975, and ended up in charge of construction of an industrial-scale enrichment plant at Kahuta, near Islamabad, involving thousands of centrifuge units. One purchase, a gasification and solidification unit specially designed and built by a Swiss firm, CORA Engineering, required three Hercules C-130 transport planes to fly it to Pakistan.
Washington showed Pakistan little of the indulgence it had demonstrated towards Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Congressional restrictions prohibiting aid to any country importing reprocessing or enrichment technology, originally enacted in 1975 to counter the French reprocessing deal, were triggered again in April 1979 when Zia rejected US entreaties to cancel or suspend the Kahuta project.
United States non-proliferation policy towards Pakistan changed dramatically, though, in the wake of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. The Carter administration proposed an emergency exemption and then an open-ended exemption to the Congressional cutoff of military aid to Pakistan. In February 1980, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Islamabad. In the view of proliferation expert Leonard Spector, “the Brzezinski-Christopher mission appeared to represent a turning point in US policy toward Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear arms.’ The flow of US arms would go ahead, just as long as Pakistan did not proceed to test a nuclear device. In Spector’s words, “this left technology transfer curbs as the principal tool for retarding Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to develop nuclear arms.”
The Pakistani government has repeatedly pledged that its nuclear enrichment program is strictly to provide fuel for power plants and other peaceful purposes. Zia ul-Haq repeated this in February 1984, with the announcement that Pakistan had broken the enrichment barrier. I asked Spector in December 1986 if he put any credence at all in this proposition. “The economics are backwards,” he said. “Normally before you’d invest in an enrichment capacity, which probably costs hundreds of millions of dollars, you’d have quite a sizeable nuclear power plant infrastructure. Otherwise it’s much cheaper to buy fuel overseas. Today there’s a worldwide glut of enrichment capacity, and a glut of uranium. Prices have come down. In any event, fuel makes up a very small proportion of the cost of running a nuclear power plant; the big costs are capital costs.”
In Spector’s opinion, the Pakistanis seem to have acquired other necessary weapons components, such as triggers (krytrons), high explosives and various testing devices. There are reports that China has provided a design for a weapon, or at least confirmed the accuracy of a Pakistani design. There were reports in August 1979 and again in April 1981 that Pakistan was preparing an underground test site, but most observers think Zia ul-Haq’s government will not risk provoking India or the US with such a move. In their view, the announcement of weapons-grade enrichment capability serves the same declarative purpose as a test.
Following reports earlier this year concerning Pakistan’s nuclear achievements, the Soviet Union reportedly issued a direct warning to Islamabad in June that it would not tolerate a Pakistani bomb. Washington apparently responded with its own message to Moscow, in effect a “hands off” warning. I asked Spector if he thought the Reagan administration made any serious effort to dissuade the Pakistanis from their nuclear course. He said he thought they had, but that for this administration “proliferation has to take a back seat from time to time where the Soviets are concerned. The US has made very solid representations. They haven’t been effective because the Pakistanis can read for themselves where the priorities of the administration lie.”
Other Countries, Other Bombs?
In Spector’s opinion, in the Middle East only Israel and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons or the capability to produce them quickly. Other countries, notably Libya and Iraq, have indicated some interest in acquiring them, but they had no real prospects. “You can’t get them on the black market,” Spector said, speaking of Libya. Apparently there was some Libyan funding of Pakistan’s weapons program in the Bhutto period, but no Pakistani obligation to supply Libya with weapons or technical capacity. All such ties were apparently broken when Zia ul-Haq seized power.
Regarding the Tammuz reactor near Baghdad which Israel destroyed in June 1981, Spector said it seemed to him to be part of a weapons program, “probably to learn to extract uranium. They seemed to have gotten all the necessary parts together. They were trying to get some fuel pins from the US that had no other possible role except for this purpose.” But the reactor was under safeguards, and it would have been years before the Iraqis could have acquired any amount of plutonium. “My hypothesis is that they were going to do this openly,” Spector said. “Learn all the steps, buy larger installations and do the same thing again.”
Iraq, Libya and other Arab countries, unlike Israel and Pakistan, have signed the Non-proliferation Treaty. Egypt has a small research reactor, but economic difficulties have stymied plans to build commercial power reactors.
Turkey has two research reactors, and plans to construct commercial reactors. Iran under the shah had grandiose plans in the nuclear field. Two commercial reactors were under construction at the time of the revolution — one 50 percent the other 80 percent complete. Some 14 other reactors were in various stages of planning. Reactor contracts, it seems, were a rich source of “commissions” for those close to the Peacock Throne. To ensure enriched uranium for his network of reactors, the shah loaned $1 billion to France in return for a 10 percent share in EURODIF and the Tricastin enrichment plant in France. The Islamic Republic has been demanding return of the $1 billion, a matter which is now caught up in the controversy of “negotiations” for French hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon. There are also reports that the shah helped to finance the Valindaba pilot enrichment plant in South Africa. Iran did sign the Non-proliferation Treaty under the shah. In 1982 the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran indicated that the government was considering completing at least one of the commercial units where construction had stopped in 1979, but there is no indication that this has indeed happened.
Sources: Leonard S. Spector, Nuclear Proliferation Today (New York, 1984); Ned Temko, “Mideast Nuclear Threat,” Christian Science Monitor, August 4, 1980; Bob Woodward and Don Oberdorfer, “Superpowers Spar on Pakistan Bomb” Washington Post, July 15, 1986; Joseph Nye, “Pakistan’s Bomb Could Kill Us All,” Washington Post, November 9,1986; Thijs de la Court, et al., The Nuclear Fix: A Guide to Nuclear Activities in the Third World (Amsterdam, 1982); Roger F. Pajak, “Nuclear Status and Policies of the Middle East Countries,” International Affairs 59,4 (Autumn 1983).