Not Iran, Not North Korea, Not Libya, but Pakistan

Norman Dombey on the nuclear threat to international security

In March 2002 I attended one of the regular Foreign and Commonwealth Office meetings on nuclear non-proliferation. We were told by a senior official that Iraq had reassembled its nuclear scientists and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons programme, which had been completely disbanded by UN inspectors after the 1991 Gulf War. In September 2002, Downing Street published its dossier claiming that Iraq had ‘sought … uranium from Africa’ and had imported hundreds of aluminium tubes alleged to be for use in uranium enrichment. Both claims, if true, would be signs of renewed Iraqi nuclear activity. Yet Dr Imad Khadduri, who worked in the Iraqi nuclear programme from 1968 until he left for Canada in 1998 and was involved in most major Iraqi nuclear activities in those thirty years, wrote in November 2002 in a Canadian journal that he found the ‘allegations about Iraq’s nuclear capability, as continuously advanced by the Americans and the British, to be ridiculous’.

So it turned out: it was all propaganda put about by Iraqi exile groups with the encouragement of powerful figures in the US and British governments who knew that an Iraqi nuclear threat was their best chance of turning public opinion in favour of war. Vice-President Cheney stated in August 2002 that ‘we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons . . . among other sources, we’ve gotten this from first-hand testimony from defectors, including Saddam’s own son-in-law.’ At Camp David on 7 September, Tony Blair said proof of a genuine nuclear threat had come in ‘the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this morning, showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapon sites’. Saddam had killed his son-in-law Hussein Kamel in February 1996 and there had been no new IAEA report on 7 September. It is clearly no use relying on British and American government sources for a serious assessment of any nuclear threat from Iran, North Korea or Libya.

To discuss nuclear proliferation sensibly requires some basic background knowledge. Natural uranium consists of two isotopes: uranium-235 and uranium-238. U-235, which accounts for less than 1 per cent of natural uranium, is the isotope needed to build a nuclear weapon. To separate the two isotopes is an extremely complex and energy-intensive process requiring a special enrichment plant. The alternative route to nuclear weapons capability is via plutonium, which is produced in nuclear reactors. Separating plutonium out of the spent fuel from a reactor is very difficult as the spent fuel is highly radioactive. Countries with nuclear power programmes generally use low-enriched uranium fuel (2 to 3 per cent U-235) in their reactors. The international safeguards regime, which has existed since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970, requires IAEA inspection and detailed accounting of all nuclear materials in all nuclear facilities on the territories of non-weapon states which have signed up to the treaty. The aim of the safeguards is to ensure that there has been no diversion of nuclear material (plutonium or U-235) from civil use to a weapons programme.

The NPT has been surprisingly successful. When it came into force, it was widely believed that, because more states would be using nuclear power, there would be a concomitant rise in the number of countries with nuclear weapons. President Kennedy had already forecast that more than 20 states would have them by the 1970s. A Times leader of 1983 predicted that 40 countries would be capable of building weapons by 1990. At the present time, there are 56 states with civil nuclear reactors but, other than the five permanent members of the Security Council, only a handful of countries – Israel, India, Pakistan and possibly North Korea – possess nuclear weapons. Yet Israel and India already had advanced nuclear weapon programmes in the early 1970s, as did South Africa, which has since given them up. The number of states with nuclear weapons, in other words, has increased by one at most in thirty years. In the same period, several nuclear weapons reduction treaties have been signed and perhaps the most important step in reducing proliferation – the agreement on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996 – has been taken. Though the CTBT is unfortunately not yet in force, it is now almost impossible for any state to test a weapon without detection.

North Korea has two small research reactors and a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon with the ability to produce plutonium from spent fuel. A larger plutonium-producing reactor is under construction. The Clinton administration did a deal with North Korea (the DPRK) in 1994 known as the Agreed Framework, under which the US and its partners (South Korea, Japan and the Eur0pean Union) undertook to build two light-water reactors (which use ordinary water as a coolant) in the DPRK to provide electricity. They also undertook to provide shipments of fuel oil to fill the energy needs of the DPRK while the reactors were being built. In return, the DPRK agreed to allow the IAEA to carry out inspections at Yongbyon, and to suspend construction of the plutonium-producing reactor and operation of the reprocessing plant. There are about 8000 spent fuel rods at Yongbyon, which if reprocessed should provide about 20 kilos of plutonium, enough for two or three weapons.

President Clinton received Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok in the White House in October 2000. Jo, a special envoy of President Kim Jong Il, invited Clinton to Pyongyang. The US and the DPRK ‘confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity’ and, as a first step, the two sides stated that ‘neither government would have hostile intent toward the other.’ Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang to lay the foundations for Clinton’s visit, which was scheduled for December 2000, but in the event he was still trying to clinch a deal on Israel and Palestine, and didn’t go. The Bush administration at first refused to confirm that it was bound by the ‘no hostile intent’ statement, then announced that North Korea was part of the ‘axis of evil’, and in November 2002 suspended the shipments of fuel oil. The DPRK responded by withdrawing from the NPT and thereby locking out the IAEA inspectors; then it restarted reprocessing operations at Yongbyon, and in October 2003 announced that it possessed nuclear weapons. A month later, the US officially pulled the plug on the proposed light-water reactors.

The CIA estimated in 1993 that North Korea had already reprocessed enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons, but this was a worst-case scenario. Even if the DPRK has been able to build a nuclear weapon (which is more difficult using plutonium than U-235), it is very unlikely that it could have made it small enough for missile delivery. It may be able to deliver a weapon from a plane, but given the air superiority of the US this is not a significant threat. Far more real is the DPRK’s ability to threaten a conventional artillery attack on Seoul, where more than ten million people live. This kind of deterrence works, and the Bush administration has now realised that it needs to find a political settlement to the Korean problem. Six-party talks (involving China, Japan, Russia and South Korea) have been reconvened, and an unofficial US delegation including Sig Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, visited Pyongyang in January this year. Hecker confirmed that the DPRK has separated some plutonium but told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that he remained unconvinced the North Koreans could convert the material into a nuclear weapon.

What of the DPRK’s alleged uranium-enrichment programme? According to the US, the DPRK has admitted to having an enrichment facility. The DPRK denies this. We should bear in mind that it took Pakistan ten years to obtain any U-235 from its centrifuge plant, and another two years before it was able to produce enough U-235 for a few weapons. Even if an enrichment programme exists in the DPRK, there is no imminent threat. A solution must be found which deals both with North Korea’s nuclear projects and with its need for security assurances from the US. Otherwise, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies emphasised in a report earlier this year,[1] the situation could destabilise the Far East and give rise to nuclear weapons programmes in South Korea and Japan.

And then there’s Iran. Two light-water reactors for electricity production have been under construction there since 1974. German contractors began the work, but pulled out after the 1979 revolution. The Soviet Union later signed a contract to complete them. Since Iran is an NPT member state, they will be operated under IAEA safeguards. Russia has undertaken to provide low-enriched uranium fuel and to remove spent fuel. The first reactor is expected to be completed in about two years.

All Iranian governments since the Shah have wanted to generate electricity from nuclear power. The energy needs of Iran are increasing very fast: between 1980 and 2001, electricity consumption per capita increased almost fourfold, while the population nearly doubled. The construction of the two light-water reactors at Bushehr is a strikingly similar project to the one agreed in the DPRK in 1994. Light-water reactors have not been used to provide plutonium for weapons in any nuclear weapon state. But for the past forty years the Iranian government has wanted its programme to take in the full nuclear cycle: that’s to say, fuel production and enrichment facilities as well as power-generating reactors. The Shah even gave France a down payment for a share in its enrichment plant at Pierrelatte, though Iranian part-ownership has now lapsed. An enrichment plant would provide security of fuel supply. Fuel for Bushehr depends on Russia sticking to its contract with Iran, and Russia has threatened more than once to impose conditions on fuel deliveries. The enrichment programmes in Western European NPT non-weapon states such as Holland and Germany, as well as in Britain and France, were initiated precisely because these countries did not want to rely on the United States for fuel, since the US Congress could (and would) impose new conditions on deliveries. Iran has the same right to build and operate enrichment plants under the NPT safeguards regime as do Germany and Japan, both of which insisted on their right to possess enrichment facilities before ratifying the NPT in 1976, in order to furnish a weapons option in the event of a change in the security situation. No doubt the same thought has occurred to Iran’s leaders, given that four nearby states and two principal adversaries – Israel and the US – have nuclear weapons. A plant with the capability of enriching uranium from the 0.7 per cent U-235 in natural uranium to the 3 per cent or so in low enriched uranium fuel can also enrich from 3 per cent to the 90 per cent U-235 required for weapons.

Whether in ignorance of procedures or because it was conducting a clandestine programme, Iran neglected to tell the IAEA that it was building enrichment facilities and had begun to test them. According to Iran’s safeguards agreement at the time, the IAEA had to be provided with the designs of nuclear plants at least 180 days before nuclear material was introduced, in order for appropriate monitoring equipment to be set up. Iran waited until October 2003 to notify the IAEA that it had tested centrifuges between 1998 and 2002. In view of this breach, most observers would conclude that Iran, if it had once possessed a right to enrich uranium, had now undermined that right. The IAEA also found fault with Iran for other, minor breaches of the safeguards.

Following intervention by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain in October 2003, Iran agreed to make good all lapses in its reporting to the IAEA. It also agreed to abide by the IAEA’s so-called Additional Protocol, which allows ‘challenge inspections’ of any facility in Iran and makes it obligatory for Iran to declare all work on enrichment and reprocessing plants together with details of any non-nuclear facilities – such as heavy-water plants – that produce material which can be used in nuclear reactors. The IAEA has found that ‘to date, there is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material and activities referred to . . . were related to a nuclear weapons programme’. As part of the deal with the European foreign ministers, Iran voluntarily suspended its enrichment activities in order to prevent the breach of safeguards being reported to the UN Security Council and the possible imposition of sanctions. The Europeans, in turn, promised assistance for Iran’s nuclear programme. At the beginning of 2004 it seemed that a sensible diplomatic solution would be reached.

The Bush administration was not pleased. A senior US official made it known that ‘we are very determined that as between the EU3, as we call them, and the US, that Iran gain no perception that there’s disagreement among us on the importance of holding Iran’s feet to the fire.’ It bullied the IAEA board of governors into issuing a resolution on 13 March condemning Iran, even though there was clear evidence of rapid progress on the implementation of the Additional Protocol: it had been signed by Iran on 18 December 2003 and brought into force immediately without waiting for ratification. Now the board of governors criticised Iran for not ratifying it. Strictly speaking, it was no business of the IAEA’s whether a member state ratified a protocol or not. The resolution noted further

serious concern that the declarations made by Iran in October 2003 did not amount to the complete and final picture of Iran’s past and present nuclear programme . . . in that the agency has since uncovered a number of omissions – e.g., a more advanced centrifuge design than previously declared, including associated research, manufacturing and testing activities; two mass spectrometers used in the laser enrichment programme; . . . the nature, extent and purpose of activities involving the planned heavy-water reactor; and evidence to support claims regarding the purpose of polonium-210 experiments.

(One of the uses of polonium – not the only one – is as a neutron source in a nuclear weapon.) In June 2004, the board of governors reiterated their condemnation, emphasising in particular the work on an advanced P-2 centrifuge and the presence of 36 per cent U-235 contamination discovered at three sites when Iran had claimed that the maximum enrichment achieved in its tests was 1.2 per cent.

Although this seems like a long list of violations, they are mainly violations of the Additional Protocol rather than the original safeguards agreement. For example, under that agreement it would not have been necessary to give details of the advanced centrifuge design to the IAEA until after they had been constructed and there were plans to introduce uranium within 180 days. The heavy-water plant is not covered by the safeguards agreement; nor is bismuth, which is used to make polonium. The small amounts of uranium needed for laser enrichment would have been less than one effective kilogramme, which could have been withdrawn quite legally from safeguards under the original agreement. The U-235 contamination probably came from Iran’s importing used centrifuges. The board of governors also criticised continuing work on a uranium conversion plant which Iran says is not covered by its voluntary suspension of enrichment activities.

It was clearly a mistake for Iran to have been bounced into bringing the Additional Protocol into force and suspending enrichment without making proper transitional arrangements. This actually strengthened the Bush administration’s hand against the engagement policy of the Europeans. Iran should have signed the Additional Protocol (but not brought it into force immediately), undertaken to make good all deficits in its statements to the IAEA in line with the earlier safeguards agreement, and suspended enrichment while entering into discussions with the IAEA about which activities would be suspended and under what conditions. Iran could have undertaken to ratify the Additional Protocol once those talks were successfully completed and an alternative supplier to Russia of enriched fuel had been guaranteed. That would have been the Agreed Framework approach. Both Iran and the EU foreign ministers, it seems, were unaware of the drawbacks of bringing the Additional Protocol into effect straightaway.

Iran has recently stated that it is continuing work on a uranium conversion plant to manufacture the gaseous form of uranium required for enrichment. So it all seems likely to end with Iran being reported to the Security Council this month and sanctions being imposed. If that happens, Iran will presumably walk away from the Additional Protocol, and may even follow the example of North Korea by withdrawing from the NPT. But, like North Korea, Iran is many years away from constructing a nuclear weapon with enriched uranium.

A hidden thread runs through the story of uranium enrichment programmes using gas centrifuges in the DPRK and Iran, and we find it again in Libya. Making gas centrifuges to enrich uranium requires very sophisticated skills in several different engineering disciplines: chemical, mechanical and electrical, for a start. The gas that must be produced – uranium hexafluoride – is very corrosive; the centrifuge rotors have to withstand great stress as they spin at very high speeds; and they require magnetic bearings. How did three relatively unsophisticated countries acquire the necessary skills to design and operate such machines, especially since several hundred, if not thousands of them are required to manufacture a single bomb? The answer is not one that the US and UK authorities have been willing to acknowledge until recently, since it concerns an important ally in the ‘war on terrorism’.

Britain, Germany and Holland are partners in a uranium enrichment consortium called Urenco, with plants at Almelo in Holland and Capenhurst in the UK. Unlike France and the United States, who still use a technique known as ‘gaseous diffusion’ to enrich uranium, Urenco pioneered the use of the more efficient gas centrifuge. In 1972, A.Q. Khan, a young Pakistani, received his PhD from Leuven and went to work in Amsterdam for a sub-contractor of Urenco. In 1976, he went to work for the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. He took with him blueprints of the centrifuges then in use at Urenco, together with a thorough knowledge of the more modern versions that Urenco was planning to introduce. In July 1976, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave Khan control of Pakistan’s uranium enrichment project, reporting directly to Bhutto’s office. Khan then established the Engineering Research Laboratories, now called the Khan Research Laboratories, at Kahuta near Islamabad.[2]

Progress was slow, but Khan persisted. In the early 1980s the Chinese provided some assistance, probably in dealing with uranium hexafluoride, in exchange for Khan’s knowledge of centrifuge technology. (China also passed on to Pakistan a fairly advanced nuclear weapons design as part of the deal.) Kahuta became operational in 1984 and began to produce U-235 in 1986, ten years after the start of the project. But in just the same way as Urenco had started out with P-1 centrifuges before moving on to advanced models, so Khan was able to upgrade Pakistan’s centrifuge technology. (In both cases, the P-2 was developed by replacing aluminium with toughened steel to make stronger rotors.) Pakistan tested six nuclear weapons in 1998 and now has several dozen.

The success of the Khan Research Laboratories left many unwanted first generation aluminium centrifuges sitting around at Kahuta. Even by 1986, Pakistan was reported to have built 14,000 of them. For an entrepreneur like Khan, who despised the discrimination of the NPT between weapon states and non-weapon states and the blind eye turned by the US to Israel’s nuclear weapons, there was an opportunity to create a market in centrifuges and centrifuge blueprints. Pakistan and the DPRK had helped Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war and relations were reasonably good. The DPRK could provide Pakistan with much-needed missiles. It is not surprising that old centrifuges and blueprints from Pakistan have turned up in Iran; or that someone familiar with diplomatic gossip in Pyongyang told me the DPRK had bartered missile technology for centrifuge blueprints from Pakistan.

Brian Jones, who retired from the Defence Intelligence Analysis Staff of the Ministry of Defence just before the invasion of Iraq last year, and who gave evidence to the Hutton and Butler inquiries, has emphasised that the development of nuclear weapons implies an enormous effort in scientific and technical personnel and a large infrastructure.[3] This requires a national programme: it is extremely unlikely to be accomplished by terrorist groups. In turn, it is crucial for international security that states which possess nuclear weapons can be relied on to control their warheads and fissile materials. So any nuclear threat related to terrorism must arise from unstable nuclear states losing control of nuclear material. Furthermore, effective non-proliferation measures require the governments of states with nuclear weapons to keep scientists and engineers under control. It follows that the international community should focus on the weak link in the non-proliferation regime: that’s to say, states which possess nuclear weapons and are not fully in control of their territory or of their citizens. In the former Soviet Union, nuclear material and weapons are still unaccounted for. But the most dangerous example by far is Pakistan, where the national intelligence service, the ISI, was intimately involved in the financing of the centrifuge programme, and sponsored the Taliban in Afghanistan. Senior personnel in the nuclear programme are sympathetic to al-Qaida: indeed, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who worked at Kahuta for several years before becoming head of the plutonium-producing reactor at Khushab, was reported in the Wall Street Journal to have travelled to Kabul and Kandahar in August 2001 to meet Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Large regions of Pakistan are not under government control.

Until this year, Libya was not thought to have nuclear expertise or the engineering skills needed to transform centrifuge kits into hundreds of working centrifuges. According to the IAEA, Libya began work on uranium enrichment in the early 1980s but did not manage to produce an operating centrifuge. In 1995, it took a decision to ‘reinvigorate its nuclear activities’ and purchased 20 P-1 centrifuges from foreign manufacturers – from Khan Research Laboratories, in other words – together with components for another 200 which had to be assembled in Libya (around 500 P-1s have to be linked together in a cascade and work without breakdown for about a year to provide enough U-235 for one bomb).

In September 2000, Libya received two P-2 centrifuges, having placed an initial order (at an unspecified date) for 5000 of them and then increased this to 10,000. The components were manufactured in Malaysia and began to arrive in large quantities at the end of December 2002. Libya told the IAEA that no nuclear material has been used in any of its centrifuges; the first successful (non-nuclear) test of a P-1 was made in 2000. Khan supplied centrifuges and blueprints to Iran between 1988 and 1991, and to the DPRK a few years later, but the large-scale manufacture of centrifuge components for export was entirely for Libya’s benefit.

The US and Britain have hijacked the inspection process. They were able to do this because of the nuclear weapon design in Libya’s possession; the IAEA’s remit is limited to civil nuclear facilities. The Butler report shows that the US/UK security authorities have been aware of Libya’s nuclear plans for some time. So what motivated Bush and Blair to rehabilitate Gaddafi so eagerly? Gaddafi is after all said to be responsible for blowing up a French airliner over Chad in 1989 and for Lockerbie. Why do our political leaders want to deal with him?

I think that the answer lies in Pakistan. When Khan Research Laboratories started to offload unwanted centrifuges on Iran, Khan and his circle became a prime target for Western intelligence. When Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan, it was the US and not her own military who told her about Pakistani nuclear progress. It is clear that the Pakistani security apparatus knew and approved of Khan’s doings. The former US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, was reported in the New York Times as having said that General Mirza Aslam Beg, the Pakistani army chief of staff from 1988 to 1991, had told him of Pakistan’s nuclear ties with Iran, in return for which Iran would provide Pakistan with oil and military aid. The Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy has written that ‘since its inception, Pakistan’s nuclear programme has been squarely under army supervision. A multi-tiered security system was headed by a lieutenant-general . . . with all nuclear installations kept under the tightest possible surveillance . . . In such an extreme security environment it would be amazing to miss the travel abroad of senior scientists . . . and the transfer of classified technical documents and components.’

Nevertheless, the US and UK governments support Pakistan’s claim that only a small group of men around Khan were responsible for exporting centrifuge equipment and blueprints. After 9/11 it became essential for the US and Britain to close down the Khan network while keeping Musharraf friendly and ensuring that he stayed in power. Libya provided the means to do that. The US say that they told Musharraf about the Khan network in autumn 2001. The nuclear weapon design acquired from China was sent from Pakistan to Libya in late 2001 or early 2002. Surprisingly, the IAEA reports that Libya ‘did not take any steps to act on the information, nor even to assess its credibility or practical utility’. Hardly the behaviour of a country engaged in a clandestine programme to produce nuclear weapons. The centrifuge parts began to arrive in 2002 and 2003. In October 2003, the German-owned vessel BBC China was seized in Italy carrying centrifuge equipment bound for Libya. It is not clear whether the consignment contained P-1 or P-2 components, but it doesn’t matter. There were no rotors or advanced electrical components such as magnetic bearings. SCOPE, the Malaysian company which had shipped the parts, manufactured only 14 types of component, all of them aluminium. A domestic washing-machine needs more components than that.

The official story is that Khan and a small circle of associates started exporting old centrifuges without the government’s knowing (until autumn 2001) and then, motivated by greed, set up overseas manufacturing facilities. The more probable explanation is that after 9/11, the US forced Musharraf to act against Khan, and Gaddafi was persuaded to co-operate with the promise of an end to sanctions. The intelligence services infiltrated or even set up a Malaysian-Dubai network involving SCOPE, and helped manufacture harmless centrifuge components. Two months after the BBC China was seized, the head of Libyan intelligence met his US and UK counterparts in the Travellers Club in London. The Khan network was exposed with much publicity in late December. MI6 has already tried to take credit for the harmless centrifuges. The Financial Times reported that ‘the procurement operation was penetrated by British intelligence. Key components were rendered inoperable before they reached Tripoli.’ Maybe.

A political solution is available both for North Korea and for Iran, but the current US position is both alarmist and counterproductive. There is no nuclear threat at present or in the near future from Iran. There may be one in a year or two from the DPRK if the next US administration does not negotiate seriously to return to the situation that prevailed four years ago under the Agreed Framework. The really serious nuclear threat to international security is now from Pakistan. The unmasking of Khan and a few associates represents the tip of the iceberg.

[1] North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment, edited by Gary Samore (Palgrave, 120 pp., £65, January, 1 4039 3324 3).

[2] See www.fas.org/nuke/guide/pakistan/nuke/.

[3] See his talk to the Harvard-Sussex Programme, ‘War, Words and WMD’, available at www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/hsp/sussexdays.html.