IRAN/PAKISTAN: Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold nuclear centrifuge parts to Iran for $3 million in cash in the mid-1990s, Malaysian police claimed yesterday, writes Ranul Bedi in New Delhi
Analysts said the revelations indicated that Dr Khan and his associates had been operating a "global nuclear supermarket" long before the late 1990s, the time most investigators believe the clandestine operation began.
Police in Kuala Lumpur said that an alleged nuclear middleman, Mr Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, who is accused by Washington of helping Dr Khan to sell illicit nuclear technology and information to Iran, North Korea and Libya, had provided this information following questioning over his involvement with the Pakistani scientist.
Mr Tahir, a Sri Lankan residing in Malaysia, told police that Dr Khan asked him to organise the sending of centrifuge parts from Pakistan to Iran around 1994 or 1995. Dr Khan was pardoned by Pakistan's president, Gen Pervez Musharraf, earlier this month for selling nuclear equipment and secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea following his confession on Pakistani television. Rows of gas centrifuges built of special metal spin at very high speeds to separate fissile uranium 235 from non-fissile uranium isotopes in order to create material for atomic bombs.
Obtaining adequate amounts of uranium 235 is one of the biggest problems facing countries wanting to build nuclear bombs. Hence centrifuges become a vital part of the production chain. Dr Khan, a western-trained metallurgist, is credited with building Pakistan's centrifuges from designs he stole from a European nuclear facility.
"Tahir organised the shipment of the two containers [carrying centrifuge parts\] from Dubai to Iran using a merchant ship owned by a company registered in Iran," Malaysian police said. Payment of around $3 million for the equipment was made by an unnamed Iranian.
"The cash was brought in two briefcases and kept in an apartment that was used as a guesthouse by the Pakistani nuclear arms expert each time he visited Dubai," the report states, identifying Dr Khan as the person involved.
Mr Tahir also told police Dr Khan informed him in 2001 that a "certain amount of UF6 (enriched uranium)" used for making bombs had been sent by air from Pakistan to Libya.
Malaysian police said that Mr Tahir obtained the centrifuge components from SCOPE, which is part of a public listed company controlled by the Malaysian prime minister's son, Mr Kamaluddin Abdullah, and two other investors. The Malaysian supplier, a unit of Scomi Group, has said that the parts were ordered legitimately for oil and gas work.
Malaysian police said that they would be passing their findings to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which originally alerted the world to nuclear proliferation from Pakistan last year following UN inspections of Iran's atomic facilities.
Mr Tahir also named German, Turkish, British and Swiss nationals in his testimony to the Malaysian police. The report names these citizens as being "among the middlemen" alleged to have had links with Dr Khan.
Further evidence of Dr Khan's "nuclear bazaar" emerged after Libya renounced all plans to build weapons of mass destruction and handed documents to Washington which gave details of Tripoli's links with the Pakistani scientist's proliferation chain.
When pardoning Dr Khan, President Musharraf said that the scientist had acted alone in selling atomic secrets to other countries. But many inside and outside Pakistan are sceptical about the president's assertions on the grounds that Dr Khan could not have executed the transfer of nuclear technology out of Islamabad without the knowledge, possible assistance or at the very least connivance of senior military officials.
Pakistan's military, which has directly or indirectly ruled the country since independence 57 years ago, has been exclusively in charge of Islamabad's nuclear programme since its inception in the late 1970s.