This week in the magazine, Steve Coll writes about the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan and the international trade in nuclear-weapons technology and equipment. Here, with Blake Eskin, he talks about Iran’s nuclear program, the dangers of proliferation, and the intersection of politics and the profit motive.
BLAKE ESKIN: Your story this week opens in Mannheim, Germany, at the trial of Gotthard Lerch. Who is Lerch, and what is he charged with?
STEVE COLL: He’s a German businessman who has specialized in the manufacture and sale of industrial vacuum systems. This summer, he was charged with violating German export-control laws for his alleged participation in a scheme to secretly supply Libya with a plant that could enrich uranium for nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons. Police and government interest in Lerch’s activities dates back to the late nineteen-eighties, when he had business contacts with both Pakistan and Iran. Earlier, in Germany, he was charged with and acquitted of misappropriating blueprints for centrifuge-plant support systems, in connection with suspected sales to Pakistan.
The conspiracy that’s described in the current indictment seems to have begun in 1998 or 1999. There was work commissioned in South Africa and at a plant in Malaysia, there was a sort of front-office business infrastructure in Dubai, and there was manufacturing allegedly also undertaken in Turkey. It was a rather grand plan. The Libyans basically wanted the parts all manufactured offshore and then shipped in, ready to assemble.
But, as you report, Italian officials intercepted one of the shipments in 2003, and Libya ended up agreeing to abandon all weapons of mass destruction in exchange for an eventual end to economic sanctions. Was Lerch the only person on trial as a result of this deal?
Libyan coöperation has yielded an unprecedented array of evidence in a case of nuclear trading. Not only did the Libyans turn over invoices, shipping records, and physical equipment they received, making it possible for investigators to trace it back to its sources, but the exposure of the Libya project led to a worldwide series of arrests of businessmen and engineers who allegedly participated in it. And at least one of those arrested has decided to turn state’s evidence.
Has this information from Libya also helped to rein in A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist who has perhaps done more than anyone to spread nuclear-weapons technology?
A. Q. Khan is a national hero in Pakistan—he’s seen as the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb; he is to Pakistan what Oppenheimer is to America—who was accused by his own government of exceeding his authority in the Libya project. He was forced to read out a confession on national television and then was placed under house arrest. But the Pakistan government, led by President Pervez Musharraf, has been reluctant to allow outside investigators to talk directly to Khan and to explore the history of his activities. It’s presumed that one reason is that Khan knows quite a lot about how Pakistani generals and other leaders have endorsed or profited from his global trade.
How did A. Q. Khan become involved in the international nuclear trade?
A. Q. Khan is a specialist in metallurgy who, in the nineteen-seventies, while he was working in Europe, was a consultant to a company that designed centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium. He was later tried and convicted of stealing the blueprints for two centrifuge systems and taking them back to Pakistan. (This conviction was later overturned on a technicality.) He has said that he was able to construct a uranium-enrichment plant for Pakistan’s nascent nuclear-weapons program; by 1984, he claimed to have completed work on a nuclear bomb. He was motivated, he says, by patriotism and the desire to defend Pakistan against its larger neighbor India. His apparent decision to share with other countries the technology that he helped to develop on Pakistan’s behalf remains something of a mystery.
And Lerch and the other European suppliers whom you discuss are not Pakistani, so that patriotic motive—
It doesn’t apply to them. Khan seems to have relied on this network of suppliers initially to build his program in Pakistan, but gradually they started to explore the potential of selling this technology to other customers. For the European businessmen, certainly, it was all about money, but Khan may have, at least in some of these deals, been acting on behalf of the Pakistan government, which may have thought it was trying to accomplish something by sharing this nuclear technology.
What might Pakistan be trying to accomplish?
In some deals it’s easier to imagine a Pakistani motive than in others. North Korea, for example, was supplying missiles to Pakistan at a time when Pakistan was subject to international military and economic sanctions and felt vulnerable as India gathered economic and military strength. It seems likely, though the evidence isn’t very complete, that Pakistan essentially traded some nuclear technology for access to North Korean missiles.
In the case of Iran, in the mid-eighties 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.
What did Pakistani scientists provide to Iran?
This is a question at the heart of continuing investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by a lot of governments that are worried about Iran’s nuclear program. What’s known is mainly the product of I.A.E.A. interviews with Iranian officials who have given an account of the history of their contacts with Khan and Pakistan. I lay out that forensics because a fair amount of what we know about Iran’s history with Pakistan comes from Iran, and might be regarded with some skepticism.
What’s undisputed is that contacts had begun by 1987, with discussions about a sale of blueprints and other materials that would allow Iran to build a capacity for enriching uranium. Those discussions produced at least one document that appears to be a kind of shopping list from Pakistan to Iran. The discussions and transactions continued from 1987 until at least 2003, when Iran first acknowledged the existence of its secret enrichment program. The history of those contacts from the beginning to 2003 is a subject of this article. In that narrative lies a whole series of mysteries: How much progress has Iran made and how fast will it be able to finish a nuclear weapon?
The question of how fast can’t be answered definitively, but could you give us a sense of the estimates and how reliable you think they are?
John Negroponte, the director of National Intelligence, has said, in his most recent public assessment, that the American intelligence community believes that Iran may acquire a nuclear capacity some time in the next decade, meaning from 2010 or 2011 onward. From my reporting, I gather that in private briefings the Bush Administration’s intelligence analysts focus on a five-to-seven-year window, although they emphasize that there’s a fair amount of uncertainty about this estimate. I think the one assertion that the intelligence community seems comfortable with is that it’s not this year or next year and probably not the year after that. However, the more that is discovered about Iran’s research, the more some analysts wonder whether Iran might be able to move faster than the official forecast indicates.
And this basically depends on the Iranians’ use of centrifuges to enrich uranium?
As far as is known, yes. Of course, in assessing a country’s efforts to secretly acquire a nuclear weapon, you have to be conscious that there may be aspects of its endeavor that are unknown to anyone but itself. Enriching uranium or acquiring plutonium, the fissile materials that provide a bomb’s explosive force, is the hardest part of building a nuclear bomb. In this case, Iran has been attempting to master this centrifuge technology for years; from what is known, they have struggled. It’s a really complicated technology: it’s not only difficult to operate but to even set it up. The Iranians have just barely started to operate these machines. The question is: How much progress can they make in building a fully operating plant that would be required to make enough material for a bomb?
Once the centrifuges are working, how long will it take to make enough material for a bomb?
It depends on how many centrifuges you put into your plant. The math is fairly straightforward: a cascade of a hundred and sixty-four centrifuges can produce so many grams of highly enriched uranium in so much time if the centrifuges are operating around the clock. Iran has said that it intends to install three thousand of these centrifuges by the end of this year. That seems like an ambitious goal, but let’s assume the Iranians could achieve it. If they did, they could manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a couple of bombs within a year if they operated those centrifuges around the clock. Most people don’t think they can pull that off, but that’s the scale of their operation at this point.
In your article, you quote President Bush saying of the A. Q. Khan network, “We put them out of business.” How much of an impact has this series of arrests and disclosures had on the international trade in nuclear technology?
There’s no reason to think it’s reduced the international trade in nuclear technology. Iran, for instance, is still trying to acquire materials for its nuclear program, according to prosecutors and investigators in Europe. The network of businessmen who worked closely with A. Q. Khan has been disrupted, but there are reasons to doubt that it’s been eliminated. First, independent analysts estimate that the A. Q. Khan network included four or five dozen individuals, at a minimum, and considerably less than that number have been arrested. Also, the Pakistanis feel that they’re in a nuclear-arms race with India, and while the pace of that competition isn’t as intense as the U.S.-Soviet arms race in the sixties, it’s picking up speed, and the Pakistanis feel that they cannot stand still, that they have to put themselves in a position where they can increase both the size and the sophistication of their nuclear arsenal, which requires international procurement.
Are we beyond the point that we can control the spread of nuclear technology?
I think that most specialists would say that you can stop the spread of nuclear weapons if you want to, if you see the delegitimization and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons by all countries as a priority of the first order. The goal of the global nonproliferation regime is a nuclear-free world, or at least a world in which nuclear weapons are thoroughly illegitimate as instruments of power—the way, for instance, most people would regard biological weapons as illegitimate instruments of state power today. This consensus, which prevailed in the early nineties after the Soviet Union collapsed, led to extraordinary events: South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus giving up their nuclear weapons; the United States and Russia sharply reducing the size of their arsenals and starting to take them off alert.
In the last five or six years, however, nuclear weapons seem to have regained their legitimacy as instruments of power. In particular, weak countries like North Korea and now Iran seem to be seized by the idea that they can change their position by acquiring nuclear weapons. Pakistan and India seem to have concluded that they cannot stabilize their military rivalry without developing a lot of nuclear weapons. The United States, for its part, has tended, particularly during the Bush Administration, to take the view that the spread of nuclear weapons is not something that can be easily controlled by multilateral coöperation or by treaties, and that the United States should prepare for a world in which a more straightforward equation of power and nuclear capability must be managed.
Who is harder to stop—those who are trying to sell or acquire nuclear weapons for political reasons, or those trying to make money in the nuclear trade?
People who are driven by the profit motive are much harder to detect and stop, because they are protected by a global system that is biased toward the promotion of free trade. Most of the equipment that supports secret nuclear-weapons programs is dual-use equipment, meaning that it can also be used for legitimate, non-nuclear industry. Dual-use equipment is often restricted by countries such as the United States, but even those restrictions are in a gray area.
Another development that makes it harder to control the nuclear-weapons trade is that computers now can do the work that in the past only very sophisticated engineers could do. In the past, making the parts required extraordinary skill in hand-machining. Now poorer countries with weaker industrial bases can essentially download the software, plug it into a machine, and cut rare metal alloys as well as a Swiss craftsman could thirty years ago.
For someone like Lerch, is the motivation purely financial? You interviewed a couple of other people—Peter Griffin, who testified at Lerch’s trial, and Daniel Geiges, an engineer in South Africa. Do they think about world politics at all?
They do think about world politics, and it was fascinating to hear their voices. Griffin and Geiges had not spoken about their own motives or activities before, and, naturally, you’re curious about how they think about or rationalize their dealings in this trade.
Peter Griffin—he’s a retired British businessman who has worked in what he characterizes as entirely legal and well-regulated trade with Khan over a long period of time; he’s never been charged with or convicted of a crime. He talks about his view of world politics and nuclear proliferation in a way that essentially endorses A. Q. Khan’s outlook about these issues, emphasizing the right of all nations to acquire nuclear technology and suggesting that the spread of nuclear weapons will actually make the world safer, not more dangerous, by creating a more balanced set of deterrents around the world. I take those views at face value, but, at the same time, it’s natural to wonder whether people develop these views as a way to explain their business activity, or whether those views preceded them.
Geiges, in my interview with him, emphasized that he saw it as a job: he was a professional, an employee, and he felt that it was his responsibility to do what he was asked to do. When he reflected on the alternative, which was to go to the police, it seemed too risky to him.
But Geiges is now coöperating with South African investigators.
He’s attempting to coöperate. He’s been indicted in South Africa, along with the boss whom he worked for at an engineering firm in Johannesburg. Geiges’s trial has been postponed until next year, and in the interim he has provided, according to Geiges and his lawyer, an extensive statement to the South African prosecution. He’s trying to negotiate a plea agreement, but he hasn’t succeeded yet.
The potential consequences of nuclear proliferation are enormous, yet you write that, other than some local German reporters, nobody was really covering Lerch’s trial. Why not?
As the culture’s interest in TV shows such as “24” demonstrates, people are aware that nuclear proliferation is perhaps the biggest threat that countries like the United States face since the demise of the Soviet Union. It’s an unusually difficult subject for journalism because of its international character; the pieces are spread all over the place, and it takes time and resources to run them down. Also, the details are complicated: they involve engineering and science. And, finally, these networks, by their nature, try to remain hidden, so they are difficult to report on even where they occasionally surface, in police investigations.
But, even so, I would have expected that in Germany, at least, there would have been more attention paid to the Lerch case. While some of the details of the technology he worked with are complicated, his alleged activity is fairly easy to describe: he was a businessman who profited considerably by selling restricted equipment to countries that wanted to break out of the global nuclear-nonproliferation regime. According to German prosecutors, he made about twenty million dollars from the Libya project alone.