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Pakistan Threatened to Give Iran Nukes

Pakistan Threatened to Give Iran Nukes

Author: Matt Kelley
Publication: The Associated Press
Date: February 27, 2004

Although the Bush administration reacted with surprise to Pakistan's nuclear assistance to Iran, the Islamabad government warned the United States that such technology transfers might occur as long as 14 years ago, two former Pentagon officials say.

The threat was conveyed in January 1990 from Pakistan's top general to the administration of President Bush's father, but the information doesn't appear to have made its way to the Clinton administration when it took office three years later, according to interviews by The Associated Press.

In recent weeks, evidence has emerged that Pakistani nuclear aid to Iran began in the mid-1980s but accelerated after 1990 and included transfer of some of Pakistan's most advanced nuclear technology.

The former Pentagon officials' accounts suggest the United States may have missed an early opportunity to thwart some of those transfers.

"We knew they were up to no good," said Henry Sokolski, the Pentagon's top arms control official in 1990.

Henry S. Rowen, at the time an assistant defense secretary, said Pakistani Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg issued the warning in a face-to-face meeting in Pakistan.

"Beg said something like, 'If we don't get adequate support from the U.S., then we may be forced to share nuclear technology with Iran,'" said Rowen, now a professor at Stanford University.

Beg, who was then Pakistan's army chief of staff, has acknowledged Iran approached him seeking nuclear assistance that year and publicly advocated military cooperation between Pakistan and Iran to counter U.S. power in the region. Beg said he never authorized nuclear transfers to Iran or made threats to the United States.

"I have said many times it's all pure lies," Beg said in a telephone interview. "Am I a fool, to tell the U.S. what to do or what not to do?"

A key scientist in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program admitted this month he supplied nuclear weapons technology to Iran as well as North Korea and Libya. The scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, said Pakistan's leadership was unaware and uninvolved. President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Khan the day after his public confession.

President Bush has said the United States became aware of Khan's network only in the past few years through daring work by U.S. and British intelligence agents.

"A.Q. Khan is known throughout the world as the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program," Bush said Feb. 11. "What was not publicly known, until recently, is that he also led an extensive international network for the proliferation of nuclear technology."

But Sokolski and Rowen said former President Bush's administration did little to follow up on Beg's warning. "In hindsight, maybe before or after that they did make some transfers," Rowen said.

Ashton Carter, an assistant defense secretary from 1993 to 1996, said he doesn't remember even being told about the problem when he joined the Pentagon.

Rowen said he told Beg that Pakistan would be "in deep trouble" if it gave nuclear weapons to Iran. Rowen said he was surprised by the threat because at the time Americans thought Pakistan's secular government dominated by Sunni Muslims wouldn't aid Iran's Shiite Muslim theocracy.

"There was no particular reason to think it was a bluff, but on the other hand, we didn't know," Rowen said.

Declassified documents and former officials say U.S. officials knew since at least 1983 about Pakistan's extensive underground supply network for its nuclear weapons program, which first tested nuclear explosives in 1998. Former officials say Washington had other murky clues about Pakistani help to Iran and strong suspicions of the North Korea link by the late 1990s.

Most of the middlemen for Khan's network in the 1990s were either investigated or convicted in Europe for supplying Pakistan's nuclear program in the 1980s.

Pakistan never cracked down on its scientists when former President Clinton and other U.S. officials shared their suspicions with Pakistani leaders, former U.S. officials say.

"The response was, 'Yes, we'll examine your concerns, but we don't believe they are well founded,'" said Robert Einhorn, who was the head arms control official in the State Department from 1999 to 2001.

While Islamabad and Washington squabbled about the evidence, the Khan network provided sophisticated technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran, three countries the United States considered among the most dangerous.

A decade earlier, the Reagan administration had looked the other way on Pakistan's nuclear program, said Stephen P. Cohen, a State Department expert on the region from 1985 to 1987. Back then, Washington used Pakistan as a conduit for sending weapons and money to guerillas fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"They were covering up our involvement in Afghanistan, pretending we played no role in Afghanistan, so they expected us to cover up their role in procuring a weapons system they saw as vital to their survival," said Cohen, now with the Brookings Institution think tank.

American officials scolded Pakistan repeatedly for buying nuclear technology from sources in Europe, Asia and the United States, Cohen said. But often those warnings were with "a wink and a nod" that Washington would tolerate those activities, he said.

A declassified State Department memo from 1983 says Pakistan clearly had a nuclear weapons program that that relied on stolen European technology and "energetic procurement activities in various countries."

Cohen said the United States suspected Pakistan was helping Iran in the late 1980s, in part because Pakistan had cooperated with Iran on nuclear matters before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The evidence, however, was murky, Cohen said.

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