Prague, 4 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's nuclear proliferation scandal took a dramatic turn today when the man at the center of the affair, Abdul Qadeer Khan, publicly accepted responsibility for selling Pakistan's nuclear secrets abroad.
Khan, revered by many in Pakistan as the father of the country's nuclear program, was removed from his post as a presidential adviser last week after a two-month investigation as details of a decade-long international trade in nuclear technology emerged.
In recent days, officials in Islamabad said Khan had confessed to transferring nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, on national television, Khan confirmed that the reports are true.
"The investigation has established that many of the reported [nuclear proliferation] activities did occur and that these were, inevitably, initiated at my behest. In my interviews with the council government officials, I was confronted with the evidence and the findings, and I have voluntarily admitted that much of it is true and accurate," Khan said.
Khan expressed deep regret for his actions and absolved the administration of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf of any knowledge in the nuclear trade. He also assured the international community that the activities would not be repeated. "I give an assurance, my dear brothers and sisters, that such activities will never take place in the future. I also appeal to all citizens of Pakistan, in the supreme national interest, to refrain from any further speculation and not to politicize this extremely sensitive issue of national security," Khan said.
Khan's nationally televised confession will undoubtedly come as a relief to Musharraf, who met with Pakistan's erstwhile nuclear hero earlier this morning. The scandal has cast an unpleasant shadow over the entire Musharraf administration. Some experts express skepticism that Khan and his associates could have gotten away with such a long-term, major lapse in security -- without Musharraf's knowledge -- when Pakistan's nuclear program is known to be under the military's tightest control. They suspect the trade with North Korea, for example, was a strategic decision that was crucial for Pakistan's development of its Gauhri missile, which is nearly identical to Pyongyang's own Nodong rocket, and not simply undertaken, as the government says, for Khan's own financial profit.
Gary Samore, a weapons proliferation expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says Musharraf may hope that Khan's televised confession puts an end to such speculation. More importantly, it obviates the need for an embarrassing public trial that could have brought further revelations damaging to Pakistan's international reputation and fanned growing opposition to Musharraf's administration within the country.
"I think from Islamabad's standpoint, it would be far better to settle the matter without a public trial, which would get into questions about what other elements of the Pakistani government might have known about Dr. A.Q. Khan's activities and would also increase political opposition to Musharraf's actions, as Dr. Khan is seen as a national hero because of his role in helping Pakistan develop nuclear weapons," Samore said.
Because Western countries, and especially the United States, see Musharraf as a guarantor of stability and an important ally in the war on terrorism, Samore tells RFE/RL he does not expect pressure to be exerted on Pakistan of the kind used by Washington against so-called "rogue" states, such as Iran and North Korea. But he says the United States will want to ensure that Khan's promise to end all further nuclear proliferation is sincere.
"Washington's primary concern is that Musharraf and the Pakistani authorities really put an end to any further leakage of nuclear technology out of Pakistan. Keep in mind that this has been going on now since the late 1980s. At least three countries have been identified as having obtained sensitive nuclear technology from Pakistan. And two others, according to press reports, have been approached and declined. I think from Washington's standpoint, the key issue is whether the Pakistani authorities really take effective action, after all of the embarrassment that they've suffered, and really stop any further transfers," Samore said.
In a sense, however, with North Korea claiming already to possess a nuclear deterrent, the genie may already have been let out of the bottle
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