The Birth of a Bomb A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
Part 3: How the World's Nuclear Dealer Got His Start
Act 2: How Mr. Khan Learned to Love the Bomb
Even as a child, Abdul Qadeer Khan has always hated the feeling of being humiliated by a superior adversary. After the bloody partition of British India in 1947, his father, a Muslim teacher, decided to leave the Indian city of Bhopal and move to Pakistan ("The Land of the Pure"). Khan, who is 16 at the time, watches Hindu soldiers robbing women. A border guard steals a ballpoint pen from him, a gift from his brother that had meant a lot to Khan. The underdog swears that he will avenge himself one day and dreams of exacting revenge from a position of strength.
After attending school in Karachi, the highly gifted Khan earns his doctorate in metallurgy in the Belgian city of Leuven. He takes a job with a supplier to the centrifuge builder URENCO, where, thanks to the company's incomprehensible recklessness, he gains access to the nuclear hearth that is every bomb-maker's dream. No one objects when the Pakistani takes the top-secret documents home, where he can calmly make copies of the technology developed by German engineers.
The scientist knows what he has in his hands: the breakthrough for a nuclear weapons program. The biggest obstacle to making a nuclear bomb is acquiring the necessary fissile material. The more discreet of two possible approaches leads through uranium enrichment and centrifuges. This in turn requires uranium ore, which is relatively accessible on the global market and is also mined in Iran. Further enrichment into weapons-grade material can be done in facilities that are relatively easy to hide. Uranium enrichment is a high-tech version of panning for gold: Hundreds of precisely manufactured centrifuges must operate at high speeds and with great precision to obtain the material for a bomb.
A First Meeting with the Iranians
The pleasant Mr. Khan disappears in January 1976. In 1983, a court in Amsterdam convicts the Pakistani of industrial espionage and sentences him in absentia to a four-year prison term. By 1985, Pakistan is successfully enriching uranium, and the nuclear research institute at Kahuta, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital Islamabad, is named Khan Research Laboratories, in honor of its director.
Khan meets with the Iranians for the first time in Dubai. Detailed construction plans are handed over at a meeting in 1987 with Masoud Naraghi, the head of the Iranian nuclear energy commission. Tehran also gets two centrifuges that Khan has managed to divert in Kahuta.
It is the beginning of a glorious friendship of brothers in arms for Iran and of a lucrative career as an arms dealer for Khan. Pakistan's top scientist makes at least a dozen trips to North Korea, Dubai and North Africa, literally peddling his nuclear weapons components. The bomb expert is invited to Tehran a number of times and is even given a villa on the Caspian Sea. According to a defector, Khan rarely leaves the country without a suitcase full of cash.
Iran's clandestine nuclear program picks up the pace in 1991. It is the year in which the assembled American intelligence agencies give the all-clear signal in a report on Tehran, noting that, although the Iranian leadership is interested in an atomic weapon, the program is "too disorganized to be taken seriously."
A year later, then CIA Director (and current Defense Secretary) Robert Gates qualifies the results of that report. He now has new information from Naraghi, the Iranian nuclear chief, who has since lost his job and applied for asylum in the United States. He also exposes his contact: Khan. But the Americans do not assign any importance to the Pakistan connection, nor do they warn the IAEA inspectors. Valuable years are lost, years in which Iran begins serious development of its centrifuges.
Camouflage and Deception
In the mid-1990s, the Iranians start building secret facilities to house the centrifuges, marking the beginning of a game of camouflage and deception that has continued to this day, and with which the country is forfeiting the right to uranium enrichment, to which it is formally entitled. The Kalaye Electric watch factory in a Tehran suburb is converted into a facility to house a centrifuge, and a new, secret nuclear complex is built near Natanz, 250 kilometers south of the capital.
After the devastating Iraq War, a heavy weight has descended on the country. It is becoming increasingly evident that the mullahs have no effective solutions, neither for the economy nor to address social issues. The West, for its part, doesn't know what to think of a regime that is sending out cautious gestures of goodwill, while at the same time dispatching death squads against members of the opposition living abroad.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Pakistan, Khan is celebrating the biggest triumph of his life. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan conducts several successful nuclear tests. Khan becomes a national hero, helped in large part by a Swiss family of engineers. Khan became aware of Friedrich Tinner when he obtained Urenco's list of suppliers in the Netherlands, and the Pakistani soon became friendly with Tinner's son Marco. Khan calls the Tinners, who become part of his network, "a wonderful, honest family." The younger son Urs, who drops out of high school at 16 and is soon deeply in debt, is the black sheep of the family, making him an ideal target for the CIA.
The American intelligence agency has since become more vigilant and has identified the Pakistani nuclear jihadist as a threat to world peace. But the extent of his deals remains unclear. Langley decides to infiltrate the organization with a middleman. The CIA agent with the codename "Mad Dog" discovers that Urs Tinner has moved to Dubai and is now working for friends of Khan.
It is now the year 2000, and there is a mole in the Khan network, someone with very close connections. Urs Tinner enjoys the trust of his boss and, in the Dubai office where he works, is permitted to scan secret nuclear construction plans intended for illegal sale to third parties. In mid-2000, the Americans' efforts pay off when they discover that Iran and Libya have awarded new nuclear contracts to Khan. But Washington still believes in a hand's off policy at this point, and soon Sept. 11 creates new priorities, in which Pakistan's cooperation is needed. The UN Security Council gives its blessing to the American retaliatory strike against al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's terrorist camp in Afghanistan, and Islamabad officially sides with Washington.
The CIA believes that it has everything under control as far as Khan is concerned, but he proves to be anything but an easily controlled marionette. And there is another player in the Iranian nuclear program that hasn't even appeared on the Americans' radar screen, someone whose role remains mysterious to this day. The trail leads to Russia.
- Part 1: A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
- Part 2: Pinpricks with Little Impact on Berlin
- Part 3: How the World's Nuclear Dealer Got His Start
- Part 4: 'Arming to Threaten the Peace of the World'
- Part 5: 'A Very Dangerous Man'
- Part 6: Growing Suspicions of a Weapon Program
- Part 7: Israel Secretly Prepares for a Military Strike