Essay: Pakistan’s Proliferation
Mar 4, 2022 | Oved Lobel
How Israel tried to save the world from it
Israel’s unilateral exploits against the nuclear weapons programs of its regional adversaries – known as “the Begin Doctrine” – are the stuff of legend, be it bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981; destroying Syria’s secret nuclear reactor being built by North Korea in 2007; or the campaign of assassination, cyberwarfare and sabotage across Iran to obstruct its nuclear advances.
But there is one operation that has received substantially less coverage until recently: Israel’s operation to disrupt Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and dismantle its global proliferation ring, the so-called ‘AQ Khan network’.
That network is named after Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist and national hero feted as the “father of the bomb” who died in October 2021. If Israel’s efforts to halt this network had succeeded, not only would Pakistan have been stopped from getting nuclear weapons, but in all likelihood, so too would North Korea – while Iran’s ongoing nuclear program would never have gotten off the ground, and the same can be said for the abortive nuclear programs of Libya and Syria.
As reported in early January by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, citing archival documents from Switzerland and the US, Israel’s Mossad was likely behind a campaign of bombings and intimidation in the 1980s targeting a network of European-based companies and individuals working to build Pakistan’s nuclear program:
“A few months after the unsuccessful intervention of the American state department in Bonn [then-capital of West Germany] and Bern, unknown perpetrators carried out explosive attacks on three of these companies: on February 20, 1981 on the house of a leading employee of Cora Engineering Chur; on May 18, 1981 on the factory building of the Wälischmiller company in Markdorf; and finally, on November 6th, 1981, on the engineering office of Heinz Mebus in Erlangen. All three attacks resulted in only property damage, only Mebus’s dog was killed… The explosives attacks were accompanied by several phone calls in which strangers threatened other delivery companies in English or broken German. Sometimes the caller would order the threats to be taped. ‘The attack that we carried out against the Wälischmiller company could happen to you too’ – this is how the Leybold-Heraeus administration office was intimidated. Siegfried Schertler, the owner of VAT [Vakuum-Apparate-Technik – a German company doing business in dual-use technology with Pakistan] at the time, and his head salesman Tinner were called several times on their private lines. Schertler also reported to the Swiss Federal Police that the Israeli secret service had contacted him. This emerges from the investigation files, which the NZZ was able to see for the first time.”
This is confirmation of Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clarke’s investigative reporting on Mossad’s intimidation campaign against the AQ Khan network in Europe in their 2007 book Deception. According to Levy and Scott-Clarke, beginning in early 1981 – before Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor – a group calling itself the Organisation for The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia claimed bombings in Germany against Mebus and Albrecht Migule and in Switzerland against Eduard German, managing director of CORA. After being threatened again two months later, CORA reportedly ended its relationship with Pakistan.
As Levy and Scott-Clarke detail further, Swiss police also linked the bombings to other front groups, including The Committee to Safeguard the Islamic Revolution and The League for Protecting the Sub-Continent, which were targeting or threatening Khan’s suppliers throughout Europe. One Italian company, Alcom Engineering, received a threatening letter and backed off its deals with Khan, while another key figure in the network, Peter Griffin, was personally threatened in a bar.
The authors report Israel planned a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities at Kahuta around the same time as the bombing of Osirak. Since 1981, India had been planning a strike against Kahuta to halt the weapons program, and in 1983 Indian officials secretly travelled to Israel to purchase electronic warfare equipment to overcome Pakistan’s air defences around the facility. After threats by Pakistan, Israel offered to launch the strikes from two Indian airbases, an operation which then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed off on in March 1984. The US, however, leaked the plans to Pakistan and put extreme pressure on Israel, which backed down.
In fact, what Deception makes clear is that US complicity, across political parties and administrations, supported Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. At first, the US falsely certified repeatedly that Pakistan was not building a nuclear weapon and could not deliver it; after Pakistan built and tested one, the US moved onto the useful fiction that A.Q. Khan was part of a rogue network of proliferators, never a plausible narrative given the fact that Pakistan is a police state. Indeed, the network was run entirely by Pakistan’s military regime and intelligence services and personally overseen by then-President Zia-ul-Haq, as very clearly demonstrated by Levy and Scott-Clarke.
By pretending the nuclear issue did not exist as an irritant in the relationship, the US was able to forego sanctions on Pakistan and partner with it in Afghanistan, first against the Soviet Union and then against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, issues it prioritised over nuclear proliferation. This would prove to be a fatal error of judgement, as Pakistan’s double game in Afghanistan – where it was the key backer of the Taliban and also protected Al-Qaeda – would ultimately lead to a transnational terrorism campaign against the West and eventually the 2021 retreat of the US from Afghanistan – delivering the country straight back into the hands of the Taliban.
Worse, however, is that this devil’s bargain led more or less directly to the Iranian and North Korean enrichment programs. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung report notes how a delegation from the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), including then chief of Iran’s nuclear energy commission Masoud Naraghi, began meeting with the Pakistani proliferation network in Switzerland and the UAE in 1987.
The Pakistanis, primarily out of anti-American and Islamist ideological zeal with a touch of financial desperation, gave the Iranians centrifuges, enrichment plant plans and reportedly even weapons designs, which if true would dramatically reduce the already drastically reduced timeframe for Iran to quickly build and deploy nuclear weapons. Pakistan also reportedly began training Iranian nuclear scientists. Zia’s military deputy General Mirza Aslam Beg, who became Chief of Army Staff following Zia’s death, openly bragged about the relationship.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had a long and close – if occasionally competitive – relationship with the Pakistani military, and Beg claims a senior IRGC delegation, including future and now late leader of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani, came to visit Pakistan in 1989, where Soleimani was allegedly trained.
Overseeing the 1987 meetings, according to Levy and Scott-Clarke, was IRGC Brigadier General Mohammed Eslami. Iran’s nuclear weapons program has long been intimately tied to the IRGC, and its late chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, assassinated by Israel in Iran in November 2020, was reportedly a senior IRGC officer himself.
Reports say that Israel successfully hacked into Iranian-Pakistani communications and, according to former IDF Chief of Staff and Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, begged the United States throughout the 1990s to intervene. Failing to convince the US to act on what the CIA had long known about Pakistani proliferation to Iran, out of frustration, the Mossad ultimately leaked the information on Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility to the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) front group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), whose spokesperson Alireza Jafarzadeh revealed it publicly in August 2002. While to be taken with a grain of salt, NCRI sources, including Jafarzadeh himself, told Levy and Scott-Clarke that Beg offered the IRGC an entire nuclear warhead, or at least blueprints, and that an abortive deal was signed for four devices.
Pakistan also proliferated its enrichment technology to North Korea, leading to the other great nuclear weapons proliferation challenge facing the West. Libya’s nascent program, thankfully dismantled before it was fully established, was also the work of Pakistan. Shockingly, Pakistan tried to sell Iraq’s Saddam Hussein a nuclear weapon and enrichment facility plans as well, even as it was building Iran’s program and simultaneously relying on Saudi Arabian largesse.
Unfortunately, largely because of US pressure, incompetence and myopia, Israel’s actions did not halt all of this nuclear proliferation at its root in Pakistan. Instead, North Korea became a fully-fledged nuclear weapons state thanks to Pakistani assistance, and then attempted to build a nuclear reactor for the Assad regime inside Syria, once again leaving it up to Israel to unilaterally act to halt what would have quickly become a Syrian nuclear weapons program.
And all the while Iran barrels towards nuclear threshold status. Indeed, given the lack of visibility into the program, reports of weapon designs being passed directly to the IRGC and Iran’s current obstruction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors – as well as its long-standing failure to adequately address IAEA questions about the ‘Possible Military Dimensions’ of its program – it may well already have crossed the nuclear threshold, as its Pakistani benefactors did long ago.