WASHINGTON – Circumstantial evidence indicates that India could be the mysterious “fourth customer” of the nuclear proliferation network managed for decades by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, a U.S. issue expert said on Monday (see GSN, May 17, 2011).
While the international community has known since 2004 of the black market ring that sold centrifuge components and other nuclear-weapon technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, far less is known about the suspected other client Khan and his accomplices would address in code when discussing some shipments, said researcher and government consultant Joshua Pollack.
“I would say there is plenty of evidence that there is a fourth customer” and that it was most likely India, Pollack said at an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. However, he acknowledged the very small likelihood of having those suspicions confirmed.
“I don’t know that we’re ever going to get to the point where it is incontrovertibly proven” that New Delhi acquired technology for its nuclear-weapon program through its neighbor and longtime rival, Pollack said.
Any serious suspicions by other governments that New Delhi conducted nuclear weapons technology deals with the Khan ring could negatively impact India’s chances of concluding new atomic trade agreements with nations such as Japan and Australia or winning membership to the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group, he asserted.
As evidence of the existence of a fourth customer, Pollack in a recent Playboy magazine article pointed to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into the Khan network. That probe uncovered a factory operated by a Khan associate in Malaysia that was established in the late 1990s to fill mass centrifuge component orders from Tripoli.
Officials with the U.N. nuclear watchdog were eventually able to account for nearly all of the materials and equipment processed at the plant. However, some records on a quantity of high-strength aluminum that could have been used in manufacturing P-2 centrifuge casings or P-1 centrifuge rotors do not correspond to any of the components and substances retrieved in Dubai or any other known transshipment points for Libya, Pollack told Global Security Newswire on Tuesday.
The unaccounted-for aluminum is “potentially consistent” with a fourth customer, Pollack said.
“The shipments were never found,” former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen, who headed the agency’s probe into Khan’s proliferation activities, said in the Playboy article. “Were they destroyed? Dumped? Are they being kept somewhere? We don’t know.”
There are additional clues that point to the existence of another buyer beyond Pyongyang, Tehran and Tripoli, Heinonen said. “Members of the Khan network would refer to ‘the fourth customer.’ It was their code language. We still don’t know who they meant.”
Pollack acknowledged that there is no confirmation of a fourth customer, and that the aluminum noted in the plant records could have been sent to Khan’s two other known customers -- Iran and North Korea -- or even stored in a warehouse somewhere,
What makes India the probable buyer rather than one of those countries, or one of the multiple Arab nations Khan was known to visit such as Syria, Saudi Arabia or Egypt?
For one thing, the comparative lack of public statements by Khan about the fourth customer stands in stark contrast to his talkativeness about his dealings with his known customers and other potential clients such as Syria, Pollack told the Carnegie audience (see GSN, Nov. 1, 2011).
He speculated that Khan has been so circumspect because identifying India would mean crossing a red line that would destroy his carefully calibrated domestic image as the “savior” of Pakistan and the father of its nuclear weapons program. After three wars over several decades, relations between New Delhi and Islamabad remain fraught.
Pollack also pointed out that only three nations are known to use centrifuge equipment akin to Pakistan’s: Iran, North Korea and India.
Even though India developed a nuclear weapon before Pakistan, it did so using plutonium and lagged for years behind its South Asian rival in developing viable uranium enrichment technology, Pollack wrote.
As far back as 1998 there was a “whole whisper campaign” in Pakistan that Khan was in bed with India, Pollack said.
Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- who denied his government had any involvement in the Khan ring -- in his 2006 autobiography speculated about Indian connections to the Khan ring: “Ironically, the network based in Dubai had employed several Indians, some of whom have since vanished. There is a strong probability that the Indian uranium enrichment program may also have its roots in the Dubai-based network and could be a copy of the Pakistani centrifuge design.”
Indian bid requests for centrifuge components years ago, combined with related papers, offer hints about the origin of the nation’s supercritical centrifuge systems, Pollack stated in his article. The design is highly similar to the G-2 centrifuge that Khan misappropriated from a Dutch nuclear fuel firm in the 1970s and used to manufacture the Pakistani P-2 device, the expert said.
To build his case, Pollack dug further into South African High Court records that state that a member of the Khan ring living in South Africa, German national Gerhard Wisser, beginning near the end of the 1980s provided India’s uranium enrichment program with particular centrifuge components.
“The timing is consistent with India’s earliest known work with supercritical centrifuges,” Pollack wrote. “Wisser seems to have had access to centrifuge designs too; he tried to sell them to the South Africans around the same time.”
Pollack’s thesis received full-throated support in a December post for the Arms Control Wonk blog by Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.“Pakistani officials, including Khan himself, have openly stated that India acquired centrifuge design information from the network, usually blaming deceased individuals within the network for operating independently,” according to Lewis.
Pollack argued that Khan’s well-documented ability to excuse his considerable proliferation activities shows he would have had little compunction in providing nuclear-weapon technology to his country’s longstanding enemy.
He might have rationalized selling the centrifuge technology to New Delhi on the grounds that Indian scientists would never master it anyway, Pollack said. Additionally, Khan might have justified his dealings with India by only providing Pakistan’s neighbor with substandard components, as he was known to have done with Iran and Libya.
“India’s centrifuge design has small differences from the [Pakistani P-2 centrifuge] that seem to make it more susceptible to failure,” he wrote.
Indian purchases of nuclear weapons technology on the black market would not necessarily constitute a breach of any international commitments, Pollack said. New Delhi is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is still in the midst of an effort to join several other arms control regimes.
India’s reputation as country that does not engage in nuclear proliferation has been central to its negotiation of civilian atomic cooperation pacts with foreign governments that would otherwise have balked at trading with a nuclear-armed state that has not signed the NPT accord.
Should Japan or Australia put credence in the suspicions that India was Khan’s fourth customer, it could make the two countries -- both strong proponents of nuclear nonproliferation -- think twice about signing atomic pacts with India, Pollack said at the Carnegie event.
Tokyo and New Delhi are presently in advance negotiations for a trade accord that would allow Japanese civilian atomic technology to be exported to India (see GSN, Oct, 31, 2011). A key obstacle to date to the conclusion of a trade deal has been Japanese nonproliferation concerns.
In December, Australia’s ruling party decided to permit uranium export negotiations with India, a controversial decision that ended a decades-long Labor Party policy. In making the case for the reversal, the Australian government compared India’s sterling nonproliferation reputation to that of Pakistan (see GSN, Dec. 6, 2011).
It would be difficult for Canberra to uphold that distinction should it conclude that India was on the other side of some Khan network transactions, Pollack said. “Maybe the Australians should rethink their rationale.”
New Delhi is also seeking entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an elite 46-nation export control organization that promotes nonproliferation standards for atomic trade by all members (see GSN, July 18, 2011).
“If India has plants full of stolen centrifuge technology that it is not acknowledging, then that’s embarrassing” for the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s reputation, Pollack said, adding that the organization wants candidate countries to be “like-minded.”
He said the Indian Atomic Energy Department could put to rest suspicions of improper dealings with the Khan network by providing “credible disclosures about the origins of the uranium enrichment technology, if they care to deny it that is.”
“That’s what I’d like to see -- some sort of representation from the Indians,” Pollack continued.
Since Pollack’s article was published in December, there has been no official response from New Delhi, though the Indian media has largely reacted with incredulity to his assertions.
In an analysis for the independent Indian Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, researcher Alankrita Sinha said, “Pollack’s argument fails to link facts and contingencies which guide behavior to the circumstantial evidence which he so compellingly provides. Moreover, his argument presupposes that Khan had a power of unilaterally deciding action, without giving the Indian state any agency in this regard.”
Pollack noted that shortly after his piece came out, Khan for the first time in an interview with Kyodo News said Syria twice approached him seeking help in establishing a nuclear program.