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Pakistani scientist Khan describes Iranian efforts to buy nuclear bombs

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By R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

The father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program has written an official account that details an Iranian attempt to buy atomic bombs from Pakistan at the end of the 1980s.

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Bombmaker Abdul Qadeer Khan states in documents obtained by The Washington Post that in lieu of weapons, Pakistan gave Iran bomb-related drawings, parts for centrifuges to purify uranium and a secret worldwide list of suppliers. Iran's centrifuges, which are viewed as building blocks for a nuclear arsenal, are largely based on models and designs obtained from Pakistan.

Khan's narrative calls into question Iran's long-standing stance that it has not sought nuclear arms. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last month that "we won't do that because we don't believe in having them."

The account also conflicts with the Pakistani government's assertion that Khan proliferated nuclear know-how without government approval.

Pakistan has never disclosed Khan's written account. A summary of interrogations of Khan and four others in 2004, conducted by Pakistan's intelligence service and later provided to U.S. and allied intelligence officials, omitted mention of the attempt to buy a nuclear bomb. But Pakistan's former top military official in 2006 publicly hinted at it.

In interviews, two military officers whom Khan links to the bargaining with Iran denied that finished nuclear weapons were ever on the table. Spokesmen for Iran's mission to the United Nations and the Pakistani Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests to comment.

However, a top Pakistani government official at the time said Ali Shamkhani, the senior Iranian military officer named by Khan, came to Islamabad, Pakistan, seeking help on nuclear weapons. The former official also said Khan, acting with the knowledge of other top officials, then accelerated a secret stream of aid.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan at the time, Robert Oakley, separately said in an interview that he thinks Pakistan's top military officer urged and approved Khan's bomb-related assistance to Iran.

Who directed the deal?

Khan is a controversial figure, and he has complained bitterly about long-standing restrictions on his movements by Pakistan's government, which says it seeks to ensure he does not restart his nuclear dealings. Several U.S. experts have noted that as a result, Khan is eager to depict others as more culpable than he was in those dealings.

Most observers now think Khan's work for Iran was directed by "senior elements of Pakistan's military, if not by its political leaders," said Leonard S. Spector, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "Khan is clearly out to vindicate his reputation, but the issues remain murky enough that you can't be certain when he is telling the truth and when he is embellishing."

Khan's 11-page narrative, prepared in 2004 during his initial house arrest, states that "at no time did I seriously believe that they [Iranians] were capable of mastering the technology." But Western intelligence officials say his assistance was meaningful and trace its roots to a deal reached in 1987.

Pakistan has said little about that deal. Iran later told international inspectors that a Pakistani "network" in 1987 offered a host of centrifuge-related specifications and equipment, and turned over a document detailing how to shape enriched uranium for use in a bomb.


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