The Point of No Return

First Pakistan's A.Q. Khan showed that any country could have made a nuclear bomb. Then he showed—not once but three times—why the nuclear trade will never be shut down

The Iraqis suspected that the offer might be a scam or a trap; they asked for a sample of the goods—possibly a component or blueprints. They never received the sample, because the Gulf War then erupted, and the ensuing international inspections swept away any chance for such a deal. Nonetheless, the offer was almost certainly real. After the memo was discovered, Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA kept it secret for nearly a decade, until 2004, presumably because of political pressures, or to allow further information on Khan's activities to be gathered. Neither Hibbs nor any other reporter wrote it up at the time. But Hibbs was catching on to Khan. He was beginning to piece together the signs that Pakistan's nuclear-procurement network had expanded into the business of spreading these weapons around.

Pakistan's sale of nuclear-weapons technology abroad did not require a deliberative process, a chain of command, or a formal commitment to proceed. More likely it took the shape of opportunities that occasionally arose and were acted on by a small circle of friends—the country's military rulers, its co-opted politicians, and, of course, A. Q. Khan and his men. They knew that such activities would provoke the United States, Europe, and other great powers—but they did not think of themselves as bad people, or believe that they were breaking international law. Whatever profits they hoped to gain from these deals would have been as much for the treasury as for their personal accounts—albeit in a country where such distinctions have little meaning. As to questions about the morality of promoting such lethal technology, they had some questions of their own—about the fairness of discriminatory non-proliferation treaties and a world order in which the established nuclear powers seemed determined to "disarm the disarmed." This was the emotional spillover from Pakistan's experience of building a bomb, and it fed a genuine sense of solidarity with all other nuclear aspirants, including even a potential antagonist like Iran.

Indeed, Iran was Pakistan's longest-standing customer. In May of 1991 Mark Hibbs reported in Nucleonics Week on the possibility that Iran had launched a secret uranium-enrichment program in pursuit of nuclear weapons and that over the previous three years A. Q. Khan had made several visits there. Soon after the article was published, Hibbs received a phone call from an American diplomat named Richard Kennedy, who at the time was the U.S. ambassador for non-proliferation, and the chief American representative to the IAEA.

According to Hibbs, Kennedy said, "I've read your last article."

Hibbs said, "Yeah?"

Kennedy said, "You know that thing about A. Q. Khan—that maybe he went to Iran? Can you tell me who told you that?"

Hibbs answered, "No."

"Can I assume it's a European intelligence source?"


"Will you tell me which government it is?"

"No," Hibbs said. "Does it strike your interest?"

Kennedy admitted that it did. He said, "We have a very strong interest in Dr. Khan and the Khan Research Laboratories. We pay very close attention to his work. In fact, our interest in this man is so intense that you can assume if he takes a toilet break and goes to the john, we know about it. We know where he is."

Though it would be politically inconvenient to admit this now, the United States was aware not only of Khan's peddling of nuclear wares to Iran but also of the likely involvement of the army and the government of Pakistan. Hibbs has reported that the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad from 1988 to 1991, Robert B. Oakley, went around the embassy fuming, "They sold that stuff to those bastards!" and believes that Oakley expressed the same emotion more politely at the National Security Council. Oakley, who now works at the National Defense University, in Washington, D.C., does not recall knowing of the sales to Iran when he was ambassador, and says he was not asked to raise the matter with the Pakistani government. For political reasons more than for reasons of national security, these are some of the most closely held secrets in the United States. For the same reasons, the apparent lack of good information is pointed to as yet another U.S. intelligence failure (add it to the implosion of the Soviet Union, to 9/11, to Iraq), when in reality the CIA knew fairly well what was happening, and an awareness of Pakistani actions should count as a U.S. intelligence success.

Not that awareness required great skill; in Pakistan the intent to sell nuclear-weapons technology lay clearly in view. In 1989, for instance, the Khan Research Laboratories held the first international conference in what would be a fifteen-year series of occasional courses and symposia on issues pertaining to uranium enrichment and centrifuges. These meetings, which were widely advertised, amounted to barely disguised promotional affairs, clearly intended to demonstrate Pakistan's expertise to potential nuclear-weapons customers. By the end of the 1990s the Khan Research Laboratories were sending salesmen to international arms shows—in Malaysia, Indonesia, Abu Dhabi, and back home in Karachi—where they set up booths and passed out A. Q. Khan buttons and brochures advertising their conventional and nuclear products. In 2001, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, KRL published a proud self-portrait, part of which read:

Keeping pace with the emerging demands of the competitive international defense products market, KRL ventured to offer its expertise, in the shape of services and products, not only to the domestic consumers but also to an international audience of friendly countries … Although a fresh entrant, the participation of KRL from Pakistan was warmly welcomed. KRL has earned credibility not only in South East Asia, but also in the Middle East and West Asia. Its regular participation … has enabled the Laboratories to set up and maintain close cooperation in this vital sector in many countries.

Pakistan's Ministry of Commerce did its part too. In July of 2000 it ran a full-page notice in the English-language Pakistani press that advertised the nuclear-weapons products that Pakistan had to offer: a full line of materials and devices that ended just one step short of a ready-made bomb.

But back to Iran. In the late 1980s there were persistent rumors of secret Pakistani-Iranian nuclear agreements, and as noted, these were systematically denied. In 1991, however, Pakistan's army chief, General Aslam Beg, returned from a trip to Tehran openly advocating the export of nuclear-weapons technology to Iran, and pointing to the several billion dollars' worth of state revenue that might be in the offing. He may even have written an opinion piece in an Urdu-language newspaper expressing his enthusiasm for the idea—though in Pakistan recently he denied this to me, and I was unable to track the piece down. Beg is an anti-American with sympathies for Iran, and he says that he is the target of a Jewish conspiracy of lies. Be that as it may, he was told to keep quiet in the early 1990s, presumably because the transfer of blueprints and centrifuges was already under way.

Hibbs was onto it fast. In November of 1991, having previously written about the unconfirmed visits of A. Q. Khan, he described an unnamed Western government's suspicion that Iran had possibly obtained uranium-enrichment technology from Pakistan, and that this technology appeared to be that of URENCO, the consortium from which Khan had stolen designs. The official reaction in Europe and the United States was "no comment." Hibbs was left to pursue his work alone in his black box.

Unbeknownst to him, the CIA had concluded that the Pakistan-Iran connection had cooled, in part because the centrifuges that Pakistan had sold were castoffs, prone to vibration and inefficient compared with more modern designs. As a result U.S. interest in Khan diminished, and to some extent the trail was allowed to go cold. Hindsight shows that this was a mistake: Khan remained as ambitious as ever, and like a good vendor, he offered improvements to his client. His relations with Iran were solid and all the better because they were out of sight. Throughout that decade, however, as Hibbs occasionally reported, U.S. suspicions remained strong that Iran was continuing to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, with the perhaps unwitting aid of Russia and China, both of which were eager to sell civil nuclear technology to Iran—as they are today.

In 2002 a glimmer of light illuminated Hibbs's black box: a confidential source at the IAEA alerted him to the news that Iran had proceeded so far with a centrifuge program that it was ready to open a production-scale enrichment plant. Hibbs asked if the IAEA had any information on the origin of the design.

His source said, "It's indigenous."

Hibbs didn't believe it. He said, "There's nothing indigenous about a centrifuge program in Iran. There's nothing remotely indigenous about it. It's stolen. Believe me, it's got to be stolen."

Hibbs studied the question, and with the shreds of information he painstakingly formed a picture in his mind. He asked himself: How powerful is this machine? How big is it? How much uranium could it conceivably enrich? How fast? And how long has it taken the Iranians to develop it? He went back to his notes of a decade before, and read all his old files, and finally concluded that it had to be a URENCO design, and was probably from A. Q. Khan. But Hibbs needed some sort of confirmation. With the evidence in hand he went to see another confidential source at a U.S. agency in Washington. They met in a coffee shop. Hibbs is generally diffident, but on this occasion he got right to the point. He said, "Does the U.S. government know where the technology came from?"

Presented by

William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This is the second of two reports about A. Q. Khan and nuclear proliferation. More

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus