The other father of the Iranian nuclear weapons program – AQ Khan – analysis

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Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is traditionally referred to as the father of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. After all, he was her boss for decades until his murder in November 2020.
In the truest sense of the word, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who died on Sunday, can also be seen as the father – or stepfather – of the nuclear weapons programs of Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Without him, he sold these countries both designs and actual uranium enrichment centrifuges – and provided invaluable guidance from at least 1987-1996 and possibly longer – they might never have jumped to where they are now, or their progress could have taken a long time longer.

By the time AQ Khan sold both constructions and actual centrifuges to the Islamic Republic, all attempts at home to make them had failed miserably.

Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami speaks during a memorial service for Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Credit: IRANIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY / WANA / HANDOUT / VIA REUTERS)” title=” Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami speaks during a memorial service for Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Credit: IRANIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY / WANA / HANDOUT / VIA REUTERS)” style=”max-width: 758px;”/> Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami speaks during a memorial service for Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Credit: IRANIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY / WANA / HANDOUT / VIA REUTERS)

The roughly 20,000 IR-1 and IR-2 centrifuges that Tehran had in operation in the run-up to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal were based entirely or largely on Pakistan’s P-1 and P-2 machines.

Similar machines were also found in Libya when that country turned its entire nuclear weapons program over to the US in 2003 in hopes of repelling an invasion.

When Khan’s proliferation ring was exposed, Iran eventually went clean, admitting that it had paid him millions for years to help build its nuclear program.

This happened somewhat parallel to the uncovering of the Natanz nuclear facility in the period 2002-2003.

When the International Atomic Energy Agency first secured a visit to Natanz, the centrifuge fleet it saw was likely AQ Khan’s.

Another sign of its importance is that only in the last few years has Tehran actually succeeded in manufacturing its own centrifuges beyond Khan’s designs, which would work for any reliable period of time.

In 2019, Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright told the Jerusalem Post that almost none of the advanced IR-4, IR-6, or IR-8 centrifuges the Islamic Republic loved to photograph are actually for anyone worked meaningful duration.

Iran’s failure to advance in this arena for over 15 years is in part due to its fear of the US after Washington overthrew the regime in Iraq.

But some of this could be due to Khan’s loss of regular leadership when his proliferation activities were exposed and the US demanded that Pakistan deny him and curtail his activities.

Like North Korea, US officials said back in 2002 that Pakistan had exchanged sensitive information about the uranium enrichment process using gas centrifuges and possibly related technologies in exchange for ballistic missiles.

More precisely, American intelligence agencies exposed the sale of high-strength aluminum pipes for the construction of gas centrifuges from Islamabad to Pyongyang.

North Korea has received help from others as well, including its own exchanges with Iran, but it is unclear whether without his contribution the north would have the formidable nuclear arsenal it has today.

Khan’s willingness to share nuclear technology with rogue countries like Iran, North Korea and Libya is part of what made him “special” and eventually led to his being ostracized, at least outside of Pakistan.

Until Khan, the vast majority of nuclear scientists considered nuclear weapons too dangerous to share with other than the greatest and most stable powers in the world.

The few defections that have taken place on these issues have usually taken place between the USSR and the top Western powers, but not to the lower quality “developing countries”.

In Pakistan, depending on the current political winds, he was viewed either as a hero who brought the country nuclear weapons and permanent security from invasion, or as an albatross who was best kept under house arrest and out of sight.

Regardless of what various Pakistani leaders have said publicly, with hindsight it seems clear that many, if not most of them were on board or turned a blind eye to its proliferation exploits.

In their eyes, the dissemination of nuclear information made Pakistan money, boosted the country’s reputation and undermined the ability of world leaders to assert their views on security and power issues against countries like Pakistan that were still on their feet.

From an Israeli perspective, AQ Khan goes down in history after already wreaking irrevocable damage by helping the Islamic Republic advance in its nuclear ambitions and capabilities.

He may be gone, but Israeli security and global stability could pay for his actions for decades.


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