Opinion | National Security

AQ Khan's death doesn't stop the threat of nuclear proliferation

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The recent death of Abdul Qadeer Khan, a national hero in Pakistan who was the architect of Pakistan's nuclear bomb program, is an appropriate time to reflect on how an individual or network can provide nuclear technology and know-how to rogue states and terrorist organizations seeking nuclear weapons.

A.Q. Khan was trained in Europe as a metallurgical engineer and employed by the Anglo-Dutch-German nuclear engineering consortium Urenco, where he gained unique access to and expertise working with uranium centrifuges. He brought this knowledge, and documentation, to Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program.

A serial nuclear proliferator, Khan in the late 1980s and '90s provided Iran with a few thousand P-1 and P-2 centrifuges, in addition to blueprints and components, for its facility in Natanz. He provided North Korea with centrifuges, training and manuals for its highly-enriched uranium program, which provided Pyongyang with another path, in addition to its plutonium program, to nuclear weapons. Libya also was the recipient of centrifuges and documentation for a uranium enrichment program.

Iraq and Syria were approached, but it was Iran, North Korea and Libya that aggressively pursued a relationship with Khan. Libya eventually abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons, in return for international legitimacy and normalized relations with the United States and United Kingdom. Iran and North Korea have persisted with their programs.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran - signed by Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., before Donald Trump withdrew our participation in May 2018 - requires Iran's compliance with halting numerous nuclear programs for a certain period, to be verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran has breached the accord several times.

North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests and continues to reprocess spent fuel rods for plutonium for nuclear weapons. They are assessed to have between 40 to 60 nuclear weapons.  Although North Korea never has admitted to having a highly-enriched uranium program for weapons, it does have a declared modern uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon, reportedly with thousands of spinning centrifuges. 

North Korea reportedly provided Syria with training, materials and assistance in the construction of a plutonium nuclear reactor in Al-Kibar. Israel bombed this facility in September 2007, just prior to its going into operation. Al Qaeda reportedly also attempted to acquire nuclear weapons and fissile materials from North Korea for a dirty bomb. 

There is appropriate current concern that other nation-states will try to acquire nuclear weapons capability, usually for deterrence purposes. Indeed, if North Korea is permitted to retain its nuclear weapons, South Korea, Japan and others in the region may decide that, despite U.S. nuclear deterrence commitments, they need their own nuclear weapons.

The same applies to Iran. If it pursues a nuclear weapons program, it's likely that countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will pursue their own nuclear weapons programs, despite U.S. nuclear deterrence commitments.

It's logical to assume that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations continue to seek nuclear and biological weapons to attack the U.S., its allies and partners. And the Taliban's return to leadership in Afghanistan - and their complicity with 9/11 by permitting al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to reside in Afghanistan and plot against the U.S. - must be of immediate concern to the U.S. and its allies.

Khan showed the world that one serial proliferator can provide the technology and know-how necessary to a few nation-states interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. Ensuring that Iran doesn't acquire a nuclear weapon and that North Korea denuclearizes completely and verifiably is necessary if we want to ensure that other countries - especially in East Asia and the Middle East - do not pursue their own nuclear weapons programs.

The proliferation of nuclear states, and the likelihood that a nuclear weapon or fissile material for a dirty bomb is acquired by a rogue state or terrorist organization, must be of the highest concern to the United States and our allies.

Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea and the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views expressed in this publication are his and do not imply endorsement of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. government agency.