A New Nuke Black Market for Iran?

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Although U.S. and allied intelligence services have broken up parts of the nuclear-parts trafficking network run by A.Q. Khan, creator of Pakistan's atomic bomb, Iran has constructed a new — and possibly larger — clandestine network for acquiring nuclear technology, according to a new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a respected London-based think tank.

"Iran remains the most active customer in the nuclear black market, a customer that has built an equivalent if not even larger network than A.Q. Khan's," IISS proliferation specialist Mark Fitzpatrick told a gathering of reporters and proliferation experts in Washington Tuesday. The IISS study, Nuclear Black markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks, concludes that despite Khan having been placed under house arrest by the Pakistan government in 2004, elements of his supply network, which spanned three continents, remain active and dangerous.

"Iran has sought dual-use goods from some of the same people and firms that A.Q. Khan employed," Fitzpatrick said. "It has also been turning to new technology providers. And although some countries have tightened their vigilance, Iran still is trying to evade export controls by repeatedly changing front countries and financing arrangements."

U.S. State and Treasury Department officials have said that some of these front companies and bank accounts are thought to be centered in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states. The U.S. has repeatedly sought help from these countries in shutting down Iranian fronts and financial networks, but with mixed results, at best. The IISS study asserts that the UAE is a "common destination for illicit items and eventually the hub of the Khan network." It adds that Iran is one of the top recipients of non-oil exports from the Emirates, and predicts that "the UAE's relatively lax export controls will no doubt prove tempting to Iran if the international community continues to target its nuclear-related imports."

The IISS assessment also foresaw new proliferation problems arising from efforts to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program. If those efforts succeed, said Fitzpatrick, "North Korea is going to have a lot of equipment it doesn't need any more. One concern is whether North Korea might feel disposed to trying to sell some of that equipment, particularly in a situation where North Korea's internal structure was beginning to fray, and there wasn't centralized control over nuclear assets." In that case, there would be several nations, among them Iran, who would certainly be interested in acquiring used components. The IISS is recommending a bulking up international cooperation on sales and transshipment of all equipment that could be used to build and advance nuclear weapons programs.

The IISS also warns that the legacy of the Khan network may yet provide more nasty surprises. "How much help Khan gave Iran and North Korea and whether the Khan network had other customers are questions of intense interest to investigative agencies," it says. Some equipment thought to have been in the network's possession remains unaccounted for. Most ominously, the IISS report suggests that other nations, or even non-state actors such as al-Qaeda, could have received copies of a nuclear-weapon design that the Khan network is known to have peddled to Libya. (The Libyan regime, caught red-handed dealing with Khan, abandoned its nuclear program and handed over the blueprint, together with other nuclear related technology, to the U.S., in exchange for improved relations with the West.) According to the IISS report, "the bomb designs were apparently digitalised and copied onto computer disks at one of Khan's offices in Dubai. One of the Swiss members of the network admitted to having atomic bomb construction plans in his own office. Swiss and American authorities, as well as the IAEA, have been trying to discover what other use may have been made of these bomb designs, including the alarming scenario of whether any copies were sold to terrorist groups."