Sunday, December 05, 2010

Reading :: Shopping for Bombs

Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network
By Gordon Corera

Last week, Wikileaks dumped a large number of classified US cables, including the revelation that Iran has bought advanced missiles from North Korea, missiles that could carry payloads from Iran to European and Russian cities. According to the New York Times, "The missile intelligence also suggests far deeper military — and perhaps nuclear — cooperation between North Korea and Iran than was previously known."

Disturbing? Sure. But I wasn't surprised. The week before, I had read Shopping for Bombs, in which Gordon Corera details what is known about the A.Q. Khan network. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, built a supplier and distribution network - which was 90% legal - to acquire components for developing nuclear weapons, and eventually, to sell nuclear components and secrets. It's not easy to build a nuclear bomb - it takes tremendous knowledge, resources, and patience. For instance, it takes thousands of finely calibrated centrifuges to refine uranium to the appropriate level, and it's not easy to design and machine these centrifuges or acquire the uranium. Khan figured out how to do this, largely through plans he stole in the early 1970s. And then he began to export it: to Iran, to Libya, and to other possible customers.

Of course, nuclear weapons aren't much use without missile technology to deliver it, and missiles are another tough nut to crack. Khan did not know how to develop missiles. North Korea had developed No Dong missiles, but hadn't successfully developed the bomb. So the two states transferred technology to each other. Although conclusive evidence is lacking, Corera cites circumstantial evidence that the two states, both of which were short on cash, traded secrets and technology as well as selling them. (With this precedent, it hardly seems surprising that North Korea would find it worthwhile to provide missile technology to Khan's former customer Iran.)

Corera emphasizes that although Khan had the resources of Pakistan behind him, he did not necessarily represent the State in his dealings. Khan had an extraordinary amount of leeway, so much that he could keep his dealings secret from, and untouchable by, Pakistan's prime minister.

Ultimately, what brought down the AQ Khan network was overreach. Libya decided to order the whole package - an entire nuclear program, soup to nuts, rather than ordering plans and components and making it work on their own, as Iran and North Korea had. This meant that the network had to make extraordinarily large purchases, purchases that were easier to track. At the same time, Libya (perhaps with an eye to the results of Gulf War II) decided to come in from the cold and give up its nuclear program, and its secret talks with the US provided some clues that allowed the US to intercept shipments.

Corera pens a gripping story here, one that I wish were fiction. It's well worth reading, especially in light of the Wikileaks document dumps.

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