Nukes ‘R’ Us

The New York Times
March 4, 2004, p. A31

WASHINGTON – America’s relations with Pakistan and several other Asian countries have been rocked by the discovery of the vast smuggling network run by the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Unfortunately, one American ally at the heart of the scandal, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, seems to be escaping punishment despite its role as the key transfer point in Dr. Khan’s atomic bazaar.

Dubai’s involvement is no surprise to those who follow the murky world of nuclear technology sales. For the last two decades it, along with other points in the emirates, has been the main hub through which traffickers have routed their illegal commerce to hide their trails. Yet the United States, which has depended on the emirates as a pillar of relative stability in the Middle East and, since 1991, as a host to American troops, has done little to pressure it to crack down on illicit arms trade.

In the wake of the Khan scandal, Washington has at least acknowledged the problem. President Bush singled out SMB Computers, a Dubai company run by B. S. A. Tahir, a Sri Lankan businessman living in Malaysia, as a “front for the proliferation activities of the A. Q. Khan network.” According to the White House, Mr. Tahir arranged for components of high-speed gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium so it can be used in nuclear weapons, to be manufactured in Malaysia, shipped to Dubai and then sent on to Libya. (In its investigation, the Malaysian government implicated another Dubai company, Gulf Technical Industries.)

American authorities say that Mr. Tahir also bought centrifuge parts in Europe that were sent to Libya via Dubai. In return for millions of dollars paid to Dr. Khan, Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, was to get enough centrifuges to make about 10 nuclear weapons a year.

Why ship through Dubai? Because it may be the easiest place in the world to mask the real destination of cargo. Consider how the Malaysian government is making the case for the innocence of its manufacturing company. “No document was traced that proved” the company “delivered or exported the said components to Libya,” according to the country’s inspector general of police. The real destination, he said, “was outside the knowledge” of the producer. One can be certain that if the Khan ring’s European suppliers are ever tracked down, they will offer a similar explanation.

Dubai provides companies and governments a vital asset: automatic deniability. Its customs agency even brags that its policy on re-exporting “enables traders to transit their shipments through Dubai without any hassles.” Next to Dubai’s main port is the Jebel Ali free trade zone, a haven for freewheeling international companies. Our organization has documented 264 firms from Iran and 44 from rogue regimes like Syria and North Korea.

With the laxity of the emirates’ laws, there is simply no way to know how many weapon components have passed through. But consider some incidents that our organization has tallied – based on shipping records, government investigations, court documents, intelligence reports and other sources – over the last 20 years.

  • In 1982, a German exporter and former Nazi, Alfred Hempel, sent 70 tons of heavy water, a component for nuclear reactors, from Sinochem in China to Dubai. The shipping labels were then changed to mask the transaction, and 60 tons of the heavy water were forwarded to India, where it enabled the government to use its energy-producing reactors to create plutonium for its atomic weapons program. The other 10 tons went to Argentina, which was interested in atomic weapons at the time.
  • In 1983, Mr. Hempel sent 15 tons of heavy water from Norway’s Norsk Hydro, and 6.7 tons from Techsnabexport in the Soviet Union, through the emirates to India.
  • In 1985 and 1986, Mr. Hempel sent 12 more tons of Soviet heavy water to India that were used to start the Dhruva reactor, devoted to making plutonium for atomic bombs. (The details of these transactions come from German and Norwegian government audits, but Mr. Hempel, who died in 1989, was never convicted of a crime.)
  • In 1990, a Greek intermediary offered Iraq an atomic-bomb design (probably of Chinese origin) from Dr. Khan in Pakistan, with a guarantee that “any requirements or materials” could be bought from Western countries and routed through Dubai. Iraq has said it rejected the offer and suspected it of being part of a sting operation, although a more likely explanation is that the impending 1991 Persian Gulf war precluded the deal.
  • In 1994 and 1995, two containers of gas centrifuge parts from Dr. Khan’s labs were shipped through Dubai to Iran for about $3 million worth of U.A.E. currency.
  • In 1996, Guide Oil of Dubai ordered American-made impregnated alumina, which can be used for making nerve gas ingredients, and tried to pass it along to an Iranian purchasing agent, Drush Jamshidnezhad, in violation of American export control laws. A sample was delivered before the deal foundered when middlemen were caught by American officials in a sting operation.
  • Also in 1996, the German government listed six firms in Dubai as front companies for Iranian efforts to import arms and nuclear technology.
  • From 1998 to 2001, several consignments of rocket fuel ingredients shipped to Dubai by an Indian company, NEC Engineers, were sent to Iraq, in violation of Indian law and the United Nations embargo on Saddam Hussein’s regime.
  • In 2003, over Washington’s protests, emirates customs officials allowed 66 American high-speed electrical switches, which are ideal for detonating nuclear weapons, to be sent to a Pakistani businessman with longstanding ties to the Pakistani military. American prosecutors have indicted an Israeli, Asher Karni, for allegedly exporting the switches through Giza Technologies in New Jersey to South Africa and then to Dubai.

The pattern is terrifying, and those examples are most likely a small part of the overall picture. So, will the Bush administration, with its focus on fighting terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, start cracking down on the emirates? The first signs are not promising. President Bush has warned of interrogations in Pakistan and actions against the factory in Malaysia that supplied Dr. Khan, but has given no hint of any penalties against Dubai. Lockheed Martin is about to send 80 F-16 fighters to the emirates, and a missile-defense deal may be in the offing.

The lesson of the Khan affair is that instead of focusing solely on “rogue regimes,” we have to shut down the companies and individuals that supply them with illicit arms and technology. The United States and its allies have to put pressure on the countries that allow the trade to flourish – even if it means withholding aid and refusing arms sales. Unless Dubai cleans up its act, it should be treated like the smugglers it harbors.

Gary Milhollin is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. Kelly Motz is associate director.