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Cracking the code

Nonproliferation efforts in an age of nuclear black markets

Though nuclear proliferation was, until recently, thought of by most as being a unilateral, intra-state (or “vertical”) activity, events of recent years – especially since 9/11 – have brought to the public’s attention the presence not only of state-to-state transfers of nuclear technology, but also of non-state actors in international nuclear development. This brings up the question of how to deal with these two types of proliferation.

Nuclear proliferation through interstate transfer is largely self-explanatory. An example is that of North Korea and Pakistan, in which Pakistan provided “blueprints and components for gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment” to the DPRK in exchange for Nodong missile plans from Korea.

The involvement of non-state actors in international nuclear proliferation, though, creates a more widespread, tangled, and potentially more dangerous situation. The idea that rogue individuals could obtain nuclear technology, radioactive material, and technological know-how has long been on the radar screen of the public – again, especially since 9/11 – but estimates of how widespread a “nuclear black market” network could become before being penetrated (or even known about) proved, with the outing of the A.Q. Khan network, to be far more conservative than reality.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the man “widely viewed as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,” was the director of Khan Research Laboratories in Pakistan, and was the leader of the Pakistani uranium centrifuge enrichment program. In 2003, though, while investigating Iran and Libya’s divergent proliferation intentions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stumbled onto Khan’s illegal proliferation network (three years after the US had learned of it and begun to penetrate its operations) and, like the sweater thread that keeps on coming out as its pulled, further and further revelations came to light regarding the nuclear black market as more light was shone upon it.

In October of 2003, a shipment of uranium-enrichment gas-centrifuge components bound for Libya via a German-owned ship named the China revealed the network’s ongoing activity, and led authorities to take a closer look at the potential complexity of the proliferation market. Further investigation revealed an “illegal nuclear trafficking network” the likes of which had not previously been imagined, and which IAEA director general Mohammed El-Baradei called “the Wal-Mart of private proliferation.”

Continued El-Baradei:
When you see things being designed in one country, manufactured in two or three others, shipped to a fourth, redirected to a fifth, that means there’s lots of offices all over the world. The sophistication of the process, frankly, has exceeded my expectations.
That, of course, is quite an understatement. The Khan network was eventually revealed to have provided “blueprints, technical design data, specifications, components, machinery, enrichment equipment, models, and notes on…centrifuges” through transit points and middlemen in nearly thirty countries, including Dubai, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa, Turkey, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Iran, North Korea, and Libya were among the states and organizations revealed to have received nuclear technology and equipment from Khan, and many still suspect that al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan obtained similar assistance before the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Further insight into the network will be difficult to obtain, as Khan, in 2004, was granted a full pardon by the government of Pakistan in exchange for taking sole responsibility for his illegal proliferation efforts – and for keeping his silence as to remaining details forever (a fact which causes many to suspect Pakistani governmental complicity in Khan’s actions).

What is to be done about these two types of proliferation? If Alexander Montgomery, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, is correct, the non-state-actor model is not a threat, and A.Q. Khan – despite how breathtakingly widespread it was – was simply a flash in the pan, and, even if it wasn’t, posed relatively little threat to the rest of the world, as the nations and individuals who benefited from the network would eventually have come up with the technology on their own anyway. Further, Montgomery argues that diplomacy and carrots (with nothing but “symbolic” sticks as the alternative) are the solution to all proliferation, and maintains that there is not one nation on earth whose drive for nuclear weapons, or animus toward their enemies, is strong enough to cause them to resist active diplomacy and increasing promise of incentives in exchange for scrapping their nuclear ambitions. As a result, he argues, all talk of “regime change” (which he very irresponsibly claims is used as the sole strategy of proliferation prevention) must go, and be replaced with direct, conciliatory talks with those misunderstood states whom we, apparently incorrectly, think are pursuing nuclear weapons for less-than-pristine reasons.

Another, far more rational argument was put forth in the journal International Security by Chaim Braun and Chris Chyba, who chose to realistically address both proliferating states and non-state actors in terms of both supply-side and demand-side actions, rather than, like Montgomery, simply focusing on demand-side efforts and putting all of their eggs in the basket of carrot-based (or concession-based) diplomacy. As they correctly argued, both interstate proliferation and proliferation rings present broad challenges to the security of nations, as well as to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The threats posed by the nuclearization of less developed countries, often through interstate technology and materiel transfer, are different – and potentially more dangerous – than those posed by larger nations which are more in the public eye. This stems from the opacity of their programs, which limits oversight by more knowledgeable, more experienced nations, from their lack of funding to ensure proper safety measures are taken, and from the combination of their geographic proximity to their rivals and the inherent instability in the regimes of so many smaller, poorer nations.

Modern nonproliferation efforts must adapt to the spread of interstate proliferation, as well as the possibility of larger and more widespread extra-state proliferation rings. The NPT must be strengthened, and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which now provides for the interdiction of materiel shipments when the vessel in question is flying the flag of a nation which has agreed to the Initiative, must be expanded to include more “willing participants.” UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540, an unprecedented Section VII resolution (making it legally binding upon all UN member-nations), currently “obliges member states to take action to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, particularly by nonstate actors, through strengthened border controls, better export controls, and other domestic laws.”

As Braun and Chyba point out, UNSCR 1540, though supposedly legally binding, is far from universally enforceable; likewise, though preemptive war against proliferating nations is an option, it would not be cost-effective, both in terms of money and of human life, to use as a primary option even in most cases – even if the preemptive war in Iraq had gone well.

Just as there is no single profile of a proliferating nation or organization, there is no single solution to the problem that is nuclear proliferation. Proliferation rings, like the A.Q. Khan network, have been able to thrive in the past due to the combination of loopholes in export control regimes and a wealth of clients who were willing to defy the NPT. In order to curb proliferation, at the very least, these loopholes must be closed, and demand-side issues must be addressed, with the ultimate goal not only of making nuclear materiel unavailable to potential proliferators, but also of convincing those nations and organizations which would be potential buyers in the nuclear weapons market that their best interests lie elsewhere – and that, should they proceed, the proverbial stick with which they are swatted would be of far greater consequence than the benefit they would gain from ignoring the international nonproliferation regime and proceeding along the path toward nuclear weapons acquisition.

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Albright, David and Corey Hinderstein. “Unraveling the A. Q. Khan and Future Proliferation Networks.” Washington Quarterly. 2005, 28-2.

Braun, Chaim and Christopher Chyba. “Proliferation Rings New Challenges to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime.” International Security. 2004, 29-2.

Cirincione, Joseph, et al. Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.

Montgomery, Alexander. “Ringing in Proliferation: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb Network.” International Security. 2005, 30-2.

Sagan, Scott and Kenneth Waltz. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002.

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