The immunity enjoyed by Khan is rooted in the dependency that the Bush administration has developed in the form of Pakistan's president, who has been an important ally in the war the Americans are waging against international terrorism.
All eyes are set on Iran, which is trying to dupe the Europeans and carry on with its plans to produce nuclear weapons, but the truth is that the more immediate threat for the acceleration of nuclear proliferation can be found nearby, in Pakistan.
Eleven months have passed since Dr. Abdel-Kader Khan was arrested by the authorities in his country, on suspicion of running a clandestine international ring for the sale of nuclear technology and related equipment. However, to date the American or the European investigators have not been permitted to meet with him. The president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharaf, who rushed to grant amnesty to the man called "the father of the atomic bomb" in Pakistan, complained in an interview to CNN that the requests of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to question Khan "points to a lack of trust in Pakistan."
Thus, the "insulted" president of Pakistan continues to protect, with all his power, the individual who appears to have been the greatest, least traceable and most dangerous proliferating agent of all times of information and equipment for the development of nuclear weapons.
"We ourselves can question him best," Musharaf insisted to the American reporter, without cracking a smile. In view of the broad magnitude of Khan's illegal activities, there is little doubt that Musharaf was privy to it. A number of the deals were carried out by the Pakistani air force, whose aircraft delivered the equipment that Khan sold to their foreign destinations.
Musharaf opted to close his eyes and enrich the coffers of his country from the profits of the nuclear ring of the senior scientist, and also increase the prestige of Pakistan among Muslim countries, some of whom were clients of Khan's wares.
The immunity enjoyed by Khan is rooted in the dependency that the Bush administration has developed in the form of Pakistan's president, who has been an important ally in the war the Americans are waging against international terrorism, and especially the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
"A leader determined to bring to justice not only persons such Bin Laden, but also those that have caused suffering and pain to his people," was how President George Bush described General Musharaf, who took over the country in a military coup, after the two met in the White House two weeks ago.
With this attitude, the US administration is in fact preventing the clearing of the air surrounding Khan's nuclear dealings, and does not allow the tracking of the path of proliferation that he paved around the world. The details of Khan's dealings are not known, but the list of his clients is very impressive. Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and also Communist North Korea and Buddhist Burma, benefited from the goods that the Pakistani scientist generously doled. And still, it is not certain that the list is complete.
While it is not clear who bought what, the quality of Khan's merchandise is confirmed by the many accurate drawings that document and explain the process for the production of a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb, found in the files of the Libyan nuclear program, and which were revealed to IAEA officials earlier this year. Only after Libya decided to dismantle its programs for the development of weapons of mass destruction were inspectors able to get their hands on the enormous quantity of information that led directly to Khan. It became clear that in addition to the designs, whose origin seems to have been in China, Khan sold to the Libyans centrifuges and data necessary for enriching uranium.
What is even more serious in this terrible affair is that Khan's arrest in Pakistan did not put an end to the activities of the secret smuggling ring which he headed. John Bolton, US under secretary for arms control and international security, said recently that the ring continues to have unknown clients, and that this affair "involves a lot more than that which we are permitted to discuss openly."
There are therefore many unanswered questions. For example, did groups, which are not states, purchase data and nuclear equipment from the Pakistani scientist? Is one of them Al-Qaida? Did other countries, in addition to North Korea, Iran, and Libya, purchase designs for the production of centrifuges, uranium and the bomb from Dr. Khan?
The Khan affairs proves once more that even when the more sophisticated intelligence agencies seek to follow the nuclear activities of various countries, they fail over and over again. Just like the more advanced intelligence organizations in the West failed to expose the Iraqi nuclear program prior to the Gulf War, failed in monitoring the Libyan nuclear program, and did not expose a significant portion of Iran's program, American intelligence failed to monitor the full extent of the illegal nuclear dealings of Khan, in spite having him under surveillance for the past three decades.
In Israel the affair needs to raise a number of alarms. A significant portion of Khan's clients are in the Middle East, and it is possible that Iran is not the sole country in the region with a nuclear weapons program. One should not forget that in the past, not only the Americans but also Israel's intelligence failed in exposing the Iraqi nuclear program in the 1980s and the nuclear efforts of Libya in the 1990s.
The lesson is that there should be no reliance on the IAEA to tackle the problem and not even on the American determination to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Israel must prepare for "a New Middle East" in which it will no longer be the sole nuclear player.