Corera’s book links the death of the Pakistani dictator with the nuclear trafficking between Pakistan and Iran, says Mahesh Prabhu
Shopping for Bombs, Gordon Corer,Foundation Books, Rs 1295
Is it possible that the Pakistan’s nuclear sale to Iran in the 1980s was made without Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s approval and that he died because he had got close to the information in August 1988 about who had made the deal?
Gordon Corera, correspondent for BBC News, has provided the first clue to the death of Gen Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. The most important disclosure is that AQ Khan sold his first nuclear secrets to Iran in 1987, quite possibly without the approval of the then ruler of Pakistan, Gen Zia-ul-Haq. The General was well-known to be in favour of the Arabs against Iran after the latter had begun to threaten them after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Corera also discovers that while Gen Zia-ul-Haq may not have been privy to the sale to Iran, some others from within the military establishment could be closely involved.
Gen Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1977 and was killed in an air-crash in 1988. At that time, Shias were severely persecuted in Pakistan. It was, therefore, widely believed that his death was engineered by the Shia community.
The Pakistani dictator began Islamising Pakistan under the tutelage of Saudi Arabia. By 1980, shari’ah was enforced in that country, backed by Saudi Arabia.
In 1979, Iran went through its Islamic Revolution. The Arab countries, however, feared this development, as most of them had Shia minorities, who were shabbily treated in their respective countries.
Corera says Pakistan’s nuclear scientist and head of the Khan Research Laboratories, AQ Khan, was using Dubai as the base for meeting his suppliers. It was here in 1987 that he sold crucial drawings and designs of a tested nuclear plant and received $ 3 million in Swiss francs from the Iranian party.
Was this deal concluded with the consent of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, who was in the process of “reining in the Shias” in Pakistan? If he had given AQ Khan the go-ahead, did he realise that Saudi Arabia might get wind of it and retaliate against him? Is it possible that the nuclear sale was made without his approval? And that he died because he had got close to the information in August 1988? The book deals with these questions.
Corera wonders whether the ‘deal’ with Iran was ‘official’ or done without the knowledge of the ‘Government’. He records the arrival of several Iranian delegations in Pakistan — one was even led by Iranian President Ali Khamenei, who was keen to build the Iranian bomb.
The 1987 ‘deal’ was concluded by a relative of AQ Khan in Dubai. This might point to Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s reluctance to give the Iranians what they wanted in full public view, especially that of the Arabs, who had already reacted with alarm to the nuclear ambition of a friendly Shah in the 1970s.
Corera writes, “Would Pakistan really want to see a neighbour with nuclear weapons? A few individuals might, but not the whole Government over an extended period. In essence, it appears that Khan could have received tacit approval and support from a small number of senior individuals but may have continued and deepened the relationship on his — or his network’s — initiative.”
Then Corera provides a pen-sketch of Gen Aslam Beg: “During the mid to late 1980s, when Pakistan and Iran were moving closer together and nuclear dealings began, Gen Mirza Aslam Beg was first Vice-Chief from 1987 and then from 1988 to 1991, Chief of the Army Staff… As soon as he became Vice-Chief he was ‘made privy’ to the nuclear programme for the first time. He supported a more overt nuclear policy and greater distancing from the United States and the West. According to his own writings, Beg thought in terms of ‘democratising’ the global nuclear non-proliferation order and moving to a multipolar world, which he believed would be safer than either a bipolar Cold War world or a unipolar world of American power… Beg and AQ Khan were close friends and political allies and shared many of the same views.”
After the death of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, his son kept accusing Gen Aslam Beg of having killed his father. In 1993, the Justice Shafiur Rehman Commission report on Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s death — now classified as ‘secret’ — was inconclusive, pleading obstruction from the Army.
The book is an interesting take on illegal nuclear proliferation in one of the most difficult regions of the world.
The review was first published on The Pioneer, New Delhi.