Nuclear Clients: Don’t Overlook the Unusual Suspects

Michael A. Levi and Susan E. Rice
Susan E. Rice Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow - School of International Service, American University

April 5, 2004

Recently, a potential new front in the fight against nuclear proliferation suddenly emerged and, just as quickly, retreated from public view. In a surprising official statement issued at the conclusion of bilateral military talks last month, Nigeria’s defense ministry quoted a Pakistani general as announcing that his country was “working out the dynamics of how [it] can assist Nigeria’s armed forces to strengthen its military capability and to acquire nuclear power.”

As alarm spread, furious retractions followed. Nigerian and Pakistani officials insisted that mention of nuclear power had been a “typographical error.”

Following revelations earlier this year that Pakistan had sold nuclear technology to three terrorist-list states, the Nigerian announcement raises eyebrows. How exactly does one accidentally type “nuclear power”?

In any case, the incident should remind U.S. experts and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that even though they have discovered that Iran, Libya and North Korea did business with Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan Khan, it does not mean they have necessarily uncovered the full extent of Pakistani proliferation. As the investigators dig further, they would be wise to consider suspects beyond the obvious candidates in the Middle East. They should also consider the possibility that Pakistan’s customers may not have purchased their own difficult-to-disguise nuclear production capability, but instead bought weapons to be stored in Pakistan until needed.

Investigators should pay special attention to those countries that combine the following four characteristics:

Resource-rich. It costs a lot of money to purchase nuclear capability. Two of Pakistan’s clients, Iran and Libya, had ample oil supplies to pay for it. (North Korea is a strange case—its resource is ballistic missiles.) To be sure, Pakistan has made acquiring a nuclear weapon cheaper than before and analysts should be careful not to exclude all low and middle-income countries.

Undemocratic. States that may have done business with Khan are also likely to have had undemocratic governments. Autocratic leaders of resource-rich governments that lack transparency can more easily divert resources to an illicit arms program.

Threatened. Beyond opportunity, a state needs a motive for seeking nuclear arms. Traditional security concerns are the most obvious. In the 1980s, Iran sought nuclear arms in part to deter Iraq. Repressive regimes, such as North Korea’s, may fear that powerful outsiders are trying to topple them. Analysts should consider not only states that perceive external security threats but also those that face armed internal opposition or civil conflict. Apartheid South Africa developed nuclear weapons while facing both international isolation and an internal threat. States confronting lengthy civil wars might also seek weapons to shock their opponents into surrender.

Islamic. States with Islamic governments or military establishments may have been more likely customers for Khan. This is not because Islamic states are more inclined to seek the bomb, but because Khan appears to have been inclined towards selling it to them. Khan says what he did was for Islam. Nevertheless, his dealings with North Korea underscore that money, not Islam, may have been his principal motive.

By our conservative estimate, at least 15 states believed to lack nuclear technology combine all these characteristics. Another seven make the list if we include non-Islamic governments. The countries span Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, and Latin America.

Take Nigeria as an example. It sits on the world’s tenth largest oil reserves and was long governed by military dictators from its Muslim north. The country has a history of internal conflict and has traditionally viewed itself as a regional superpower. While it is doubtful that Nigeria’s current elected civilian leaders seek nuclear weapons, the possibility that elements of Nigeria’s military might have sought such weapons before democracy returned in 1999 cannot be excluded.

The United States and the IAEA may lack the resources and the justification to investigate all suspect states thoroughly, especially given only circumstantial reasons for suspicion. Still, they do need a logical and coherent framework to guide their search for states that may have been Khan’s customers. That framework must not be constrained by conventional wisdom. Systematically applying the criteria above would help overcome analytical biases and increase the likelihood that the full reach of Khan’s network is ultimately exposed.