Did the nuclear programme kill Zia?

BOOK REVIEW: Did the nuclear programme kill Zia? — by Khaled Ahmed
Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise and Fall of the AQ Khan Network By Gordon Corera
Daily Times, November 11, 2007

Is it possible that the nuclear sale was made without Zia’s approval, that he came to know of it or was about to know it and might have acted against AQ Khan and his allies in the military establishment? And that he died because he had got close to the information in August 1988 about who had made the deal?

Correspondent for BBC News, Gordon Corera, may have provided in this book the first clue to the death of General Zia in 1988. The most important disclosure is that AQ Khan sold his first nuclear secrets to Iran in 1987, quite possibly without the permission of ruler of Pakistan, General Zia, who was then siding with the Gulf Arabs against Iran after the latter had begun to threaten them upon coming to power in 1979. He also discovers that while Zia may not have been privy to the sale to Iran, some others from within his military establishment could be involved.

General Zia-ul Haq came to power in 1977 and was killed in an air-crash in 1988 at the peak of Shia killings in Pakistan. It was widely believed in Pakistan that his death was engineered by the Shia community in revenge. Zia began Islamising the country under the tutelage of Saudi Arabia. By 1980 the first Islamic laws of the sharia he enforced were backed by Saudi Arabia who sent special advisers at the time of framing them. In 1979, Iran went through its Islamic Revolution. Around the Gulf, the Arab states feared this development because most of them had Shia minorities they were not treating well.

Gordon Corera says Pakistan’s nuclear scientist and head of the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) Dr AQ Khan was using Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as a base for meeting his suppliers. It is here in 1987 that he made a sale of crucial drawings and designs of a tested nuclear plant and received three million dollars in Swiss francs from the Iranian party (p 59-60).

Was this deal with Iran concluded with the consent of General Zia 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, that he came to know of it or was about to know it and might have acted against AQ Khan and his allies in the military establishment? And that he died because he had got close to the information in August 1988 about who had made the deal?

Corera wonders if the deal with Iran was ‘official’ or done without the knowledge of the ‘government’ — which was General Zia in 1987, prime minister Junejo being more or less a puppet by reason of the 8th Amendment in the Constitution passed by parliament which allowed Zia to dismiss him at his discretion. He records the official Iranian delegations — there was one led by President Ali Khamenei who was very keen to build the Iranian bomb — which must have clearly asked Zia for ‘cooperation’. But the ‘deal’ in 1987 was concluded by a relative of AQ Khan in Dubai. This might point to Zia’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 makes the following interesting observation: ‘But 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’ (p.73).

Then he provides a pen-sketch of General Aslam Beg: ‘During the mid to late 1980s, when Pakistan and Iran were moving closer together and nuclear dealings began, General 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’ (p.74).

The dossier published by London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) this year on AQ Khan takes note of the fact that he told his interrogators that he proliferated in favour of the Islamic world, but it rejects the claim because of his proliferation efforts in North Korea. What the dossier finds more convincing was the tendency to proliferate in favour of those states that defied the United States in particular and the West in general. This brought his thinking close to the ‘strategic defiance’ doctrine of General Aslam Beg. In the case of both men, the general ‘guiding principle’ did not prevent them from personal enrichment. In the case of AQ Khan, two reprimands administered by General Zia to him for boasting about enrichment to the weapons’ level in 1984 and 1987 may have strengthened his tendency to defiance based on resentment against Zia.

After the death of General Zia, his son kept accusing General Aslam Beg of having killed his father. In 1993, the Justice Shafiur Rehman Commission Report on Zia’s death — now classified as secret — was inconclusive, pleading obstruction from the army. The ISI, under the new COAS General Asif Nawaz, published its own 34-page ‘parallel’ findings in a Karachi weekly Takbeer (20 August 1992), which its editor Muhammad Salahuddin — assassinated mysteriously in 1994 — submitted to the Justice Shafiur Rehman Commission as evidence that ‘senior army officers were involved in the killing of General Zia in an air crash in Bahawalpur in 1988’.


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