Posted November 2007: Foreign Policy
Benazir Bhutto knows how to tell Western audiences what they want to hear, but when the former prime minister had a chance to shut down Pakistan’s nuclear Wal-Mart, she looked the other way instead.
With Pakistan in turmoil and the Bush administration rapidly losing patience with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the time seems ripe for Benazir Bhutto’s return to power. But how would the former prime minister handle the most critical international issue confronting Pakistan today? We are not talking about dealing with Islamic extremists within its borders, though that is perilous enough. Even more critical to the international community is the matter of securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and eradicating the final vestiges of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear Wal-Mart. Bhutto may say all the right things on this issue, but history raises troubling questions about her performance when it comes to nuclear weapons.
In the fall of 1989, less than a year into her first term as prime minister, Bhutto attended a conference for Islamic heads of government in Tehran. On the sidelines, then President of Iran Hashemi Rafsanjani pulled Bhutto aside to talk about a critical matter:
“Our countries have reached an agreement on special defense matters,” Rafsanjani said, according to a Bhutto aide who was there. “This agreement was reached on a military-to-military basis, but I want us to reaffirm it as leaders of our governments.”
Bhutto maintained that she knew nothing of any defense pact with Iran. “What exactly are you talking about, Mr. President?” she asked, gesturing for the aide to move closer to overhear.
“Nuclear technology, Madam Prime Minister, nuclear technology,” said the Iranian leader.
Two years earlier, A.Q. Khan, a leading Pakistani nuclear scientist, had sold Iran components and plans for centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for weapons or to fuel civilian reactors. The equipment and knowledge gave Iran a jump-start in its secret program to enrich uranium, which the United States and other countries now claim is part of a plan to produce a nuclear weapon.
Bhutto has confirmed the story and consistently said that she was furious to find out from Rafsanjani that Pakistan was providing its nuclear technology to Iran. She said she responded by ordering that no nuclear scientist be permitted to travel outside Pakistan without her approval. Although Bhutto publicly declared her opposition to nuclear weapons for Pakistan, she often took a different line in private discussions and talked about extending the nuclear legacy of her late father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who began the effort in 1972 to build an “Islamic Bomb.”
The military ousted Benazir Bhutto as prime minister in 1990, in part because her ties to the United States had raised fears that she would sacrifice the country’s nuclear program. “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability simply cannot be safe under the leadership of a Westernized woman,” said Maulana Sami ul-Haq, the head of one of the Islamic parties aligned with the intelligence service at the time.
After engineering a political comeback and winning reelection in October 1993, Bhutto reemerged wiser and wilier, determined to avoid confrontation with senior military and intelligence officials. So when Khan requested an appointment with her in December 1993, Bhutto saw an opportunity to recruit an ally. By that time, Khan was recognized as the public face of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, an open secret in the country and the world. He was wealthy and influential, supported by the generals and intelligence masters Bhutto feared most.
Arriving at Bhutto’s office, Khan explained that he knew the prime minister was scheduled to pay a state visit to China later that month. He asked if she would make a detour on his behalf. “If you are going to North Korea, it would be very nice if you could talk to Kim Il Sung about helping us with this nuclear thing,” said Khan, according to Bhutto’s own recollection.
“What do you mean, ‘this nuclear thing’?” Bhutto asked.
Khan explained that the North Koreans were willing to sell Pakistan the designs for a version of the No-Dong missile, which could carry a nuclear payload. Bhutto pointed out that Pakistan already had missiles capable of reaching India. But Khan said he and the generals wanted longer-range missiles with a bigger warhead capacity.
Though she recognized the danger that a new missile could heighten the arms race with India, Bhutto saw an opportunity to curry favor with Khan and his military backers. When she returned from her trip, Bhutto handed over the designs for the missile to Khan. U.S. intelligence agencies believe this exchange was the beginning of Khan’s relationship with North Korea, a relationship that would later yield North Korea the enrichment technology they vitally needed to launch their own nuclear weapons program. Bhutto maintains, however, that she authorized payment for the designs in cash only—not by bartering Pakistan's centrifuge technology.
Two stories, two different responses by Bhutto. In the case of Iran, she attempted to stop the transfer of technology, though some former Pakistani officials have said that she actually approved of the arrangement behind the scenes. In the case of North Korea, Bhutto set aside her reservations and helped a man who has come to be known as the most dangerous proliferator in history.
Which Benazir Bhutto might come back to power now? One possible sign is her position on Khan himself, who was brought to a form of justice in early 2004 when Musharraf forced him to confess on national television that he had provided nuclear technology and expertise to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Since then, the scientist has been held under a tight house arrest in Islamabad, outside the reach of investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who are still trying to untangle his operation.
Musharraf has refused to permit the IAEA to question Khan, who may well hold the secret of Iran’s nuclear intentions, among other pressing nuclear concerns. And the Bush administration has declined to press its ally to allow interrogation of the scientist, who remains a popular figure among Pakistan’s masses.
Bhutto, on the other hand, knows how to talk to Americans. In remarks during a trip to Washington in late September, she promised that her government would let the IAEA question Khan if the U.N. agency asked to do so. Yet when the comment sparked an uproar back home, the chief spokesman for Bhutto’s political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, said her words were being distorted and reassured the domestic audience that she would never turn over Khan to foreigners. “PPP has no intention of violating domestic or international law regarding personal rights of anyone, least of all of Dr. A.Q. Khan,” he said.
Bhutto’s reaction to Musharraf’s emergency rule has been similarly mixed, seeming to reflect a politician with her finger in the air, testing the winds of public opinion. Her initial condemnation was mild. While her own supporters were being beaten and arrested in droves, she was attending semi-official social ceremonies and holding out the possibility of keeping the U.S.-engineered power-sharing agreement with Musharraf. But in recent days, as criticism of Musharraf’s emergency measures has grown from almost every quarter, including the White House, Bhutto has broken with the dictator and begun working to solidify the opposition parties in an attempt to oust him.
Even if Bhutto assumes power again, questions remain not only about her willingness to exert civilian control over Pakistan’s nuclear program, but her ability to do so. Pakistan’s generals and intelligence officials have never trusted Bhutto, and they still believe she is too beholden to the Americans. Since Washington is largely responsible for engineering Bhutto’s return, there is little reason to believe they will change their attitude on the former prime minister anytime soon. And she may well prove too much of a politician to risk angering the military—and jeopardizing her hold on power—by challenging them over control of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Some might regard her return as a victory for democracy, but, given her record, that is a stretch. It would be especially dangerous if Bhutto’s soothing promises were to lull U.S. policymakers into a false sense of security just when vigilance may be needed most.
Douglas Frantz, a senior writer at Condé Nast Portfolio, and Catherine Collins, a Washington-based writer, are authors of the forthcoming The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World's Most Dangerous Secrets ... and How We Could Have Stopped Him (New York: Twelve, December 2007).