I notice that Jeff Smith and Joby Warrick have yet another story
based on documents provided by AQ Khan to Simon Henderson. (For more about the documents, read Henderson’s account in the Times online.)

This story pisses me off. (I suspect the editors, not the reporters, are at fault here.)

The lede to the story is about Iran, but Khan doesn’t give a whit about Iran. He’s telling a story about domestic Pakistani politics. It’s like sending two reporters to watch a production of Othello, and then publishing a story about Ottoman maritime policy. (To refresh: Othello is sent from Venice to Cyprus to defend the island against the Turks. They Turks never appear; their fleet is destroyed in a storm.) The Post actually lists the players as though this were some off-beat summer stock production.

The main allegation is that Iran sent a senior military official, Ali Shamkhani, to Pakistan to pick up three nuclear weapons promised by the Pakistani military. When the Chairman of the Pakistani Joint Chiefs of Staff says they’ll have to discuss that further, all hell breaks loose. The Pakistanis send Shamkhani packing with little more than the promise of some refuse to be provided by AQ Khan from Kahuta:

Khan’s written statement to Henderson states that after [Ali] Shamkhani’s arrival in Islamabad on a government plane, he told the chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff committee that “he had come . . . to collect the promised nuclear bombs.”

When the chairman, Adm. Iftikhar Ahmed Sirohey, proposed to discuss other matters first and then “see how Pakistan could assist the Iranians in their nuclear program,” Shamkhani reportedly became irate, Khan wrote. He reminded Sirohey that “first Gen. Zia (ul Haq, the Pakistani president until 1988) and then Gen. Beg had promised assistance and nuclear weapons and he had specifically come to collect the same.”

[snip]

Khan said that after hearing Shamkhani’s demand for three finished weapons, Sirohey demurred and that other ministers backed him up. But Beg pressed then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her top military aide “to honour (Beg’s) . . . commitment,” Khan wrote.

Under pressure, the aide asked Khan to “get components of two old (P-1) discarded machines and pack them into boxes with 2 sets of drawings,” which were passed to Iran through an intermediary, he said. P-1 is the designation for the centrifuge model used in Pakistan.

I am writing a longer piece about the other two stories in this series as they relate to North Korea, but I have essentially the same complaint about all three: The apparent faith placed in AQ Khan.

There is good reason to be wary of Khan’s statements. He is not an historian, attempting to document the operation of a proliferation network for future scholars, or a journalist with a big scoop. He’s a perp, trying to save his own skin and repair his reputation. His motive is to demonstrate that everything he did, he did:

(1) with the approval, or indeed at the behest, of senior officials in Pakistan (which is not, precisely, the same thing as the Government of Pakistan), and

(2) in the service of Pakistan’s national interest.

That is the gist of Khan’s March 2004 “statement” to the Pakistani government, his handwritten December 10, 2003 letter to his wife Hendrina, and his 5-page description of his government’s nuclear cooperation with China. Indeed, the apparent reason that the Post won’t publish the documents is that they contain a lengthy list of likely litigious Pakistani officials whom Khan accuses of accepting bribes. (In the print version, there is an image of the statement with the name of one of Khan’s employees blacked out.) Khan is implicating others, casting his own actions as having served his country.

The whole Iran angle is just backdrop, like the never-seen Turkish fleet in Othello. The real drama is the fight between the Army and the civilian government, represented by General Beg and Prime Minister Bhutto. In this play, Khan is neither Othello nor Iago. He’s Roderigo — the fool used by one powerful force to get at another, then betrayed.

Seriously, the Post’s theater critic could have written a better story.

Who suggested giving Iran nuclear weapons? Not innocent AQ Khan, but the powerful Army Chief of Staff. Who decided to provide Iran with (old) centrifuges as a consolation prize? Not gentle AQ Khan, but Benazir Bhutto’s military aide. Seriously, I think Khan missed a career writing for stage and film.

Clearly the Iranians were up to no good with Pakistan, as were the Libyans, North Koreans and probably a few others. Khan played a central role in that relationship, so his account is interesting, if not dispositive. But to read Khan’s account of the wrangling in Islamabad as a story about motivations in Tehran is a bizarre editorial choice that speaks volumes about the state of the Post.

If the Post is worried about lawsuits arising from Khan’s allegations, doesn’t that say something about the credibility of the documents? Either the Post should have the courage to publish the documents in full, as David Albright et al. have suggested, or admit that there are real problems with Khan’s credibility.