Josh Pollack has an amazing article in Playboy (of all places) that identifies AQ Khan’s so-called fourth customer: India.

The image of a Pakistani magistrate revoking AQ Khan’s pardon intercut with scenes of Josh cavorting with bunnies at the Playboy Mansion is wonderful to contemplate, even if neither is a likely outcome.

Still, a boy can dream.

Much of the evidence assembled by Josh has been hiding in plain sight, but the notion that India might be the much-debated “fourth customer” so fairly boggles the mind that some people can’t get their heads around it.  In deference to the cognitive dissonance, Josh spends a considerable part of the article dedicated to Khan himself, the actual man behind the myth that he carefully assembled through the exertions of journalists of all sorts. As biography, it is wonderful reading, as Josh meticulously demonstrates that Khan would have no qualms taking India as a client.

The evidence is becomes overwhelming once one admits this strange possibility.

Let’s get one thing straight: The evidence is incontrovertible that India was a customer of the Khan network.  South African court documents state that South African elements of the network sold UF6-resistant flow meters to India.  Moreover, Pakistani officials, including Khan himself, have openly stated that India acquired centrifuge design information from the network, usually blaming deceased individuals within the network for operating independently. We all have known about these relationships for some time, as well as the fact that the Indian centrifuge design bears a family resemblance to Pakistan’s P2.

What Josh has done is make a further claim: that rather than being any customer, India is the customer everyone guesses at — the so-called “fourth customer” after Iran, Libya and North Korea. Usually, one reads that the IAEA hypothesized the existence of a fourth customer on the basis of a series of missing shipments — the IAEA concluded the shipments may have been diverted to a fourth country.  What Josh discovered in his research is that the IAEA had a second, more revealing, reason for believing in a “fourth customer” — Khan and his associates actually used that very term to protect the client’s identity:

 “Members of the Khan network would refer to ‘the fourth customer,’ ” says Heinonen. “It was their code language. We still don’t know who they meant.”

The unusual degree of secrecy is striking: If Khan could admit to sales to Iran, Libya and North Korea, what country could possibly be so sensitive that it must not be mentioned even internally?  When I read this, I immediately thought of the second condition of AQ Khan’s pardon: “the pardon would be ineffective if an evidence of illegal export of “nuclear-related material” to some country other than Iran, North Korea or Libya was found.”

Pakistani officials, including Khan himself, have done everything possible to prevent this information from leaking.  Iran and Libya? Fine. North Korea? No problem.  India?  That’s a different kettle of fish. That would be a very big problem. Khan, even as he was burning customers and patrons alike, as well as leaking documents to accuse other Pakistani officials of taking bribes, protected the identity of fourth customer at all costs.  No wonder.

We know from leaked cables that Pakistani officials have claimed, perhaps not too convincingly, that they would be willing to make Khan available to the IAEA but for that troublesome pardon.  “The facts, said Kidwai, were clear — Khan had admitted his guilt and received a presidential pardon,” according to a leaked State Department cable (Warning! Wikileaks!) documenting a meeting between Khalid Kidwai, Director of the Strategic Plans Division, and the US Ambassador to Pakistan. The revelation that India was the fourth customer may alter that calculation, if not legally than politically. I suspect, now that this possibility is out in the open, we may find further evidence beyond the sale of the flow meters that makes clear Josh is correct about India’s identity as the fourth customer.

So, give the article a read — there is nothing unsafe for work on the story itself, although I wouldn’t go clicking on any links at the office.  When you do so, try  to set aside all your preconditions about the geopolitical rationales for proliferation and, instead, look closely at Khan the man. It isn’t a very pretty picture, but I think you’ll find it very illuminating.

Oh, and the pictures of LiLo aren’t half-bad either.