Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Musharraf faces delicate task in nuclear trading investigation

Over the next several days, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is expected to impugn members of a revered group central to Pakistan's self image: the nuclear scientists who built the atomic bombs that deter its rival India.

The challenge is expected to be among the most treacherous tasks Musharraf has faced since reversing Pakistan's support for the Taliban in September 2001 and becoming a U.S. ally in the campaign against terrorism.

The general, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, is expected to announce that a handful of Pakistani nuclear scientists shared nuclear technology with Iran in the late 1980s without government permission.

Musharraf also is expected to say they did this without the knowledge of Pakistan's famed and feared military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

On Friday, Musharraf said "some individuals" appeared to have been involved in the transfer of technology for personal gain, but he did not give names.

The problem for the general is few people are likely to believe him. And if he files criminal charges against the revered scientist at the center of suspicion, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is credited with building the Pakistani atomic bomb, he could open himself to a political savaging from Islamist and secular political opponents.

In addition to involving issues at the heart of Pakistan's image of itself, the situation highlights the central division that has festered in Pakistani society since the country's birth in 1947 _ civilians versus soldiers.

"The biggest question is how these nuclear scientists could do this without the government and the intelligence knowing," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a Pakistani political analyst and professor. "Generally, the people I speak to are skeptical."

When Musharraf makes his announcement, his opponents will be watching closely to see whether his generals walk free and the low-level scientists pay.

The investigation centers on three men, according to interviews with government officials and news media reports.

Pakistani investigators have concluded Khan and a little-known aide, Muhammad Farooq, shared technology with Iran, the Washington Post reported. A senior Pakistani official said Saturday the investigation was continuing and no conclusions had been reached.

But there is also circumstantial evidence that Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the commander of the Pakistani army at the time, at least tacitly approved of such transfers. Senior Pakistani officials have said Khan has told investigators Beg approved the transfer of technology to Iran. Former government officials have said Beg proposed forming a strategic alliance with Iran and selling it nuclear technology.

Beg and Khan have denied transferring nuclear technology to Iran. Relatives of Farooq insist he would never have acted without government permission.

The three men could not be more different. Khan, a tall and voluble man, is aggressive, wealthy and publicity hungry, associates say. They describe him as a proud "techno-nationalist" who dismissed U.S. nonproliferation efforts as an attempt by a small group of wealthy, white countries to keep atomic weapons for themselves.

Beg, burly and soft-spoken, is viewed as somewhat eccentric. Since retiring from the army, he has run a nonprofit group called FRIENDS _ Foundation for Research on International Development and Security _ and has published articles skeptical of the West. He is a member of Pakistan's wealthy Shiite minority, which some argue makes him more likely to aid predominantly Shiite Iran. On the other hand, his religious sect could also make him a victim of discrimination and distrust in majority Sunni Pakistan.

Farooq, who is small and quiet, was described by his family as a recluse who loved reading poetry and rarely ventured out to parties. But in his 20 years of working at the country's top nuclear facility, he held an important position in charge of overseas procurement.

Critics of Musharraf, including secular and Islamist political parties, predict Beg and Khan will go unpunished. Musharraf, they say, must maintain the loyalty of the army, his main power base, at all costs. Prosecuting Khan, a national hero, would be too dangerous.

Mahmud Ali Durrani, a retired general and analyst, scoffed at that notion and predicted Musharraf would hold anyone who broke the law accountable. "The military is not a holy cow," he said.

For Pakistanis, the scandal represents another disappointment. Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst, said the investigation represented the fall of another Pakistani institution: its nuclear program. In the 1990s, when democracy appeared to have taken hold in the country, two Pakistani prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, were forced from office in disgrace.

Islamist parties are expected to play on another sentiment _ that the charges have been manufactured by the United States and Musharraf is America's lackey. Analysts expect the country's Islamist and secular political parties to attack any ruling on culpability, saying it is too harsh on the scientists and too easy on the generals. They are expected to urge Pakistanis to direct their anger and disappointed at one man: Musharraf.