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Libya Becomes Rare Emblem of Nuclear Disarmament

  • Gary Thomas

Many countries are believed to want nuclear weapons. But Libya is a rare case: a country that was well on its way to getting them, then dropped its effort.

The idea of nuclear weapons in the hands of an autocratic leader of a country that has supported international terrorist groups is the stuff of nightmares. Those nightmares nearly became reality. But, instead, early in 2004, Libya abruptly renounced nuclear, as well as chemical and biological weapons.

Now it has become the emblem of disarmament. In a VOA interview, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli points to Libya as an example of the good things that happen to a country that renounces nuclear ambitions.

"And what have we seen? We've seen relations with the EU, visits by [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi, planned visits by [French President Jacques] Chirac, meetings with the Americans, we've opened an interests section in there, and things are going from good to better. So, some people in the United States say, why can't Iran do the same thing?" said Mr. Ereli.

According to reports by the IAEA - the International Atomic Energy Agency - Libya began its clandestine attempts to build nuclear weapons in the early 1980s.

It was a touchy time as Libya had become something of an international pariah. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was financing and aiding terrorist groups. Then-U.S. President Reagan called Colonel Gadhafi a madman. U.S. aircraft bombed Libya in 1986 in retaliation for its alleged backing of the bombing of a Berlin discothèque in which American servicemen were killed.

Libya had considerable help in its efforts from the black market in nuclear materials and expertise run by Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan. The IAEA says Libya got centrifuge parts and enriched uranium through the Khan network, which was finally discovered and broken up in 2004 after some 20 years in operation. The breakup of the network is attributed in large part to information supplied by Libya after Colonel Gadhafi's renunciation of nuclear weapons.

But why Libya wanted such weapons in the first place remains something of a mystery. Speaking to VOA, former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay said Libya faced no threat from any neighbor, and does not have a sizeable military force.

"One had a hard time figuring out what the Libyans would have done with a nuclear weapon if they had gotten it," said Mr. Kay. "They do not have a substantial military delivery force. And quite frankly they're not engaged in relations with their neighbors that would indicate that that would be a sensible weapons system to have."

Just as mystifying, say experts, is why Colonel Gadhafi decided to drop his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. State Department spokesman Ereli says the program simply cost Libya too much, both financially and politically.

"What Libya eventually determined was, it's costing us a heck of a lot of money. Even though we've got money, it's money that would be better spent on our people. Two, it's not winning us any friends; if anything, it's gaining us enemies. And three, it's not going to enhance our protection or our security. So, they basically came to the realization that we're better off without these things," explained Mr. Ereli.

Bush administration officials also say tough U.S. action against Iraq was a factor.

Whatever the reason, says Matthew Bunn, senior research associate of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University, Libya's sudden change of heart was a major success for counter-proliferation efforts.

"Libya's a success, I think, by anybody's standard," he said. "Here's a country that did in fact have a secret nuclear weapons program, had acquired a large number of centrifuges and centrifuge designs to enrich uranium to bomb grade from this global black market network established by A.Q. Khan, and then decided to get rid of that effort, along with its chemical weapons programs, its missile programs, and so on."

The full role of A.Q. Khan in Libya's effort, and what role Libya may have had in his downfall, remain shrouded in mystery and may never be publicly known. The scientist has been pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, but the Pakistani leader has refused to allow any outside authorities to question him about his nuclear black market activities.

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