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Stemming Flow of Nuclear Weapons Technology No Easy Task, say Analysts - 2004-02-12

President Bush Wednesday outlined proposed new steps to counter nuclear proliferation. The anti-proliferation initiative follows news that a Pakistan-based network peddled sensitive nuclear weapons technology abroad. Stemming the flow of such technology is a difficult task.

The arcane and secretive world of nuclear weapons control was rocked by recent revelations that Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had for years run a nuclear weapons bazaar in which sensitive technology was sold to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps other states.

Lawrence Korb, who was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, says it was the disclosures out of Pakistan that motivated President Bush to announce his seven-point initiative.

"I think that is what motivated the president to take these steps," he said. "This is something he had been reluctant to do ever since he came into office, to set up international norms, an international regime, to deal with these weapons of mass destruction."

In his speech Wednesday, President Bush proposed tightening the international rules governing the transfer of nuclear technology and strengthening international inspections. But analysts say enforcing any rules in the atomic arena is problematic because it is dependent on international cooperation.

James Walsh, executive director of the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, says there is deep distrust between nuclear and non-nuclear nations on the highly sensitive issue.

"They suspected U.S. motivations, and thought that U.S. actions were intended to protect technology, the technology advantages that the U.S. has," he said. "So when the U.S. gets up and says 'we're going to enforce this new set of rules that we've decided,' and it offers it as sort of a diktat from on high, that ruffles people the wrong way. And given the events of the past two years, there's even more sensitivity out there."

Mr. Korb agrees, saying that securing international cooperation for a new nonproliferation regime is complicated by the position the Bush administration took in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

"It's going to be more difficult than it should be because the United States' message, of this administration particularly, to the world, especially through the invasion of Iraq, was 'you need us more than we need you, so it's our way or, as young people would say, the highway,'" he said.

Mr. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, says he acted alone, without any authorization or assistance from higher authority. Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, quickly pardoned Mr. Khan after a nationally televised confession by the man known as the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb.

Mr. Khan's claim of sole responsibility has met widespread skepticism. Mr. Walsh points out that Mr. Khan's illicit activities - which date back to the 1980s - were widely known in government and intelligence circles.

"I don't think that it is credible to believe that he had been engaged in these activities since the 1980s, and that no one knew about it," he said. "You know, within my community, the non-proliferation community, there's an old joke that says if you want to map proliferation, just get A.Q. Khan's travel itinerary. And, as I say, that's an old joke, not a new joke."

The Bush administration has been reluctant to publicly criticize Pakistan. Mr. Korb says Mr. Musharraf's newfound role as an ally against terrorism has given him a certain degree of immunity in the proliferation scandal.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the people in the [Pakistan] government knew," he said. "We know they knew. But the United States needs Pakistan for help in dealing with the Taleban and al-Qaida. And so the United States has been basically applying a double standard to Pakistan as, say, compared to North Korea or Iraq. And this sometimes happens in international politics, where you have to choose between the lesser of two evils."

Mr. Bush vowed Wednesday to take action to root out proliferation networks, including buyers, suppliers, and middlemen.