On the night of October 16, 2003, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on the sidelines of Islamic Summit Conference, the Pakistani and Iranian Presidents met one-on-one; no protocol arrangements were made and no aides from either side were present. The meeting was initiated by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who sent a message to then president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, who had returned to the hotel after a hectic day. The meeting was arranged quickly and held in Musharraf’s suite. Khattami informed Musharraf that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had conclusive evidence that the centrifuges it discovered at Iranian nuclear installations during an inspection had come from A Q Khan Laboratories, and that the Iranian government was under tremendous pressure from the IAEA to make a public declaration regarding this discovery. Khattami mentioned that it would be difficult for the Iranian government to resist this pressure from the IAEA any longer; this meeting was to forewarn Pakistan.

Immediately after Khattami left, Musharraf consulted with his military and civilian aides, who were accompanying him on his trip. Some of the civilian aides present at the time pointed out that Americans have been dropping hints about A Q Khan Laboratory’s involvement in illicit nuclear trade. A senior US diplomat, Strobe Talbot, had also mentioned the laboratory’s links with North Korea in his meeting with Nawaz Sharif .

The Pakistani government was not completely in the dark about this as the Americans had been hinting to Pakistani officials, during diplomatic encounters, that Abdul Qadeer Khan was in illicit dealings with so-called “rogue nations”. But Khattami’s warning signaled an immediate crisis. Three months after the meeting, Khan was dismissed from his office and was made to confess his wrongdoing in a publicly televised speech. Following Khan’s confession, the US government made repeated requests to successive Pakistani governments to give their investigators direct access to Khan for interrogation purposes. But each time, the Pakistani government rejected the request.

However, in the case of another nuclear scientist, the Pakistani government could not resist the US government’s pressure and allowed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents to interrogate and torture him. The scientist in question was Sultan Bashiruddin Mehmood, a maverick and ultra-religious member of the Atomic Energy Commission of Pakistan, which founded Pakistan’s nuclear bomb project in the 1970s. The physically-impaired scientist now lives a secluded life in Islamabad. I have not met him personally, but those who have say that the torture he endured during the CIA’s interrogation left him scarred for life, both mentally and physically.

It was not Khan’s illicit trade that was the cause of sleepless nights for the American government – the US had been publicly voicing its fears about nuclear technology landing in the hands of rogue nations. It was Mehmood’s meeting with Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan, that alerted the Americans and forced them to push the figurative panic button. Khan’s illicit trade was with nation states—Iran, North Korea and Libya—who, under the realist-deterrence model, generally believed in the American security establishment, and posed a comparatively manageable threat. According to this model, the leaderships of nation-states always act rationally with the aim to maximise security of the state. They try to avoid anything that could potentially jeopardise their sovereignty and security, and hence could be deterred from acting against the US. The rational-deterrence model also suggests that non-state actors don’t think and act rationally, and therefore would not be deterred by the threat of use of force.
For those thinking along these lines, Mehmood’s meeting with Bin Laden was a much more serious threat than Khan distributing nuclear technology to three rogue nation states. American strategic literature is filled with possible scenarios, in which loose nukes land in the hands of terrorist organisations, so naturally they put more pressure on the Pakistani government to get access to Mehmood than they did for Khan.

Recently, an Indian official, who expressed fears that ISIS could gain access to Pakistani nukes, scored a particularly strong propaganda point with Washington. At a security conference, India’s Defense Minister Rao Inderjit Singh, stated: “With the rise of ISIS in West Asia, one is afraid to an extent that, perhaps, they might get access to a nuclear arsenal from states like Pakistan.” His comments came just a week after militants themselves claimed that acquiring nuclear weapons is “more possible today than it was just one year ago”. In ISIS’ official English-language magazine, Dabiq, a writer is said to have written: “The Islamic State has billions of dollars in the bank, so they call on their wilayah [local branches] in Pakistan to purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region.”

The Indian official’s statement is well drafted to incite the fears in Washington. It coincides with an article in ISIS’ official publication, which reinforces such fear. Together Dabiq’s article and the statement by India’s Defense Minister create a picture in which the elements of both Khan and Mehmood’s stories are present. The article in Dabiq stating that they can buy nukes from corrupt officials in the region, Khan comes to mind—whose dealings with were based on personal financial gains. Singh’s statement regarding ISIS’ ability to acquire nukes from states like Pakistan points fingers at the prevalence of religious extremism in our country, and part of that faction is Mehmood, whose eccentric religious views are well known in Islamabad.

It will be extremely difficult to move forward and erase memories and notions of our nuclear program from our country’s history and from the global perspective of Pakistan; especially when countries such as India never waste an opportunity to remind the world about our past. Regardless of how transparent we become, and how aggressively new mechanisms of nuclear safety and security are presented to the world, the stains on our reputation, Khan and Mehmood, will always come back to haunt us.

Many diplomats and military officials serving in the Strategic Plans Divisions have done a wonderful job of furthering knowledge about our new security measures, especially by employing transparency and Western strategic thinkers and officials, to prove that Pakistan is a new country as far as the safety and security of its nuclear power is concerned. However, it does seem as though another propaganda battle is going to be played out in Washington, between Pakistan and India.