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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 75, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 75, January/February 2004


Transparency and Exposure

It has been a time for revelations. Iran was caught out by the whistle-blowing of dissidents, who exposed its clandestine uranium enrichment and plutonium processing facilities. Called to account, the Iranian government first lied, then attempted to brazen it out, and finally acceded to pressure to sign the IAEA's strengthened safeguards protocol.

With perfect timing for the beleaguered allies, Libya came clean in December, just as the Iraq Survey Group gave up on finding Saddam's ephemeral WMD. Heralded as a success for British and American intelligence and their strong arm tactics with Iraq, Gadafy had actually entered into negotiations with these countries' diplomats some years ago to come in from the cold. With the incentive of 'normalising' trade and aid, Libya's first step was to hand over the agents who were subsequently tried for murdering 270 people in the Lockerbie/Pan Am bombing. Faced with severe economic problems and acknowledging that his WMD programmes provided Libya with neither status nor security, Gadafy stands to gain far more by giving them up than by continuing the programmes, as his friend Nelson Mandela no doubt told him.

The revelations of Iran and Libya enabled the IAEA and intelligence officials to uncover details about where these countries had obtained uranium enrichment technology and equipment. It was then but a short step to unmasking the nuclear network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Godfather of Pakistan's bomb. After indignantly denying any complicity in the nuclear proliferation blackmarket, Khan suddenly confessed on television and threw himself on the mercy of the Pakistani people. A.Q. Khan's mea culpa was a curious example of implying the opposite: faced with incontrovertible evidence, he nobly assumed responsibility, absolving both his superiors (government and military) and his subordinates. There was no mention of his greedy personal enrichment. Instead, he said he had acted in good faith, which begs the question good faith with whom? He managed somehow to convey that he had acted as a patriot in proliferating nuclear technologies, and that he was now being even more of a patriot in taking the blame.

Needless to say (and clearly part of the deal), President Musharraf immediately pardoned him, ensuring there would be no public trial with further revelations that might embarrass Pakistan's past and present governments. The Western powers colluded, not wishing to rock the boat for Musharraf, one of America's new best friends against terrorism.

There are pluses and minuses for international security in all these revelations. On the minus side, the Pakistan-centred nuclear blackmarket appears to have been rather wider and more sophisticated than suspected, and there may be further revelations of additional recipients or transfers; nuclear weapons are still viewed as a currency of leverage, if not power; and Iran's nuclear programme was further forward than expected (though Libya's was still embryonic).

On the plus side, the long-suspected programmes are now in the open and can better be addressed. Khan's network is smashed, and as more information exposes the equipment suppliers, which range from Northern Europe to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the international trade in arms and dual-use technologies is likely to face a long overdue crack-down. Iran and Libya must now abide by the Additional Protocol, allowing wider and more intrusive IAEA inspections. Finally, the revelations have provoked belated but now unavoidable discussions about the non-military nuclear fuel cycle, in particular the use of enriched uranium and plutonium for commercial purposes.

Transparency is especially important for democracy. Lord Hutton's report into Dr David Kelly's death may have looked like it whitewashed Tony Blair's government at the expense of the BBC, but by holding his inquiry in the open and putting most of the evidence onto a public website, Hutton has enabled people to judge for themselves. This exposure of the government's inner workings shows that intelligence was indeed manipulated and spun to make a dishonest case for war.

Transparency is a necessary tool to expose the corruption and secrecy that aid the proliferators, but it can also be misleading. North Korea, defiantly showing off its "nuclear deterrent", offers a dangerous form of strategic, possibly even false, transparency. Empty fuel ponds and lumps of plutonium are displayed in a seemingly desperate attempt to prove it is one of the big players. Rather like bluffing a bad hand in poker; but is it a bluff? Not only must we contend with the possibility that North Korea has an actual nuclear weapon, we also have to recognise that Pyongyang is already, in effect, using nuclear weapons, claiming deterrence. This is the use that a robber makes when pointing a gun at the bank's staff, and it is a real and threatening use, whether or not the gun is capable of being fired. We must beware, for like a window, transparency may reflect the watcher's image.

Rebecca Johnson

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© 2003 The Acronym Institute.