US physicist Jeremy Bernstein says Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan likely sold a nuclear design to Tehran. Without the accord in place, he says, it could ‘break out’ very fast
WASHINGTON — US President Trump is expected to decertify the Iran nuclear deal on Friday — a move many interpret as his first step toward potentially unraveling the landmark pact.
There have been a number of arguments in recent weeks against taking that action — that it would leave America without inspection capability over Tehran, that it would damage US credibility — but a renowned theoretical physicist insists there’s another big reason that exiting the accord would be a mistake.
There is a strong possibility, Jeremy Bernstein insists, that the Pakistani nuclear engineer who founded his country’s uranium enrichment program and was a key figure in building its nuclear program, sold nuclear designs to the Iranians.
If that’s the case, Iran would be able to build a bomb within weeks once it gained enough fissile material — something that it is blocked from getting under the counters of the accord forged in July 2015, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“I believe they [the Iranians] have the plans for a nuclear weapon,” Bernstein told The Times of Israel on Thursday. “I also believe that they perfected implosion, which is an important aspect. So I believe the only thing they are lacking to make the nuclear device is the fissile material.”
A.Q. Khan, the physicist who notoriously sold nuclear technology, missiles, uranium-enrichment centrifuges and nuclear designs on the black market, is already known to have done business with Iran, as well as North Korea and Libya.
Khan famously met with former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulkifar Bhutto in 1974, who encouraged Khan to help his nation build an atomic bomb. He was instrumental in developing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and in 2004, was arrested for transferring nuclear technology to other countries.
Afterwards, he confessed to selling Pakistan’s secrets to some of the world’s most dangerous rogue regimes. He’s now living in Islamabad.
In 1989, Khan began sending P1 centrifuge parts to the Iranians, which International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors later found. In the mid-90s, he traded centrifuges to the North Koreans in exchange for missiles.
But most notably, Bernstein notes now, is that Khan sold a package to Libya that included a design for a bomb that was handed over to the US in 2006 when the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi agreed to disarm his nuclear program.
Bernstein believes there is a real possibility Khan sold this same design to Iran in another transaction around the same time.
“He sold a package to Libya and he sold a package to Iran,” he said. “We know precisely what the package was to Libya because Gaddafi turned it over to the CIA. I conjecture that this was the same package he sold to Iran.”
“Khan was selling anything he could for millions and millions of dollars, so he would sell anything anyone was willing to buy,” he added. “He tried to sell to the Iraqis but they didn’t believe him. He was in business. He was trying to sell everything he possibly could because he got a cut out of it all.”
Trump is set to give a speech Friday afternoon announcing his new Iran strategy, which is expected to include him refusing to certify the nuclear deal — something the White House is mandated to do under an agreement former President Barack Obama forged with Congress in 2015, called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.
The legislation requires the president report to Capitol Hill every 90 days whether Tehran is honoring its commitments in the international pact.
Decertification would not actually abrogate the deal. But it forces Congress to start a 60-day review period to decide whether to again impose the sanctions that were in place before the deal was implemented.
Critics have cited the fact that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and top US officials have all said Iran is not violating the accord.
Just last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said that “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for his part, said that it is in “technical compliance.”
White House officials have been telling reporters in recent days that the administration will aim to use the review period after decertification to re-write aspects of the accord, including its “sunset” provisions. It will also seek to allow IAEA inspectors access to Iran’s military sites and include restrictions on ballistic missile testing and development.
Trump’s speech on Friday is expected to focus on Iran destabilizing regional activities and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran’s armed forces, Axios reported.
Bernstein, a Rochester, New York native who is the son of a rabbi, lambasted the president for denigrating the deal, which Trump has called “an embarrassment” and the worst ever negotiated. Bernstein said he does not recognize it as an arms control agreement.
“I think he has no understanding of any of this,” he said. “He thinks of it as something of a financial deal in which we got nothing and the Iranians got a lot of money. That’s his view of the thing.”
“Nobody can talk to him because he’s simply impenetrable,” he went on. “He has this idea of it as a commercial deal. He has no understanding of what’s involved here. He’s an ignorant blivit.”