Traditionally, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is referred to as the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. After all, he was its chief for decades until his assassination in November 2020.
However, in a very real sense, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who died on Sunday and founded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, can also be considered the father – or step-father – of Iran's, North Korea's and Libya’s nuclear weapons programs.
Without him selling these countries both designs and actual centrifuges for enriching uranium – as well as supplying invaluable guidance from at least 1987-1996, and quite possibly longer – they may never have jumped forward to where they are now, or their progress could have taken much longer.
Until AQ Khan sold the Islamic Republic both designs and actual centrifuges, all of its domestic attempts to manufacture them were dismal failures.
The approximately 20,000 IR-1 and IR-2 centrifuges which Tehran had operating leading into the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal were entirely or mostly based on Pakistan’s P-1 and P-2 machines.
Similar machines were also found in Libya when that country gave up its entire nuclear weapons program to the US in 2003 in the hope of staving off an invasion.
When Khan’s proliferation ring was exposed, Iran even eventually came clean and admitted to years of paying him millions for his help in building up their nuclear program.
This happened somewhat in parallel to the Natanz nuclear facility being exposed during the 2002-2003 period.
When the International Atomic Energy Agency first secured a visit to Natanz, the centrifuge fleet it saw were likely AQ Khan’s.
Another sign of his importance is that only in the last few years did Tehran actually succeed in producing its own centrifuges beyond Khan's designs, which would work for any reliable amount of time.
As late as 2019, Institute for Science and International Security president David Albright told The Jerusalem Post that almost none of the advanced IR-4, IR-6 or IR-8 centrifuges that the Islamic Republic liked to take photos of were actually working for any meaningful length of time.
Some of Iran’s failure to advance in that arena for over 15 years stemmed from its fear of the US after Washington toppled the regime in Iraq.
But some of it might be traceable to their loss of Khan’s regular guidance once his proliferation activities were exposed and the US demanded that Pakistan disown him and curtail his activities.
LIKEWISE WITH North Korea, already in 2002, US officials said that Pakistan had traded sensitive information about the gas centrifuge uranium enrichment process and possibly related technologies in exchange for ballistic missiles.
More specifically, American intelligence uncovered sales from Islamabad to Pyongyang of high-strength aluminum tubes to build gas centrifuges.
North Korea has also had help from others, including its own exchanges with Iran, but it is unclear whether the North would have the formidable nuclear weapons arsenal it has today without his contribution.
Khan’s willingness to share nuclear technology with rogue countries like Iran, North Korea and Libya is part of what made him “special” and eventually causing him to be ostracized, at least outside of Pakistan.
Until Khan, the vast majority of nuclear scientists viewed nuclear weapons as too dangerous to share with any but the world’s largest and most stable powers.
In the few defections that happened on these issues, they were usually between the USSR and top Western powers, but not to lower-grade “developing” countries.
Within Pakistan, depending on the momentary political winds, he has been viewed either as a hero who brought the country nuclear weapons and permanent safety from invasion or as an albatross who was best kept under house arrest and out of sight.
Regardless of what various Pakistani leaders said publicly, it seems clear in retrospect that many, if not most of them, were on board with or turned a blind eye to his proliferation exploits.
In their eyes, spreading nuclear information made money for Pakistan, enhanced the country’s reputation and undermined the ability of the world’s leading powers to enforce their views on security and power issues on countries like Pakistan, which were still finding their feet.
From Israel’s perspective, AQ Khan passes into history already having done irrevocable damage by helping the Islamic Republic jump forward in its nuclear ambitions and prowess.
He may be gone, but Israeli security and world stability may pay for his actions for decades to come.