VIENNA — The global investigation into Abdul Qadeer Khan's black market trade in nuclear technology has stalled in a clash of national interests that threatens a full accounting of his secret partners and clients, according to interviews with diplomats and officials from several countries.
International authorities fear the full scope of the Pakistani scientist's ring may never be known.
Senior investigators said they were especially worried that dangerous elements of the illicit network of manufacturers and suppliers would remain undetected and capable of resuming operations once international pressures eased.
Investigators also said that records obtained in Libya and elsewhere showed that some nuclear equipment purchased or manufactured by the network had yet to be found, raising the possibility that it was diverted to still unidentified customers.
"We are far from knowing everything," a senior European diplomat involved in the inquiry said. "I'm frustrated by the lack of cooperation. We are losing a lot of time."
Some countries have refused to help, and others have only partially cooperated, said numerous officials involved in the inquiry spearheaded by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.
Pakistan has not permitted investigators to interview Khan, and his closest confidant is being held in Malaysia under that country's restrictive security act. Investigators also are concerned about the level of cooperation of former Soviet republics and China.
Investigators have suffered setbacks and delays even as they have gathered new evidence of the network's sophistication and have documented its move into Dubai, an ancient smuggling port on the Persian Gulf. Dubai was the hub of Khan's covert distribution operation, a transportation and storage base for parts and machinery destined for the secret nuclear programs in Iran and Libya, shipping records and investigation files show.
The Khan ring used nondescript warehouses scattered throughout Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to store and repackage some of the equipment, as well as to complete small-scale manufacturing assignments, according to documents and photos shown to The Times.
Inspectors from the IAEA visited the warehouses in recent weeks and took environmental samples to check for the presence of enriched uranium, which could indicate the shipment of weapons material. Test results are pending, officials said.
Information implicating members of Khan's ring began to surface last December after Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi announced that he was giving up his efforts to build an atomic bomb. In a deal negotiated with the U.S. and Britain, Libya turned over evidence showing that Khan and his associates had sold at least $100 million worth of technology to Libya, including a nearly completed uranium enrichment plant to produce material for a bomb.
The disclosures revealed that Khan, regarded as the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, also had provided extensive assistance to Iran's nuclear program, dating back to the late 1980s.
Investigators from the IAEA and various police agencies have been trying to piece together the ring's operation, identifying middlemen and suppliers who contributed to what officials call the world's worst case of nuclear proliferation.
Individual countries are conducting their own criminal investigations, but the IAEA has sole responsibility for carrying out the worldwide effort to shut down the black market.
A handful of arrests have been made in Germany, Switzerland and South Africa. Law enforcement authorities also are investigating people in several other countries, including Britain, France and Spain.
Not everyone is eager for full disclosure, however.
Amid speculation that Khan may have operated with the knowledge or assistance of other high-ranking military officials in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Khan early this year and has refused to permit investigators from the IAEA or the United States to interview the scientist.
"Investigators are very keen to get direct access to [Khan], but I don't think it will ever happen," a Western diplomat said.
Similarly, Malaysia has blocked access to Khan's confidant, Dubai businessman Buhary Syed abu Tahir, who is being held in Kuala Lumpur. Hussein Haniff, Malaysia's ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna, said Tahir was being held under the country's Internal Security Act, which restricts access to him.
The case is politically sensitive in Malaysia. Tahir, who married into a prominent Malaysian family, had arranged for production of centrifuge components at a factory controlled by the prime minister's son.
Risks From Delays
Such delays and obstacles compound fears of the IAEA inspectors that evidence will disappear, memories will fade and leads will turn out to be false. The agency, which is responsible for monitoring compliance with nuclear regulations, lacks the power to compel testimony or subpoena evidence.