Israel tried to stop Swiss, German firms from supplying Pakistan’s nascent nuclear program – report

A Swiss paper says the Mossad’s 1981 effort failed. One far-reaching result was that Islamabad jump-started Iran’s race to the bomb.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The Israeli Mossad used bombs and threats in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Swiss and West German companies from selling Pakistan components for its nascent nuclear program in the 1980s, Swiss paper NZZ reported Sunday.

Based on recently published, formerly secret American files, the paper wrote that both Israel and the United States were worried about the Islamic country’s buying spree of dual-use components in Switzerland and Germany, whose firms were leading suppliers in the uranium enrichment field.

The reason Islamabad could get many parts necessary to build the centrifuges that are the basic tools to turn uranium into the necessary fissile material was that both Bern and Bonn very loosely interpreted their restrictions on the sale of components that could also be used in innocent, civilian machinery. State Department officials failed to influence their Swiss and West German counterparts to step in, with the Americans irately describing the Swiss attitude as a “hands-off approach” to the business deals, the paper wrote.

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All together, the Americans listed about dozen Swiss and German companies that were getting rich by these kinds of exports. Two German engineers, Gotthard Lerch and Heinz Mebus, were especially heavily involved in the Pakistani efforts.

In 1981, after diplomatic talks went nowhere, three of the involved firms were bombed, one in February, one in May and one in November. No one was hurt in the attacks, which were claimed by an unknown group called The Organization for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia, which was never heard from again. Parallel to the bombings, other companies on the American list were threatened that the same could happen to them, with phone calls both to the offices and private lines of senior officials.

NZZ reported that suspicion soon arose that the Mossad was the real culprit, since Israel considered a Pakistani bomb to be an existential threat as the Moslem country’s antipathy to the Jewish state was very real. In addition, the paper contended, “The content of individual threats required insider knowledge that could almost only have been acquired through the intelligence service.”

The strongest indicator, though by no means conclusive, was that the owner of one of the companies, VAT, told the Swiss federal police that an official from Israel’s embassy in Germany had asked to meet with him. At the meeting and in subsequent phone calls, “Mr. David” urged him “to see to it that VAT give up this business,” and switch to the textile industry instead, the paper quoted him as saying.

The paper pointed out that even in the early days of Pakistan’s nuclear program, its chief, A.Q. Khan, began talking with the Iranians. In 1987, it said, members of the Iranian Organization for Atomic Energy met in Zurich with none other than Lerch and Mebus, who acted as Khan’s representatives.

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Later that year, this time in Dubai, the “Khan network offered the Iranian delegation a kind of ‘starter kit’ [that] included everything that was needed to produce highly enriched uranium,” NZZ wrote. However, the Iranians preferred to just buy copies of Khan’s gas centrifuge blueprints, which the paper said he had stolen years earlier from a Dutch company that produced them for civilian use.

Since then, the Iranians have gone far beyond those first-generation centrifuges, and are by now enriching uranium to levels just below weapons-grade, worrying the West and Israel most of all. Jerusalem is suspected of carrying out bombings (and cyberattacks) on Iranian nuclear plants in recent years in another attempt to stop an avowed enemy from reaching the bomb. And at least one German was arrested this year by local authorities for allegedly knowingly exporting lab equipment to an Iranian whose company procures materials for Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.