WASHINGTON — When US President George W Bush announced on February 11, 2004, that the infamous nuclear-black-market network run by Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan had been rolled up, everyone concerned with nuclear-proliferation issues breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Khan’s network had helped facilitate the development of nuclear weapons and weapons programs of all the most worrisome states in the previous couple of decades, including Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea, sparking crises such as the one over Iran that continue to this day. But while Khan was relieved of his job as head of Khan Research Laboratories and was put under house arrest, where he remains today, it seems that the relief was premature.

Though it seems like a plot line from a James Bond film, clandestine acquisition of nuclear technologies and materials is still very much with us, according to a newly released study. Preventing nuclear proliferation by both state and non-state actors is very much an action-reaction process. Proliferators illicitly acquire materials and technologies critical to constructing nuclear weapons, then states try to tighten loopholes or strengthen export-control rules to prevent this from happening in the future. But proliferators find new ways to stay ahead.

Indeed, like the fabled Phoenix, some of Khan’s past associates may yet rise to life again. The study notes that “some of Khan’s associates appear to have escaped law-enforcement attention and could, after a period of lying low, resume their black-market business. Decapitating the nodes of non-hierarchical networks does not necessarily eradicate the enterprise.”

Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A Q Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks, a strategic dossier released in the United States last Tuesday by the London-headquartered International Institute for Strategic Studies, was drafted by several subject-matter experts and edited by Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, and now IISS senior fellow for non-proliferation.

Among the questions explored by the 176-page dossier is whether A Q Khan sold to North Korea and Iran the weapon designs that he sold to Libya and apparently offered to Iraq. The dossier also details how Pakistan developed a nuclear-weapons capability in 10 years after Khan brought stolen technology for the enrichment of uranium from the Netherlands.

The report was released at the same time as delegates from 188 nations were meeting in Vienna at the Preparatory Committee of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Delegates there have been struggling to find ways to strengthen the NPT. In recent years, in light of past nuclear-weapons tests by Pakistan and India and more recently North Korea and the ongoing confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, many have feared that other nations, and possibly terrorist groups, will try to acquire nuclear weapons.

While Khan himself has been neutralized, the network he built, which started providing “onward proliferation”, as the dossiers euphemistically phrased it, in the mid-1980s, serves as a shining example to other nations. Given that export controls over nuclear materials and technologies have been strengthened, nations seeking them have an incentive to turn to clandestine means.

According to the dossier, Iran has built a procurement structure that is equivalent to, if not larger than, Khan’s global network. North Korea will need additional black-market supplies to expand its small nuclear arsenal. Pakistan and (to a lesser extent) India have still not given up foreign procurement for their nuclear-weapons programs.

Ironically, as Fitzpatrick pointed out, while Pakistan has stripped Khan of his former responsibilities and power, they are still very much dependent on the network he set up, since the countries producing and exporting nuclear technology and raw materials were obliged not sell such materials to Pakistan because it had not yet entered international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation. Thus Islamabad had no alternative but to fall back on the networks Khan and his associates had created.

That may be one of the most worrisome developments for the future, because networks that are formed to help import items find exporting far more profitable, according to the dossier. It noted:

When Khan managed to shift his primary business operations from imports to much more lucrative exports, many of his European and South African accomplices stayed with him. The new “business model” orientation offered the European members of the network much more money in comparison to what they had previously got from Pakistan’s secret nuclear program coffers.

Although some previous IISS dossiers have had problems, such as the one it released in 2002 on Iraq, this one is important. Since Khan confessed to his procurement network in 2004, after a Pakistani military-led investigation, no one but the military has been allowed to question him, despite the international implications of his proliferation network.

Interestingly in light of his recent book At the Center of the Storm, the Pakistani investigation was prompted by former US director of central intelligence George Tenet, who presented proof of Khan’s activities to President General Pervez Musharraf.

While all of the information in the dossier is from open sources and is not new, it does confirm that the world still knows remarkably little about the details of how Khan’s network operated, such as exactly what its customers procured from it.