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(CNSNews.com) – The United Nations nuclear watchdog has appointed Pakistan to chair its governing board. Pakistan is responsible for the most serious known case of illicit nuclear proliferation in history, and it is blocking progress on a treaty to ban production of fissile material used to fuel atomic weapons.
The 35-member International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board made the decision in Vienna Monday “by acclamation” – that is, no country objected or called for a roll-call vote.
Board members include the United States, Canada, Australia and nine European nations. Pakistan was nominated by the Middle East and South Asia group at the IAEA.
Ansar Parvez, head of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission, will for the next year chair the board, a top decision-making body which meets five times a year and whose mandate includes approving agreements on safeguards for countries’ nuclear facilities.
One of the IAEA board’s most pressing issues in the months ahead will be the ongoing dispute with Iran over its nuclear program, which Western countries suspect is a cover for developing a weapons capability.
When the board last November voted on a resolution condemning Iran for building a second uranium enrichment plant and calling for a halt to the work, Pakistan did not vote in favor, but instead joined five other members in abstaining.
Parvez told reporters after Monday’s closed-door meeting that his country was a “very law-abiding member” of the IAEA, and that all of its civil nuclear facilities were under IAEA safeguards.
In Islamabad, the foreign ministry said Pakistan’s “election by consensus” was “an acknowledgement of the positive advances it has made in the nuclear field. It is also a recognition of its active role in the Agency.”
Pakistan has held the post of IAEA board chairman before, but that was more than a decade before its widely-condemned nuclear bomb tests in 1998.
Pakistani scientist Abdel Qadeer Khan has admitted sharing nuclear know-how with Iran, North Korea and Libya. (AP Photo)
In 2004 it emerged that the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been running a sophisticated black-market ring, providing nuclear know-how to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
President Pervez Musharraf insisted the activity was unsanctioned and pardoned Khan, who is regarded as a national hero in Pakistan.
Musharraf also refused to allow officials from the U.S. or IAEA to question him – a position followed by his successor, President Asif Ali Zardari. (Khan was placed under house arrest, but a court ordered his release several weeks after President Obama took office.)
Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the Khan issue with the Obama administration’s ambassador-designate to Islamabad, Cameron Munter, during a confirmation hearing Thursday.
Munter acknowledged that the U.S. had not “made a lot of progress with the Pakistanis” in that area, but assured the panel that if confirmed he intended to “to raise the question again of our repeated requests to have our people be able to interview Mr. Khan.”
(Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told Pakistani media in response that no foreign country would be allowed to interrogate Khan.)
“AQ Khan is a closed chapter,” Foreign Office spokesperson Abdul Basit told The Express Tribune. Munter also noted that Pakistan was blocking progress on the fissile-material cut-off treaty (FMCT), which would outlaw the production of fissile material used as fuel in nuclear bombs.
“This is not something that we think makes sense. We urge them to be constructive in this area,” he said. “This is something in the interests of everyone in the world, not just the Americans, but the international community – and Pakistan itself.”
He conceded that “this is going to be a very tall order … we’ve had real difficulties on this in the past, but we’ve got to stay on it.”
Pakistan argues that the FCMT would place it at a permanent disadvantage to India, its neighbor and historical rival who also became a nuclear weapons state in 1998.
Pakistan’s stance has robbed the U.N.’s Conference on Disarmament of the unanimity it requires to move ahead with the initiative.
Pakistan is also one of just three countries which have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (The other holdouts are India and Israel; North Korea signed it, but withdrew in 2003.)