ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's former army chief says Iranian officials came to him for advice on heading off an attack on their nuclear facilities, and he in effect advised them to take a hostage — Israel.
Retired Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg said he suggested their government "make it clear that if anything happens to Iran, if anyone attacks it — it doesn't matter who it is or how it is attacked — that Iran's answer will be to hit Israel; the only target will be Israel."
Since Beg spoke in an interview with The Associated Press, echoes of his thinking have been heard in Iran, though whether they result directly from his advice isn't known.
Mohammad Ebrahim Dehghani, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, was quoted last week as saying that if "America does make any mischief, the first place we target will be Israel." The threat was disavowed the next day by Brig. Gen. Alireza Afshar, deputy to the chief of Iran's military staff, who said it was Dehghani's "personal view and has no validity as far as the Iranian military officials are concerned."
And on Tuesday, Israel's vice premier, Shimon Peres, warned that "Those who threaten to destroy are in danger of being destroyed."
In the AP interview that took place several weeks before these threats were exchanged, Beg said a delegation from the Iranian Embassy in Pakistan had come to his office in January, seeking advice as Western pressure mounted on Iran to abandon its nuclear effort. Beg said he offered lessons learned from his experience dealing with India's nuclear threat.
He said he told the Iranians, whom he did not identify, that Pakistan had suspected India of collaborating with Israel in planning an attack on its nuclear facilities. By then, Pakistan had the bomb too. But both countries had adopted a strategy of ambiguity, he said, and Pakistan sent an emissary to India to warn that no matter who attacked it, Pakistan would retaliate against India.
"We told India frankly that this is the threat we perceive and this is the action we are taking and the action we will take. It was a real deterrent," he recalled telling the Iranians.
He said he also advised them to "attempt to degrade the defense systems of Israel," harass it through the Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and put second-strike nuclear weapons on submarines.
Although analysts are divided on how soon Iran might have nuclear weapons, Beg said he is sure Iran has had enough time to develop them. But he insists the Pakistani government didn't help, even though he says former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto once told him the Iranians offered more than $4 billion for the technology.
Ephraim Asculai, a former senior official with the Israel Atomic Agency Commission, said he didn't think Beg's remarks reflected official Pakistani policy.
Asculai said he believed Iran learned more from Iraq than from Pakistan, recalling that as soon as the 1991 Gulf War broke out, Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel, even though it wasn't in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Iraq.
Beg became army chief of staff in 1988, a year after Pakistan confirmed CIA estimates that it had nuclear weapons capability. He served until 1991 and now runs his own think tank. He speaks freely and in detail about the nuclear issue, but many critical blank spots remain and the subject remains one of great sensitivity, clouded by revelations in 2004 that A.Q. Khan, who pioneered Pakistan's nuclear bomb, sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
The bigger picture has also changed radically. Pakistan is now a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, and Asculai said "Pakistani government officials have often suggested that they would be willing to have ties with Israel under certain conditions."
In the AP interview, Beg detailed nearly 20 years of Iranian approaches to obtain conventional arms and then technology for nuclear weapons. He described an Iranian visit in 1990, when he was army chief of staff.
"They didn't want the technology. They asked: 'Can we have a bomb?' My answer was: By all means you can have it but you must make it yourself. Nobody gave it to us."
The United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan in 1990, suspecting it was developing a nuclear bomb. In 1998, confirmation came with Pakistan's first nuclear weapons tests.
Although Beg insisted his government never gave Iran nuclear weapons, Pakistan now acknowledges that Khan sold Iran centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium, though without his government's knowledge.
In a televised confession Khan insisted he acted without authorization in selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, saying the proliferation took place between 1989 and 2000.
Khan has been pardoned by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and Pakistan has refused to hand him over to the United States or the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency for questioning.
According to Beg, Iran first sent emissaries to Pakistan in the latter years of its 1980-88 war with Iraq with a shopping list worth billions of dollars, mostly for spare parts for its air force. It offered in return to underwrite the development plan of Gen. Zia-ul Haq, then Pakistan's ruler.
"Gen. Zia did not agree," he said.
Much of what Beg says cannot be independently confirmed, and the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Beg's version of events.
Another angle on these early contacts comes from Tanvir Ahmed, Pakistan's ambassador to Iran from 1987-1989. He said he had a rare meeting with Iran's nuclear inner circle in January 1988.
"It was the only time I was allowed in the inner sanctum of the nuclear discussions. I was asked to a lunch. ... they wanted to know whether Pakistan would help them on the nuclear side. They never said they wanted nuclear weapons. They said they wanted to master the nuclear cycle," Ahmed recalled.
Ahmed said he told them it was unlikely, but promised to relay the request to Zia. He said Zia told him: "You gave them the right answer."