ABC News' Kirit Radia reports: The U.S. State Department today imposed new sanctions on Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan and his associates for their involvement in an international nuclear proliferation ring. The move freezes any of their assets under U.S. jurisdiction.
"We believe these sanctions will help prevent future proliferation-related activities by these private entities, provide a warning to other would-be proliferators, and demonstrate our ongoing commitment to using all available tools to address proliferation-related activities," the department said in a statement.
The State Department did not explain why it was announcing these measures on the 13 individuals and three private companies today though one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said "information continued to become available as other countries concluded their investigations or prosecutions and we believed in this case that it was important to sanction the group at one time."
"This is a positive step. This seems to be related to tying up loose ends involving members of the Khan network who have until now possibly avoided prosecution or legal accountability for their actions," said Jacqueline Shire, a senior analyst for the Institute for Science and International Security and a former State Department nonproliferation expert.
In 2004, Khan admitted to peddling nuclear technology to other countries, though he later retracted those remarks in a 2008 interview with ABC News, saying he was forced by then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to confess and become a "scapegoat" for the "national interest." Khan was pardoned by Musharraf shortly after the scandal was revealed, though he has remained under house arrest ever since.
"While we believe the A.Q. Khan network is no longer operating, countries should remain vigilant to ensure that Khan network associates, or others seeking to pursue similar proliferation activities, will not become a future source for sensitive nuclear information or equipment," the State Department said.
The U.S. government said Khan provided nuclear know-how to Iran and Libya, and possibly also to North Korea. Libya even received nuclear weapon designs from Khan, regarded as the father of Pakistan's nuclear program.
"With the assistance of Khan's network, countries could leapfrog the slow, incremental stages of other nuclear weapons development programs," the State Department said today.
Pakistan has so far resisted U.S. requests for access to question Khan about the extent of his proliferation activities.
Though Libya abandoned its fledgling nuclear program in 2004 and surrendered equipment provided by Khan, the effects of his network's proliferation may be felt for years to come. Iran has made strides to advance its nuclear program in recent years, and in 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon.
"The network's actions have irrevocably changed the proliferation landscape and have had lasting implications for international security," the State Department said in announcing today's sanctions.
"The Khan network didn't only share critical equipment and technology, it shared bomb designs with other countries. It doesn’t get worse than that," Shire said.