A.Q. Khan, ‘Death of A Princess,’ and Angry Letters

16 Apr

Some things that you find in archives are just downright odd. One curious find that, in the end, did not make it into my thesis was a rambling letter in tiny script that I found in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office records at The National Archives, Kew. This letter was written by none other than Abdul Qadeer ‘A.Q.’ Khan, probably the most famous nuclear proliferator of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The letter was written at a time when the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme was the unwilling recipient of global media attention. Rhetoric emanating from Islamabad, rising Western fears of the ‘Islamic world,’ a genuine covert nuclear weapons project, and perceived American and British government inaction all contributed to a minor media frenzy around the sub-continental nuclear issue.

In the midst of the outcry, a programme was broadcast that—while unrelated to nuclear issues—provoked strong reactions in the Islamic world and elicited an unexpected response from a key figure in Pakistani nuclear affairs. Death of a Princess—a lightly fictionalised drama-documentary based on the real-life execution of a young Saudi noblewoman for adultery—was, as Alan Rosenthal argues, an investigation of the “social pressures, ideals, and strains of modern Arab society.”[1] Saudi Arabia—and the wider Islamic world—reacted furiously to the Anglo-American co-production. The British ambassador was expelled from Riyadh, commercial contracts were cancelled, and even overflights by the supersonic Concorde were banned.[2] The Saudis also protested to the American Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher regarding US broadcasts.[3]

At a moment when Britain and America were building bridges with the Islamic world in an effort to combat Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan, the timing could not have been worse. Expressions of regret from Margaret Thatcher’s government were profuse, Foreign Secretary Lord Peter Carrington rebuking the broadcasters and commenting that Saudi Arabia and Britain should be working together in the face of “external threats.”[4]

The angry response to the programme extended to Rawalpindi, where A. Q. Khan sat down to pen a diatribe against Britain, British journalists, and Anglo-American attitudes towards Pakistan’s nuclear aspirations.

In a rambling missive addressed (somewhat bizarrely) to Sir Ian Gilmour, the Lord Privy Seal, Khan castigated the British media and its “disgraceful” portrayals of Islam. Although prompted by Death of a Princess, the crux of his complaint regarded the nuclear weapons programme.

Khan had heard of BBC plans for a documentary (eventually screened a month or so later as part of the long-running Panorama strand), and ranted about the way the media had portrayed him (“a combination of James Bond and Klaus Fuchs”), the “mischief” created for the nuclear programme, and the British government’s anti-Islamic discrimination.[5]

The FCO was baffled and concerned. The South Asian Department regarded the letter as “a strange document which seems to betray a rather disturbed personality, which is alarming given his job. He is at times truculent, threatening, boasting, insecure and fearful.”[6]

After debate in Whitehall over the form and content of a response, the government dispatched what was envisaged as a conciliatory reply that still made no concessions to Khan. Stephen Gomersall—Gilmour’s Private Secretary—emphasised the regret expressed by Carrington over Death of a Princess, and contended that Britain had never sought to prevent developing countries benefiting from peaceful nuclear power. Gomersall urged Pakistani adherence to safeguards and, in a deliberately oblique criticism of the clandestine programme, outlined the principles of export controls as they related to “dangerously unsafeguarded nuclear facilities.”[7]

Now, this isn’t a particularly important moment in the history of nuclear proliferation. In essence, it boils down to a rather Points of View-esque letter, albeit a somewhat bizarre one.  It does, however, demonstrate the power of media to influence international relations in the most unexpected of ways. Khan’s letter, provoke by Death of a Princess, became a diatribe about Western involvement in trying to squash Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions.

Furthermore, Khan’s missive gave the FCO something to think about. While Khan may have been respected within Pakistani nuclear and political circles, there was an evolving view in London that the man in effective charge of a nuclear weapons project appeared to be slightly unstable and prone to fits of anger. The response from Stephen Gomersall was used as another diplomatic avenue in the ongoing attempt to halt Islamabad’s ascent to nuclear status.

All of the above took place at a moment in time when America and Britain were attempting to forge an alliance of Muslim states to support the anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan. At the same time, the US and UK were attempting to prevent a key Muslim state and bulwark against further Soviet ‘expansionism’ from ‘going nuclear.’ In many ways, these two aims were broadly incompatible. One would have to be subordinated to the other.

The story of how the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan changed Western attitudes towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme is well-known. However, as the archival research conducted for my thesis reveals, things were not quite as simple as that, to the extent that we need to reassess the timeline of decision-making leading to acquiescence to Islamabad’s atomic aspirations. But, that’s a story for another day.


[1]Alan Rosenthal, ‘The Politics of Passion: An Interview With Anthony Thomas,’ Journal of Film and Video, 49:1-2 (Spring/Summer, 1997), 95

[2]David Spanier, ‘Saudis Order British Ambassador to Leave,’ The Times, April 24, 1980, 1

[3]Christopher to Carter, memorandum, May 7, 1980, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Remote Archives Capture system, NLC-7-23-3-1-5, 1

[4] Sir Ian Gilmour, Speech (Commons), ‘Saudi Arabia,’ April 24, 1980, Hansard Online, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1980/apr/24/saudi-arabia#S5CV0983P0_19800424_HOC_182 (accessed on Oct.31, 2013); Hugh Noyes, ‘Ministers rebuke TV authorities after expulsion of ambassador,’ April 25, The Times, 1980, 8

[5]Khan to Gilmour, handwritten letter, May 2, 1980, The UK National Archives (hereafter TNA) Foreign and Commonwealth Office files (hereafter FCO) 37/2370

[6]Archer to Moberly, ‘Letter From Dr. A. Q. Khan,’ June 12, 1980, TNA FCO 37/2370

[7]Gomersall to Khan, letter, June 17, 1980, TNA FCO 37/2370

5 Responses to “A.Q. Khan, ‘Death of A Princess,’ and Angry Letters”


  1. Barry and the Bombers | theatomicage - April 21, 2014

    […] on from A.Q. Khan’s angry letter about British television, here’s another snippet that didn’t make it into the final […]

  2. Critical Perspectives on Nuclear Weapons | theatomicage - May 20, 2014

    […] that I have become endlessly fascinated with since starting the PhD and may have mentioned it before. Here’s a precis […]

  3. Special Forces Co-operation as a Nuclear Non-proliferation Measure? | theatomicage - May 26, 2014

    […] I’ve talked about angry letters from A. Q. Khan and the intersections between Barry Goldwater, the military-industrial complex, and the Ford […]

  4. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 8 | theatomicage - November 10, 2014

    […] the end. Maybe this week, when we look at my own pet subject of the ‘Islamic bomb’ (see here and here for a couple of previous discussions of this topic), we’ll see a return to the […]

  5. Nuclear Terrorism in the Modern Seminar Room | theatomicage - December 9, 2015

    […] semester, I will be making statements supporting the proliferation network of A Q Khan, the idea of an ‘Islamic bomb‘, and and means of conducting ‘nuclear […]

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