ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Days after Pakistan's president acknowledged that scientists from his country had most likely sold nuclear designs to other nations, the army commander formerly in overall charge of the program declared yesterday that he had never approved a transfer of atomic information.
"I was never confronted with any such situation," said the retired general, Mirza Aslam Beg, who was the army commander from 1988 to 1991.
His comments in an interview contradicted assertions last week by a senior Pakistani intelligence official, who said Beg had approved the transfer of technology to Iran. The official also said the scientist who led Pakistan's effort to build an atomic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had told investigators that any sharing of nuclear technology had had Beg's approval.
On Friday, after years of denial, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, acknowledged the likelihood that scientists from this country had sold nuclear designs to other nations for personal financial gain. He insisted that the government was not involved, and he strongly suggested that suspects would face punishment.
As head of the army, which tightly controlled the nuclear program, Beg was believed to have had the clearest knowledge of what happened. But while 11 scientists and low-level military staff officers have been questioned, Pakistani investigators have not spoken to the general.
He confirmed that he had not been questioned, adding: "They would not dare. They would not dare."
In a 90-minute interview, the general asserted that any scientists who sold Pakistan's nuclear technology should not be punished. He also said Muslim countries should not be asked to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons until India and Israel destroy their nuclear arsenals.
"Why don't you start from there?" Beg asked. "This is the discrimination and duplicity which gives heartburn and humiliation to the Muslim world."
Asked if he had looked the other way when technology or information might have been transferred, he replied, "Nothing came to our knowledge."
Beg's comments reflected the view in some corners of Pakistan that the United States maintains a double standard when it comes to Muslim countries and nuclear weapons.
The general said it was natural for countries to want nuclear weapons to counter those of nuclear-armed rivals. He also said it was natural for nuclear scientists to want to profit from their work.
He expressed deep antipathy toward American foreign policy, saying that the United States was blocking the spread of democracy in the Muslim world, not aiding it. He described himself as an Islamic nationalist, not a fundamentalist, and called criticism of efforts by Muslim countries to obtain nuclear weapons, as well as his portrayal in the western media, unfair.
Pakistani government officials said they completely disagreed with Beg's views, particularly regarding proliferation. "He's wrong about that," a close aide to Musharraf said yesterday. "This is dangerous technology."
Since retiring from the army, Beg has run a think tank called the Foundation for Research on International Environment National Development and Security, or FRIENDS. The general writes analyses of world politics regularly published in Pakistani newspapers. While dismissed by liberal Pakistanis as extreme, he has a sizable following among hard-line nationalists and Islamists.