It was the first time the Pakistani government has admitted that Abdul Qadeer Khan actually gave material to Iran, although it has said in the past that his criminal group sold technology and blueprints to several countries.
"Dr. Abdul Qadeer gave some centrifuges to Iran," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "He helped Iran in his personal capacity, and the Pakistan government had nothing to do with it."
Ahmed originally made the comments at a seminar in Islamabad organized by a local newspaper group, in which he stuck by Pakistan's insistence that despite his crimes, Khan would never be handed over to a third country for prosecution.
"I support the idea that the government should tell the people about these sensitive matters," Ahmed said in a speech at the seminar, an audio tape of which was also obtained by AP. "I am not a spokesman for a cowardly nation. Yes, we supplied Iran the centrifuge system. Yes, Dr. Qadeer gave Iran this technology. But we are not going to hand over Dr. Qadeer to any one. We will not."
Ahmed later told AP that Islamabad is fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium — a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity but also make material suitable for atomic warheads.
Khan, considered the father of Pakistan's own nuclear program, confessed last year that he sold nuclear technology to Iran — Pakistan's southwestern neighbor — as well as North Korea and Libya. The investigation into his group's activities has widened to include several other countries as well.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf pardoned the disgraced scientist and allowed him to keep the riches he allegedly earned from the trade. However, Khan remains restricted to his home in an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
The government has steadfastly denied any official involvement in the proliferation, despite reports Khan flew to North Korea on a government plane.
A more than two-year IAEA investigation already has established that Iran ran a clandestine nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, for nearly two decades.
As the main supplier of centrifuges, parts and related technology, the Khan network has figured prominently in those investigations. Diplomats close to the agency say that in confidential discussions with IAEA experts, both Pakistan and Iran itself have acknowledged that Khan sold Tehran centrifuges, although neither country had previously said so publicly.
As part of its investigation, the nuclear agency announced Feb. 28 that Tehran received an "extensive" written offer from the Khan network in 1987 to set up the basics of its uranium enrichment program.
Tehran has said it wants to use uranium enrichment for the peaceful purpose of power generation, but the practice also can be used to make weapons.
Diplomats have told the AP that in turning over the written offer to the agency, Tehran had claimed to have refused offers of technology that specifically geared toward making nuclear weapons.
"They indicated that they did not take these people up on the entirety of the offer," IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said, alluding to the Iranian claim, adding, however, that the agency still had to "make sure that ... they only got what they told us they got out of this offer."
On Sunday, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani admitted his country secretly dipped into the black market to buy material, saying it was necessary because of U.S. sanctions and European restrictions that denied Iran access to advanced civilian nuclear technology.
Since last year Iran has publicly acknowledged that it once bought nuclear equipment from middlemen in south Asia, lending credence to reports that Khan was one of the suppliers.