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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Pakistan, the man known as the father of that country's nuclear weapons program is making a move into politics. A.Q. Khan says he wants to save Pakistan from a downward trajectory, and he's targeting young voters. Khan's foray into politics may worry some in the West because of his role in selling nuclear technology to rogue nations. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Abdul Qadeer Khan, or A.Q. Khan, has been a national hero in Pakistan for more than three decades. The 76-year-old scientist is credited with developing Pakistan's nuclear bomb. To the U.S. and other Western nations, Khan is a pariah for selling that nuclear technology to nations such as North Korea and Iran. In 2004, at the urging of the U.S., Pakistan placed Khan under house arrest. In 2009, he was freed and now, he's trying his hand at politics.

KHURSHID ZAMAN: Dr. A.Q. Khan, because he's an intellectual, he believes that Pakistan should have a bright future.

NORTHAM: Khurshid Zaman is chief campaign adviser for A.Q. Khan's new political movement, Tehreek Tahafuz Pakistan - loosely translated as Save Pakistan. Pakistan's government says Khan is not allowed to meet with foreigners, and he declined a recorded interview with NPR. His adviser, Zaman, says Khan started his political movement because Pakistan is in turmoil due to terrorism, corruption, and a dysfunctional political system.

ZAMAN: He was very clear on one thing; that if we sit and don't do anything, this will be a historic crime for coming generations. He feels that our future generation will suffer if we don't stand and work now.

NORTHAM: Zaman says Khan has already received broad support from all corners of Pakistani society, and that Khan will only play a guiding role in the political movement he started. Nonsense, says nuclear scientist and civil activist Pervez Hoodbhoy.

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: A.Q. Khan has long wanted to be in politics, but he missed the bus 10 years ago. He wants to be president of Pakistan and yet, now people suspect - from the various statements that he makes - that he's not all there.

NORTHAM: Indeed, some of Khan's recent statements have been way out there.

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A.Q. KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: In one of his first political speeches, Khan criticized Pakistani politicians. He called former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a traitor for dealing with the U.S., and said he may be executed and his body dragged through the streets. Khan has also tried to deflect blame for transferring nuclear secrets to Iran and North Korea, saying he was just following orders from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Professor Hoodbhoy says Khan is rewriting history. And like a growing number of others, he disputes Khan's mantle as father of the nuclear bomb.

HOODBHOY: He actually got some centrifuge technology while he was working in Holland; brought it back, reverse-engineered it. But it's actually the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission which made the bomb for Pakistan, and he played only a supportive role in that.

NORTHAM: Hoodbhoy says Pakistan's establishment fears Khan coming to power because he's increasingly seen as a loose cannon who's naming names. Hoodbhoy concedes there's a chance Khan could become a member of Pakistan's parliament, which may worry some in the U.S. Khan's adviser, Zaman, says America needs a fresh start in this region.

ZAMAN: America is - unfortunately, doesn't enjoy a very good name in Pakistani society and the region. But we want to work with them and have friendly relationship with America. We do want to work for peace, as well as with America.

NORTHAM: Elections in Pakistan must be called by next March, but it's possible they could be held before the end of the year.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.

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