WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is exploring a deal with Pakistan that would limit the scope of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the fastest-growing on Earth. The talks are the first in the decade since one of the founders of its nuclear programme, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was caught selling the country’s nuclear technology around the world.
The talks are being held in advance of the arrival of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Washington next week. They focus on American concern that Pakistan might be on the verge of deploying a small tactical nuclear weapon — explicitly modeled on weapons the United States put in Europe during the Cold War to deter a Soviet invasion — that would be far harder to secure than the country’s arsenal of larger weapons.
But outside experts familiar with the discussions, which have echoes of the Obama administration’s first approaches to Iran on its nuclear programme three years ago, expressed deep skepticism that Pakistan is ready to put limits on a program that is the pride of the nation, and that it regards as its only real defense against India.
The discussions are being led by Peter R Lavoy, a longtime intelligence expert on the Pakistani programme who is now on the staff of the National Security Council. At the White House on Thursday, Josh Earnest, the press secretary, was asked about the talks and broke from the administration’s previous position of refusing to comment.
“A deal like the one that’s been discussed publicly is not something that’s likely to come to fruition next week,” he said. “But the United States and Pakistan are regularly engaged in a dialogue about the importance of nuclear security. And I would anticipate that that dialogue would include conversations between the leaders of our two countries.”
The central element of the proposal, according to other officials and outside experts, would be a relaxation of strict controls put on Pakistan by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a loose affiliation of nations that tries to control the proliferation of weapons.
“If Pakistan would take the actions requested by the United States, it would essentially amount to recognition of rehabilitation and would essentially amount to parole,” said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has maintained contacts with the Pakistani nuclear establishment.
“I think it’s worth a try,” Perkovich said. “But I have my doubts that the Pakistanis are capable of doing this.”
David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, first disclosed the exploratory talks in a column a week ago. Since then, several other officials and outside experts have talked in more detail about the effort, although the White House has refused to comment.
The activity of Abdul Qadeer Khan, who lives in retirement in a comfortable neighborhood in Islamabad after many years of house arrest, prompted more than a decade of American-led punishment of Pakistan’s nuclear enterprises. He ran what amounted to the world’s most sophisticated black market in the equipment needed to make nuclear fuel, and he did business with Iran, North Korea and Libya.
When Libya turned over the equipment it bought, in late 2003, it included a nearly complete design for one of China’s first nuclear weapons.
Pakistani officials denied that any of the country’s leaders knew of Qadeer Khan’s black market activities, a story American officials did not believe because some of the equipment was shipped on Pakistani Air Force cargo planes. While Qadeer Khan is not under formal restrictions today, he has not left Pakistan in years and has been prohibited from talking to most outsiders.
Even before entering office, President Obama was interested in addressing the Pakistani nuclear problem, considered by most proliferation experts to be the most dangerous in the world. But until now, most efforts to manage the problem have been covert.
During the Bush administration, the United States spent as much as $100 million on a highly classified program to help secure the country’s nuclear arsenal, helping with physical security and the training of Pakistani security personnel. Those efforts continued in the Obama years, with State Department, Energy Department and intelligence officials meeting secretly, in locales around the world, with senior Pakistani officials from the Strategic Plans Division, which controls the arsenal.
They used those sessions to argue to the Pakistanis that fielding the small, short-range nuclear weapons, which Pakistan designed to use against an invading Indian ground force, would be highly risky.
American officials have told Congress they are increasingly convinced that most of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is under good safeguards, with warheads separated from delivery vehicles and a series of measures in place to guard against unauthorised use. But they fear the smaller weapons are easier to steal, or would be easier to use should they fall into the hands of a rogue commander.
“All it takes is one commander with secret radical sympathies, and you have a big problem,” said one former official who dealt with the issue.
The message appears to have resonated; an unknown number of the tactical weapons were built, but not deployed. It is that problem that Lavoy and others are trying to forestall, along with preventing Pakistan from deploying some long-range missiles that could reach well beyond India.
But American leverage has been hard to find. Unlike Iran, Pakistan never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the international agreement that prohibits nations, except for existing declared nuclear states like the United States, from possessing a nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is not alone in that distinction: India and Israel also have not signed.
(North Korea has twice declared that it has withdrawn from the treaty, in 1993 and 2003.)
Ordinarily, any country’s refusal to sign the treaty would preclude American nuclear cooperation. So Pakistani officials remain angry with the American decision to enter an agreement with India in 2005 allowing India to buy civil nuclear technology, even though it remains outside the treaty and put no limits on its nuclear programme.
Under that agreement, India’s nuclear infrastructure was split with a civilian program that is under international inspection, and a military programme that is not.
Pakistani officials have demanded the same arrangement.
That does not appear to be on the table. Instead, the United States is exploring ways to relax restrictions on nuclear-related technology to Pakistan, perhaps with a long-term goal of allowing the country to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which regulates the sale of the technology. That would be largely symbolic: Pakistan manages to import or make what it needs for its nuclear arsenal, and China has already broken ground on a $9.6 billion nuclear power complex in Karachi. PM Nawaz presided over the ceremony.
This article is in partnership with The New York Times.