US exploring deal to limit Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

Published: October 16, 2015


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.

Read: Pakistan likely to secure civil nuclear deal with US: report

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.

Read: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could become world’s third-biggest: report

“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.

Read: No choice: Pakistan obliged to develop nukes, says Aizaz

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.

Read: Pakistan seeking US cooperation on civil nuclear energy

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.

Read: US providing precision strike technology to Pakistan: Jilani

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.

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Reader Comments (33)

  • RT
    Oct 16, 2015 - 11:26AM

    haha, So it was not a nuke deal like many Pakistanis were excited about. It was a deal to limit nukes. Recommend

    Oct 16, 2015 - 11:41AM

    Why USA not pressurize India to resolve Kashmir issue. Kashmir is root cause of all problems in the region including Nuclear, Terrorism etc. In Pakistan no body (civilian / military) will dare to decide limit on Nuclear weapons till decision on Kashmir.Recommend

  • Waseem Sarwar
    Oct 16, 2015 - 12:32PM

    and what makes you think Pakistan will accept anything less that that? Pakistanis always take pride in Nuclear arsenal and no political or military leader will commit such mistake. Pakistan is in better condition internationally than many think. With all kind of cooperation with China and now with Russia, Pakistan have cards to play. Recommend

  • Prada
    Oct 16, 2015 - 12:41PM

    Pakistan needs to have at least 8 times what India has to gain parity. Presuming India has 100 nukes, Pakistan needs 800 at least.Recommend

  • Tarun Kumar
    Oct 16, 2015 - 1:07PM

    Frankly with open chinese support, it would be foolish for pakistan to go for nuclear deal with US and place its civil power plants under IAEA safeguard when they can have their cake and eat it too from china. Recommend

  • Saleem
    Oct 16, 2015 - 2:29PM

    @Tarun Kumar:
    You really think so? It seems you are right. The article talks about what the US wants but doesn’t explain what Pakistan’s incentive would be to play ball.Recommend

  • Cruiser
    Oct 16, 2015 - 2:43PM

    David E Sanger throwing arrow in the dark.Does ;t know that such a talk is on the table when N sharif go to meet the Obama.Purpose of the article is just to see the reaction of the piblic on such atalk.Recommend

  • A-No.1
    Oct 16, 2015 - 2:48PM

    I presume, small tactical nukes were planned & developed simultaneously with larger nukes by Pakistan. It is naïve of the West to think otherwise.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Oct 16, 2015 - 2:49PM

    The Obama administration is exploring a deal with Pakistan that would limit the scope of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the fastest-growing on Earth.

    This deal is possible if the Americans who are the biggest producers of weaponry on earth agree to limit its weapon exports, and compensate Pakistan military industry who live on exports as well. Perhaps the Chinese and the Russians also join in with UK, France and Germany?

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • miristan
    Oct 16, 2015 - 2:50PM

    Pakistani Nuclear arsenal are for defense of Pakistan. it is India who dismembered Pakistan. now busy and planning further.Pakistan is not interested in huge piles of war head. Pakistan is interested in quality which can stop invading army. Hand held small weapon which which can evaporate enemy tanks in to thin air.Pakistan has no dispute with Indian people,You live your way of life and we live our way of life. it is Indian Government who dose not want referendum in Kashmir.Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Oct 16, 2015 - 4:07PM

    I guess if the US guarantees to ensure conventional arms balance under ALL circumstances between India and Pakistan this could be considered.Recommend

  • bash gul
    Oct 16, 2015 - 4:29PM

    Solve the Kashmir issue first then we should think of talking or not. Our government takes massive loans from the IMF to fullfil the cost of protocol and perks of the ministers, the future will be difficult for our coming generation paying off the debts.Recommend

  • Kickass
    Oct 16, 2015 - 5:01PM

    You will be surprised when it happens!!!!Recommend

  • Pakistan
    Oct 16, 2015 - 5:04PM

    They have chosen the right person for such a deal. He wouldn’t know the difference.Recommend

  • Bobb Mack
    Oct 16, 2015 - 5:23PM

    What is often not understood is that nuclear parity is not same as parity in nuke numbers. It is not same as parity in conventional defence. India lost its conventional edge the day Pakistan responded to Indian nuke tests. Even if one considers nuke numbers to be of any relevance Pakistan is believed to have completed an unknown but massive number of weapons, apparently far exceeding India…and that is beside the fact that Pakistan has higher quality missile system.

    Let us wish our countries become friendly and help each other in areas they can, sort out solvable problems and decide how to deal with more tricky issues. Once our countries have come closer, our economy and people mingle freely our borders will become irrelevant.

    Progress between our countries will require some real down to earth and honest statesmen who should put national and regional interests higher than personal gains, a task difficult but not impossible.
    Have a good day.Recommend

  • fateh alam
    Oct 16, 2015 - 5:24PM

    Double standards of west and USA are active when it comes to muslim vs non muslim,priorities,ITs MODIS INDIA who admitted officially for state terrorism against Pakistan during honey moon trip to BanglaDesh.INDIA,violating UNO,Kashmir resolution,Secularism at worse level against Minorities,Human rights violations in Occupied Kashmir,un marked graves and RAPE of women in Kashmir are not hidden,why? west is quiet, NO TV coverage of such violations,SO NEVER think of PM Nawaz sharif acceptance of a deal on limiting our research/development on Nuclear Arsenal,we have our Dignity,Respect,Honour now to defend
    and we know it well.So MR Nawaz sharif ,should never convey a shade of doubt for such Hidden offer with ulterior Objectives,Probably issue gained notice recently,when INDIAN ARMY CHIEF in his late hour Blunder yelled about Swift cold action against,in reply which PAK ARMY CHIEF quietly replied DO NOT LIVE IN FOOLS PARADISE,WHICH sent tremors in the RANKS of
    INDIAN CIVIL?ARMYCircles.There after such news are sneaked to feel the PULSERecommend

  • vinsin
    Oct 16, 2015 - 5:52PM

    And who dismembered India in 1947? Dont blame India for Bangladesh Genocide. According to UN and wiki, it says it is Pakistan who is continuously refusing withdrawal of army for referendum.Recommend

  • Tarun Kumar
    Oct 16, 2015 - 6:04PM

    Pakistan is just obsessed with status parity with india which is why it wants this deal. But really from a logical perspective if u are being given power plants and uranium by china without safeguards which means that the plutonium byproduct can be diverted to military use , why would u want to import uranium from international market and place it under safeguards which means that the byproduct plutonium cannot be divertedRecommend

  • TP
    Oct 16, 2015 - 6:10PM

    The US can always loosen its purse strings.Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Oct 16, 2015 - 6:33PM

    We have no deal with USA at this moment, if it is on the table, we can handle to best of our INTEREST NOT OTHERS.Recommend

  • Anjaan
    Oct 16, 2015 - 7:06PM

    The US has lost its credibility as the world police long ago … with both its enemies and allies alike … !! … why do the Americans think that they can buy out everything on earth they want, with dollars … ??!!Recommend

  • Saleem
    Oct 16, 2015 - 7:44PM

    No they weren’t. They are a relatively recent development. After they completed developing all types of long and short range missiles that could reach all parts of India they decided to develop battlefield nukes. I think these are harder to make because you have to shrink the warhead even more.Recommend

  • Khurman
    Oct 16, 2015 - 9:11PM

    The idea of a nuclear deal with Pakistan has had considerable support from sections of the American non-proliferation community. A recent report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Centre in Washington has enumerated in greater detail the possible American demands on Pakistan. Americans are willing to lift global sanctions against Pakistan. There is possibility of a nuclear deal which will be acceptable for both Pakistan and U.S.Recommend

  • Oct 16, 2015 - 9:30PM

    Since, our very survival depends on a very strong nuclear and conventional defence and US double standards are in operation only in the Islamic countries, the nuclear experts and defence officials know how to deal with this sneaky issue. Being sneaks themselves. So, in the final count, “all is fair in love and war.” Obama will have a disappointment. Nevertheless, he tried, did he not? Salam’s.Recommend

  • hamza khan
    Oct 16, 2015 - 11:41PM

    not really…ignatius’ post makes it clear that pakistan is not going to accept any limits to its nuclear program. as an indian, i would expect stupidity from you. this gives pakistan access to exact same treatment that other members of NSG get. thats a huge victory. i know it burns you. now go back to your veggies… Recommend

  • Arsalan Khan
    Oct 17, 2015 - 12:32AM

    It is not clear why would US be approaching Pakistan without an offer of Civil Nuclear Agreement. Anything less is unacceptable to Pakistan as we are doing fine without US developing our own nuclear weapons and civil nuclear plants with co-operation with China.Recommend

  • mellow yellow
    Oct 17, 2015 - 12:42AM

    US wants to talk Nuclear Arms Reduction. Pak wants to Kashmir. India wants to talk terror. In the end, everyone has a view of what they want to talk about. Recommend

  • ajeet
    Oct 17, 2015 - 5:24AM

    Its time to defang or cut off the head of the snake, by force if needed.Recommend

  • Desi
    Oct 17, 2015 - 9:58AM

    Pakstistani leaders should stay away from signing any binding document with USA whcih restrict pakistani capabilities in any way. That would be a stupid thing. USA have never been a well wisher of Pakististan. Not during 1962 Sino-Indo war, 1965, 1971, Kargil, never.Recommend

  • LuvPak
    Oct 17, 2015 - 10:31AM

    Indian nuclear defence is as far behind from Pak as Pak space tech is to Indian. The West knows it and so have less fear from Indian armament.

    Also, India don’t have a history of Independent & resolved highly aggressive commanders helping extremists Etc. Some are found even collaborating with anti-state elements against their own. We all know the presence of such leaders in Umma.

    Then, shear lack or absence of solid democratic institutions and its frequent paralyses in history proves the basis of disregard of Pak claim of similar favors as India received. Of Course, our poor economy and corruption at the highest level also proves our incompetence as a mature system of check-&-balance and running of the government.

    Pak should take the advice, not because it’s not by a friend but it has a voice of the world behind it. It’s that advice that look like a choice but end drastically if rejected. Don’t forget; a good a thriving economy is the basis of a strong nation, way more stronger than one with rockets and bombs. We have already proved ourself in those fields, let’s prove in business and public welfare too.Recommend

  • miristan
    Oct 17, 2015 - 10:58AM

    @ response to all Indians
    India was Muslim country before British made its colony. When they left they left a small portion to its right full owners. Rest of British India they gave to Nehru and his gang. There is no such thing that Pakistan dismember India. Azad Kashmir has its own army for defense. No one can find a single Pakistani soldier in Azad Kashmir. Recommend

  • shah
    Oct 17, 2015 - 12:43PM

    @ajeet: Yes It Is Time to defang or cut off the head of the snake By Force.That Is Why Pakistan Has Now Struck A Deal for 8 Submarines and Massive Upgrading For JF 17 Thunder
    and Latest Joint War Games Were Not Defensive But Were Aggressive In Nature.

    The Only Snake In South Asia Is India And It Is Time To Chop It’s Head Off.Pakistan Army Is Preparing To Do Just ThatRecommend

  • Saleem
    Oct 17, 2015 - 2:30PM

    Muslims were always a minority in India so I don’t see how you can call it a Muslim country. Muslims ruled but Hindus had the numbers.Recommend

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