Given the growing conventional arms imbalance with India, Pakistan’s security is now critically dependent on nuclear deterrence. In the long, difficult struggle to develop this capability, in the face of determined Western opposition, Pakistan’s scientists, almost all its political leaders, and several of its soldiers played vital roles. No less important was the part played by Pakistan’s diplomats.
It was the foresight of diplomats like Agha Shahi and Iqbal Akhund that held back Pakistan’s leaders from accepting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Pakistan warned the world even before the Non-Proliferation Treaty was adopted that India would use the non-safeguarded facilities and fuel provided by Canada and the US to build N-weapons.
After India’s 1974 explosion, Pakistan’s proposal to create a South Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone put India on the diplomatic defensive and politically retarded its N-weapons plans.
Through active diplomacy, Pakistan secured the agreement for the French sale of a nuclear reprocessing plant. This was disrupted by the US; but not before Pakistan had acquired the plant designs and technological know-how.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan was engaged in a diplomatic battle to avoid Western demands for restrictions on nuclear enrichment at Kahuta and termination of its nascent missile development.
An agreement was concluded for peaceful nuclear cooperation with China before it acceded to a Non-Proliferation Treaty (as an N-weapon state). It included a clause that has enabled (grandfathered) China’s supply of nuclear reactors to Pakistan.
In 1994, Pakistan rejected a US offer to release of 72 F16 aircraft Pakistan had purchased, and Washington had blocked unilaterally, in exchange for a so-called temporary freeze on nuclear enrichment. Stopping the Kahuta centrifuges would have destroyed half of them.
In May 1998, on the Foreign Office’s advice, Pakistan turned down US offers of billions in aid not to reciprocate India’s nuclear tests. Not to do so would have raised doubts about Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities and destabilised deterrence.
Following the 1998 tests, Pakistan ensured the UN Security Council Resolution 1172 recognised that India had tested first, maintained parity in the restraints asked of the two countries and included a call for resolution of the Kashmir dispute. In the parallel dialogue which the US initiated with Pakistan and India, Pakistan insisted on an identical agenda covering nuclear and missile restraint as well as the Kashmir dispute.
In the wake of the AQ Khan proliferation affair, Pakistan avoided penalties and succeeded in defanging provisions in the US-sponsored United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 aimed specifically at Pakistan.
Leverage to the US
However, this affair, and Pakistan’s unequal alliance with US in the war on terror, provided the US with the excuse and diplomatic leverage it needed to de-hyphenate Pakistan and India and offer the latter a so-called exception for civilian nuclear cooperation as a means of securing its strategic support against China.
At a critical point in 2008, when the Indo-US Safeguards Agreement came up for approval to the International Atomic Energy Agency board, Pakistan’s representatives were instructed by a new Islamabad leadership, beholden to Washington, not to force a vote. If Pakistan had asked for a vote in the board, several Non-Proliferation Treaty members would have been obliged to oppose or abstain. Thereafter, they would have been unable to support the clearance of the Indo-US exception in the subsequent meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, denying it the consensus required for approval.
The consequences of this diplomatic default have been strategically significant. It broke the political parity between Pakistan and India’s nuclear status. More importantly, the external nuclear fuel and nuclear reactors acquired by India under the exception, will enable it to utilise all its indigenous fissile material stocks for weapons production.
Since this reversal, while Pakistan has intensified its fissile material production and blocked the so-called Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty, its nuclear diplomacy has been mostly reactive and defensive.
To prove its non-proliferation credentials, Pakistan has engaged in nuclear consultations with the US and adopted various export guidelines and nuclear safety and security measures, often with US help. No doubt, the US has gained closer insights into Pakistan’s programmes and plans. Worse, Islamabad has embarked on the fool’s errand of seeking a US nuclear exception similar to India’s.
Even in the unlikely event this is granted, Pakistan will not be sold nuclear reactors by the US or its allies. Nor can Pakistan afford them. But the plea for this exception has opened Pakistan to new demands from Washington: to halt fissile material production and development and deployment of tactical and long-range missiles and sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty without waiting for India. In exchange, the US would consider making a positive recommendation of Pakistan’s case. It is folly to go further down this path.
The road ahead
Pakistan’s diplomacy must break out of its defensive mode and utilise all the leverage it can muster to reverse the discriminatory restrictions, impede India’s strategic build-up and preserve the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence.
To this end, here are some of the actions Pakistan could initiate: one, an active diplomatic campaign at the UN, in major capitals and media, to expose the false premises for the discriminatory restrictions against Pakistan and the West’s double and triple standards on disarmament and non-proliferation.
Two, proposals to India for reciprocal arms control and strategic restraint, such as non-use of force, low force zones, non-deployment of destabilising weapons. At the very least, this would put India on the diplomatic defensive and help to resist US pressure on Pakistan to accept unilateral restraints.
Three, offers of peaceful nuclear cooperation, under International Atomic Energy Agency's safeguards, to Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim and developing countries. This may motivate NSG to invite Pakistan to join the group.
Four, proposals, initiated with China and other developing countries, for genuine disarmament, including treaties to halt the current multi-billion dollar upgrade and miniaturisation of US and Russian nuclear weapons and bans on the development and deployment of laser, anti-satellite and other space weapons.
To enable Pakistan to revive active nuclear diplomacy, the disarmament department in the Foreign Office must be strengthened and staffed with the best and brightest diplomats. This would be a cost-effective investment in preserving the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence.
This article first appeared on Dawn.