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June 2, 2022
Pakistan Presses Case for U.S. Nuclear Deal
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Daryl G. Kimball

As part of a wide-ranging, high-level dialogue between Pakistani and U.S. leaders held in Washington last month, Pakistan reportedly proposed a civilian nuclear trade arrangement similar to the one granted to India, but received a noncommittal response from senior U.S. officials.

Since India and the United States announced plans in 2005 to lift U.S. and international restrictions on nuclear trade with New Delhi, Pakistani officials have argued for such an arrangement.

Ahead of the March 24-25 talks involving Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi that were focused primarily on strategic cooperation on security and energy issues and the war in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials once again raised the possibility of civil nuclear cooperation and recognition of Pakistan’s status as a state possessing nuclear weapons.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told reporters following a March 16 meeting in Islamabad with U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair that U.S. assistance with “[c]ivilian nuclear technology will help Pakistan meet its growing energy demand.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles-based newspaper Pakistan Link published on March 19, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson was quoted as saying the United States is “beginning to have a discussion” with the Pakistani government on the country’s desire to tap nuclear energy. “We are going to have working-level talks” on the issue in Washington, she said.

Patterson said in the interview that U.S. “non-proliferation concerns were quite severe,” but she added, “I think we are beginning to pass those and this is a scenario that we are going to explore.”

Her comments quickly prompted speculation in Pakistan and India and in Washington that the United States might be prepared to reverse existing U.S. policy and law barring civil nuclear trade with Pakistan, which is not a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), has tested nuclear weapons, and does not accept comprehensive international safeguards for its extensive nuclear infrastructure.

The same is true of India, but the United States created an exception for New Delhi through a process that involved congressional approval for an exemption from the requirements of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, the negotiation of a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement subject to congressional review and approval, and the consensus approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). A nuclear deal with Pakistan would have to go through a similar process.

Clinton Cautious

In an interview with Pakistan’s Express TV March 22, Clinton was more circumspect than Patterson about the prospects for nuclear trade. “I’m sure that that’s going to be raised, and we’re going to be considering it, but I can’t prejudge or pre-empt what the outcome of our discussions will be,” Clinton said, adding that the civil nuclear cooperation deal with India “was the result of many, many years of strategic dialogue.”

In September 2008, the NSG, which has more than 40 members, made an India-specific exemption to long-standing guidelines barring civil nuclear trade with states that do not have a comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (See ACT, October 2008.) The NSG is a voluntary group that coordinates its nuclear export policies in order to prevent the spread of materials and technologies that could aid nuclear weapons programs. In 1992 the group adopted a rule significantly restricting nuclear trade with any non-nuclear-weapon state that does not open all its nuclear facilities and activities to the IAEA. India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan are classified as non-nuclear-weapon states under the NPT.

Since the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation initiative was first announced in July 2005, the United States and other key NSG states have rejected repeated suggestions from Pakistan and an overture to the NSG from Israel that they too should be eligible for civil nuclear trade. In March 2007, Israel circulated a “non-paper” to NSG members outlining a criteria-based approach for nuclear supply eligibility that would allow nuclear trade with Israel.

According to a report published in The Wall Street Journal March 22, Pakistan sent a 56-page document to U.S. officials ahead of the strategic talks in Washington. The document reportedly focused on proposals for expanded military and economic aid, but according to the Journal, it also reiterated its request for U.S. support for Pakistan’s civilian nuclear program.

“We want the U.S. to recognize Pakistan’s nuclear status and give us assurances not to undermine the (weapons) program,” a senior Pakistani military officer who serves as an aide to the head of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, told the Journal. “Energy security is crucial, and we need U.S. help,” he said.

On March 23, Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington that “we have not been talking to Pakistan about a civilian nuclear deal. If Pakistan brings it up during the course of the meetings the next two days, we’ll be happy to listen.”

A “Complicated” Issue

In response to a question about the U.S. response to the Pakistani request for civil nuclear cooperation at a joint news conference ahead of the formal talks March 24, Clinton demurred, calling the matter “complicated.”

Qureshi responded by saying that “the most important thing is recognizing that there is a need to fulfill the energy gap, that our indigenous resources that can be exploited, and we also have the option of civilian nuclear technology.”

Following the conclusion of his formal talks with Clinton, Qureshi told Reuters March 25, “I am quite satisfied with the discussions we had” about the nuclear cooperation issue, but declined to elaborate.

The joint communiqué issued March 25 does not reference nuclear energy cooperation specifically, but rather says that “[t]he United States recognized the importance of assisting Pakistan to overcome its energy deficit and committed to further intensify and expand comprehensive cooperation in the energy sector.”

Two senior U.S. lawmakers who met with the Pakistani delegation to Washington called the idea of civil nuclear trade with Pakistan “premature.” In a March 25 interview with The Cable, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said, “I don’t think it’s on the table right now considering all the other issues we have to confront.”

“There are countless things that they would have to do in order to achieve it. If they’re willing to do all those things, we’ll see,” Kerry said. “There are a lot of things that come first before that. It’s really premature,” he added. “It’s appropriate as something for them to aspire to and have as a goal out there, but I don’t think it’s realistic in the near term.”

In the same article, The Cable also quoted Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the committee’s ranking member, as saying talks on civil nuclear trade with Pakistan would be “premature.”

Khan Concerns

One likely reason for the lawmakers’ reluctance to consider the issue is the unresolved questions surrounding Pakistan’s disgraced former nuclear weapons program chief, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Just days ahead of the high-level U.S.-Pakistani talks in Washington, Pakistani government lawyers sought court permission to investigate new reports concerning Khan’s illicit transfers of nuclear weapons-related technology to Iran and other states.

The petition was filed in the Lahore High Court on March 22 after The Washington Post published an article about alleged notes written by Khan in which he claims that he provided assistance with the knowledge of the Pakistani government to Iran and Iraq to develop nuclear weapons. Since then, Khan has disputed the media account. The Pakistani government has asserted since 2004 that Khan acted without official government knowledge.

In a March 29 decision, the court turned down the government’s request. Reuters quoted Soofi Amar Bilal, a government lawyer, as saying the judge had ruled that “it’s up [to] the government” to decide whether to pursue the investigation.

Khan has been under house arrest since he publicly apologized for his role in a black market nuclear trade network that was finally disrupted but not fully dismantled in 2004. Khan has been barred from meeting with foreigners or traveling abroad. He has been appealing to the public and Pakistan’s courts for relief from the restrictions. In another March 29 decision, the court left the restrictions largely intact, Reuters reported.

A U.S. military and development aid package for Pakistan approved by Congress last September requires that some of the aid shall be withheld until President Barack Obama certifies that Islamabad has provided “relevant information from or direct access to Pakistani nationals” involved in past nuclear commerce. The Pakistani government has so far refused to allow U.S. officials to interview Khan about his role in the nuclear trade network and insists that the matter is “closed.”