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Our Third Most Urgent Nonproliferation Priority

Our Third Most Urgent Nonproliferation Priority

With the outcome of the U.S. presidential election and the transition from the first to second Obama term, it’s a time for pundits to compile to-do lists. For example, fellow blogger Jodi Lieberman recently circulated an excellent one from the NTI Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which emphasizes the Middle East nuclear-free-zone talks, the upcoming U.S. nuclear posture review, missiles defenses, and Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. No doubt everybody seriously interested in nonproliferation will have personal favorites. My own priorities, as indicated here in previous posts, include–beside the obvious case of Iran–Japan’s plans for commercial spent-fuel reprocessing and the India-Pakistan nuclear arms race. I emphasize the desirability of active personal diplomacy on the part of the U.S. president.

Pakistan right now is engaged in an all-out nuclear buildup that will double the size of its arsenal by 2020, making it comparable to Britain’s and France’s. Though India, the much superior military power, is not trying to match Pakistan bomb for bomb and missile for missile, it naturally does not want to fall too far behind. India’s management of its nuclear arsenal, as detailed in a recent critique by Verghese Kothara, has been rather lackadaisical but–I would guess–seems destined to be tightened.

Kothara’s book about Indian nuclear force management and a history of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program by Feroz H. Khan are reviewed in the current issue of Arms Control Today by Micheal Krepon, who opens the outstanding medium-length article with some provocative observations about differences between the India-Pakistan arms race and the superpower arms race of old. “The Cold War nuclear competition was never triangular, but in Asia, a third party, China, figures prominently in the nuclear narratives of India and Pakistan. India, Pakistan, and China have fought wars against one another, wars that convinced the loser to seek nuclear weapons.”

Further, extremist groups of the kind that are “key actors on the subcontinent” did not exist in the United States or Soviet Union of the Cold War and worries about such groups were “wholly absent from the Western Literature of deterrence theory.” Espionage, which may have been a stabilizing element in the Cold War competition (Krepon seems to imply) has not been a visible factor on the subcontinent. A major factor, instead, was the huge covert nuclear marketing network operated by A.Q. Khan, which among other things showed that the Pakistani government–to the extent there can be said to be a unitary Pakistani government–does not always know what its left hand is doing.

Among the many interesting details mentioned in Krepon’s judicious and thougtful review is the fact that Pakistani nuclear marketing operations also were managed by one  Shafique Ahman Butt, the representative in Brussels of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), who “was at least as important as A.Q. Khan,” and the fact that A.Q. had a more-than-formidable rival in Munir Ahmad Kahn, the head of PAEC, “who focused on producing plutonium and solid-fuel missiles.”

At every step of the way, Pakistan received vitally needed help from other states, and those assists did not go uncompensated. Muammar Qadafi is thought to have provided between $100 million and $500 million to support Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, and in return got technology from A.Q. Khan (photo) that included an atomic bomb blueprint. Whether or not China actually allowed Pakistan to test its first atomic bomb in China (a matter once discussed extensively here and elsewhere, but not by Krepon), the extent of nuclear relations between the two countries was and has been extremely far-reaching. China provided Pakistan with the so-called CHIC-4 weapon design, uranium hexaflouride and highly enriched uranium, heavy water, and various solid-fuel missiles, among other things. In return, says author Feroz H. Khan, “Every piece of technology that Pakistan managed to acquire would be [made] available to the Chinese for reverse engineering”—e.g. , most likely, U.S. cruise missiles recovered from Afghanistan, and European uranium centrifuge technology purloined from Europe.

Though this is a matter Krepon does not get into, the relationship between Pakistan and China vividly illustrates a very important and highly under-appreciated aspect of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: Its prohibition upon recognized nuclear weapons states to provide atomic bomb technology to non-weapons states. China’s conduct through the early phases of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program violated the spirit if not the letter or its responsibilities as a nuclear weapons state, and some of that misconduct may continue today, even though China now has fully accepted NPT obligations in principle.

The reason, therefore, why it is crucially and urgently necessary to bring Pakistan and India into the NPT as recognized weapons states is so that they, from now on, would be formally subject to that prohibition. A fringe benefit may be a stabilizing influence of treaty membership on what is surely the world’s most dangerous nuclear arms race. As Krepon notes at the outset, that race has elements of instability that were not present in the superpower race of the Cold War.

The thought of “rewarding” India and Pakistan for nuclear misconduct by recognizing them formally as nuclear weapons state may stick in the craw. But it’s time to declare the long sorry history of opportunism and opportunities missed water under the bridge, and to embrace an opportunity that will make the subcontinent, surrounding areas and the whole world marginally safer.



William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.