In 2011, during a fundraiser, George Clooney asked U.S. President Barack Obama about the one thing that keeps him up at night. His answer was Pakistan nuclear program and its security.
A week ago, a senior columnist for the Washington Post disclosed what he termed a “diplomatic blockbuster” being discussed between the United State and Pakistan, which could pave a way for the Pakistan’s version of the civil nuclear deal signed between the U.S. and India in 2005 — hence a formal welcome to the prestigious nuclear club. Almost a decade ago, the United States signed a civil nuclear deal with India and rejected a similar offer to Pakistan by calling India’s case an exception.
Pakistan has remained a pariah state as far as its nuclear program is concerned. This reported civil nuclear deal is perhaps the first time the United States has seriously approached Pakistan talks over its nuclear program, dealing with limitations beyond its actual defense needs against India. Ostensibly, in return for signing on to a deal, Pakistan will win waivers at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), not to mention international legitimacy.
While Pakistan may have begged for a nuclear deal ten years ago, this time, it has more leverage, little to lose, and the confidence necessary to leave any deal on the table unless it’s as good as the one offered to India.
In ten years, global security challenges have significantly changed: China’s rapid economic rise and Russia’s resurgence – in theaters from Ukraine to Syria – are posing significant security and diplomatic challenges for the United States. Old alliances are floundering and new ones are emerging. Besides China, Pakistan’s growing diplomatic closeness with the Russians is not only a concern for the United States but also for India, which historically has had close diplomatic and security relations with Moscow.
Pakistan’s foreign office, in a statement, explicitly denied that any nuclear deal was being discussed between Pakistan and the United States while the country’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was in the United States. Sharif was noted as saying that his country will never compromise on its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Josh Earnest, the press secretary at the White House, in a statement said that “a deal like the one that’s been discussed publicly is not something that’s likely to come to fruition next week … and I would anticipate that that dialogue would include conversations between the leaders of our two countries.” Peter R. Lavoy, a longtime intelligence expert on the Pakistani nuclear program, with close relations with the country’s military, and who is currently serving on the U.S. National Security Council, is known to be leading the discussions.
Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation record is one of the poorest in the world and this is a key concern for the United States. Despite this, U.S. officials have told Congress that “they are increasingly convinced that most of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is under good safeguards.” While many, including officials and commentators in Pakistan’s archrival India, have claimed otherwise, perhaps one can look at the U.S. position as a bid to lure Pakistan into nuclear talks.
Pakistan’s development of short-range, battlefield nuclear weapons and the growing reach of its ballistic missiles, which are capable of hitting targets beyond India, are matters of concern for the United States. In these burgeoning talks, what the U.S. may be willing to offer Pakistan is to grant access to international nuclear commerce in exchange for Islamabad’s commitment to terminate plans to deploy so-called tactical nukes while additionally constraining its program to its actual defense and deterrence needs against India. The interests of both states are radically out of sync: while the United States is interested in a deal because of security concerns, Pakistan is going to weigh its option from the perspective of deterrence vis-a-vis India.
Offering Pakistan access to international civil nuclear dealings with the carrot of an eventual place at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is not likely to bear any fruit. Pakistan has already been engaged with China, and to some extent with Russia, for its civil nuclear needs. China is involved in construction of at least six nuclear reactors in Pakistan.
According to Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, “[W]hen it comes to things nuclear, the prospects of getting Pakistan to do something are pretty slim because you cannot expect them to do something unless we are willing to treat them identically with India.”
Beside serving as a strategic deterrent toward India, Pakistan’s nuclear program also has a symbolic significance. From Pakistan’s perspective, this can only be matched when the country is given a similar nuclear deal as that offered to India. For now, the symbolic significance of a place at the NSG carries no strategic weight for Pakistan, as it has explored alternative markets for its civil nuclear program.
One of the reasons that Pakistan has put its nuclear program into overdrive recently is because it wants to draw the United States into offering Pakistan the same deal which it did to India. By raising stakes, Islamabad thinks it can get what it wants.