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Islamabad’s PNE gossip

July 18, 2016
The writer is a nuclear historian and director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore.
The writer is a nuclear historian and director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore.

“WE do not have any hard intelligence to support the Islamabad gossip about a test this year. I think we still have some time to wrestle with the problem. Since the problem is as much, if not more an Indian one than an American one, I think we should give New Delhi some time to stew in the juice that they squeezed by conducting a nuclear test in 1974.”

Such were the sentiments of ambassador Gerard C. Smith, special representative of the president for non-proliferation matters, in his memorandum to president Jimmy Carter on June 8, 1979. The ‘Islamabad gossip’, referred to in the memorandum about a ‘hypothetical’ peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) by Pakistan, was cautiously introduced by Agha Shahi, foreign minister of Pakistan, to rattle the Carter administration’s non-proliferation policy in order to establish a clever quid pro quo: assurances on no PNE by Pakistan in return for resumption of economic aid and military sales to Pakistan.

The ‘PNE gossip’ provided Pakistan with a bargaining chip, which essentially did two things: a) bought time to pursue the nuclear programme, and b) put the US on the defensive about selling India enriched uranium while condemning Pakistan for nuclear ambitions to deal with its ‘India threat’.


The take-home message for Pakistan was that nuclear non-proliferation was a flexible item on Carter’s foreign policy.


With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan got lucky. The official correspondence between president Carter and Gen Zia post-Soviet invasion reveals a sense of urgency on part of the US administration to court Pakistan in being the US proxy against the Soviets in Afghanistan at ‘any cost’. There remained many challenges faced by the Carter administration in balancing between its previous commitment to Pakistan’s security and its ‘mild’ South Asian non-proliferation policy enabling Pakistan to play an astute nuclear innings.

On March 10, 1978, president Carter signed into law, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA) reaffirming the administration’s commitment to non-proliferation goals of halting the spread of nuclear weapons while preserving the global right to nuclear energy. The NNPA was an attempt to control US exports of nuclear materials and technology based on a comprehensive export licensing criteria urging recipient non-nuclear states to adopt full scope safeguards on their nuclear facilities.

Under this act, existing US nuclear cooperation agreements with recipient nations were also to be renegotiated to make them NNPA-compliant, a clause that challenged the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement of 1963. According to that agreement, the US had agreed to supply low-enriched uranium fuel for Indian nuclear reactors at Tarapur, for 30 years (the life of the reactors).

The agreement required that India maintain safeguards on the US-supplied fuel, not undertake reprocessing without US consent and not use enriched uranium for nuclear explosives. Since India did not have all its facilities under full-scope international safeguards, it was problematic for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to provide new export licence for applications for India.

However, two pending export applications were awaiting shipments that were exempted from the safeguards requirement. Despite significant domestic support for withholding the fuel shipments to India, the Carter administration announced its decision to send shipment of enriched uranium to India on May 8, 1980.

This US decision was startling for domestic and international audiences especially since it came after Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s announcement on March 14, 1980 of conducting nuclear tests in future if it served Indian national interest. Carter signed an executive order on June 19, 1980 to authorise Tarapur exports stating the need for bolstering ties with South Asian nations that could play a role in checking Soviet expansionism, ignoring the fact that India was actively pursuing defence and security cooperation with the Soviet Union even after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Carter’s decision to support India contravening the NNPA of 1978 provided Pakistan a card to play in its negotiations with the US on military aid with non-proliferation conditions at a time when Pakistan was a critical ally against Soviet expansion in Asia.

Pakistan maintained that India a) violated the terms of the 1963 Indo-US nuclear cooperation and used US-supplied heavy water in its 1974 PNE, and b) that its refusal to place all its nuclear facilities under full-scope safeguards would allow India to produce nuclear weapons in future (a grave security concern for Pakistan), especially when the resolve to conduct further tests was publicly announced. The take-home message for Pakistan then was that nuclear non-proliferation was a flexible item on Carter’s foreign policy notwithstanding the rhetoric.

For the brief period in which the Carter administration dealt with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he remained indignant of American pressures on Pakistan to dissolve the Pak-French reprocessing plant contract in lieu of lifting a US arms embargo on Pakistan.

When Gen Zia imposed martial law on July 5, 1977 and overthrew Bhutto, the US State Department was of the opinion that the general “did not feel quite as strongly as Bhutto about the need for the nuclear reprocessing plant and may come to view its acquisition as unwise” and that “unlike Bhutto, who always said that he could not drop the reprocessing plant without losing ground with the military, the generals need not consult with anyone”. This view about Zia was nevertheless premature.

In the wake of Pakistan’s efforts to enrich uranium for weapons purposes, the Carter administration terminated all military and economic assistance to Pakistan invoking the Symington Amendment in April 1979. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the loss of listening posts in Iran post-revolution the same year suddenly elevated Pakistan’s geostrategic status, aligning it with American strategic priorities in the region.

The US Congress waived aid conditions under the Symington amendment in 1980 and in 1981 approved a $3.2 billion multi-year aid package for military and economic aid to Pakistan in return for its assistance to train Afghan mujahideen’s to fight the Soviets. Pakistan used its new geostrategic importance for the US at the height of the Cold War to its advantage, limiting US policy options towards restraining Pakistan’s nuclear developments.

The writer is a nuclear historian and director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2016