WASHINGTON (TIP): The Obama administration is exploring a possible civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan ahead of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington later this month, a Washington Post columnist has reported, citing a sole source “familiar with the talks” who said Islamabad has been asked to consider “brackets” relating to the deal.
Brackets, in diplomatic parlance, are numerous alternative formulations that are negotiated towards an eventual agreement. According to the report, the deal centers around a civilian nuclear agreement similar to the one the United States arrived at with India, in exchange for a Pakistani commitment that would “restrict its nuclear program to weapons and delivery systems that are appropriate to its actual defense needs against India’s nuclear threat.”
Pakistan might, for example, agree not to deploy missiles capable of reaching beyond a certain range, the report said, citing the source, who indicated that the US might support an eventual waiver for Pakistan by the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the same way it has done for India.
The Obama administration said it was in “regular contact” with the Government of Pakistan on “a range of issues” as it prepared for the visit on October 22 of Prime Minister Sharif, but declined comment on the specifics of the discussions.
“The United States urges all nuclear-capable states, including Pakistan, to exercise restraint regarding nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. We encourage efforts to strengthen safety and security measures and continue to hold regular discussions with Pakistan on a range of global issues, including nuclear security, counterterrorism, and international norms,” an administration spokesperson said in a tacit acknowledgement that some sort of dialogue is taking place on the nuclear issue.
Successive US administrations both under Presidents Bush and President Obama, have knocked down the idea of a deal for Pakistan like the one Washington arrived at with India, saying the background and circumstances surrounding the US-India civilian nuclear agreement was entirely different, and pointing to Pakistan’s record of nuclear proliferation.
However, President Obama’s recent track record vis-a-vis Iran and Cuba, both regarded for a long time as outlaw nations, suggests there may be some substance to a nuclear outreach towards Pakistan. There is also less pathology about Pakistan in Washington’s official circles, where many veterans have a romanticized recall of Islamabad’s role in the Cold War when it offered its services to Washington, for a price. The strategy helped Pakistan circumvent nuclear non-proliferation roadblocks that the US all too readily winked at.
In recent months, Pakistan has tried to project itself as a responsible nuclear power, although some of its politicians and generals reflexively brandish the country’s nuclear weapons to assure themselves and their constituents about security against India. “We are a nuclear-armed country and we know how to defend ourselves,” Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz boasted recently in a suo motu assertion although no one had talked of a nuclear war.
While a few regional experts have floated the idea of a nuclear deal for Pakistan in the past, most analysts are aghast at the prospect. It will be “sheer madness wrapped in folly,” said Sumit Ganguly, a South Asia scholar at Indiana University, among several experts who have critiqued Washington frequent free passes to a country that has a reckless history of nuclear proliferation and home-grown terrorism.
The WaPo report however conceded that inasmuch as Pakistan prizes its nuclear program, “negotiations would be slow and difficult, and it’s not clear that Islamabad would be willing to accept the limitations that would be required.” But, it said, the issue is being discussed quietly in the run-up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington on October 22.