Obama Sets Sights on Pakistan's Nuclear Program After Iran

  • Pakistan's Sharif meets Obama at the White House on Thursday
  • Leaders discussing nuclear arsenal, terrorism, Afghanistan

After reaching a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear capabilities, President Barack Obama may seek to curtail Pakistan’s fast-growing arsenal of atomic weapons.

Obama hosted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House on Thursday amid speculation that their nations are in talks to limit Pakistan’s nuclear arms program in return for greater access to technology and fuel for civilian purposes, similar to a U.S. deal with its arch-rival India. Obama also wants Pakistan’s commitment to curb Islamic militants operating within its borders and to play a role in brokering an accord with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

The leaders discussed nuclear security, including Pakistan safeguarding of its nuclear stockpile and working with international nuclear regulators, according to a joint statement the pair released after the meeting. The U.S. also pledged to help Pakistan attract private investment in clean energy and to provide $70 million to help educate 200,000 Pakistani girls.

The discussions highlight complexities in U.S. relations with Pakistan, a country that has received more than $30 billion in American aid since 2002 even though Obama didn’t trust its leaders enough to inform them of the mission there that killed Osama bin Laden. Last week, Obama cited Pakistan in calling for the elimination of sanctuaries for Afghanistan’s Taliban fighters.

Longstanding Relationship

“The United States and Pakistan have a longstanding relationship, work and cooperation on a whole host of issues, not just on security matters but also on economic, scientific, educational affairs,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office before the meeting with Sharif. “We’re looking forward to using this meeting as an opportunity to further deepen the relationship.”

Sharif told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday that Pakistan’s anti-terror operations have improved internal security. Talk of a nuclear deal percolates amid growing concern over the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which along with India’s is the world’s fastest-growing.

“The U.S. and Pakistan, now and historically, have been working toward differing goals,” said Aparna Pande, a South Asia scholar at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “America hopes this deal will calm Pakistan down, make it a better actor in the region. Pakistan sees it as another way to achieve parity with India and to keep building nuclear weapons.”

Fourth Reactor

Satellite images indicate Pakistan started up its fourth reactor earlier this year, making it capable of more than doubling the amount of weapons-grade plutonium it produces, according to the Institute for Science and International Security.

More fissile material could give Pakistan the world’s third-biggest nuclear arsenal in five to 10 years -- behind the U.S. and Russia but twice as large as India’s -- according to an August report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center. India currently has an estimated 90 to 110 nuclear warheads, while Pakistan has about 100 to 120, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The White House and Pakistani officials have played down reports that the U.S. is nearing a deal with Pakistan to restrict its nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

“I would significantly reduce your expectations about that occurring on Thursday,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday when asked about the prospect that such a deal may be announced as part of this week’s visit.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry was more emphatic, saying “no deal” is being discussed and pledging “to maintain a full-spectrum deterrence capability in order to safeguard our national security, maintain strategic stability and deter any kind of aggression from India.”

The nuclear issue “probably will be discussed, but I don’t think there is any mood in Pakistan to yield on that,” Shuja Nawaz, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said in an interview. “This is a long process. Pakistan is not in a great hurry to stop developing the delivery systems it has.”

Fractious Government

Obama is in a tough spot when engaging with Pakistan given its fractious government and a political spectrum that ranges from friends of the West to those who want to destroy anything related to the U.S., Representative Brad Sherman told Bloomberg reporters and editors in Washington on Tuesday. Sherman of California is the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I don’t think there’s one Pakistan. I don’t think there’s one Pakistani government,” Sherman said. “But is the Pakistani military fighting and dying to combat terrorists? Yes. Are elements of the Pakistani military funding and aiding terrorists? Yes.”

India and the U.S. announced a nuclear cooperation deal in 2005 to lift a three-decade ban so that India could access civilian nuclear technology and import uranium for fuel. It was approved by the U.S. Congress in 2008.

Pakistan immediately lobbied for a similar deal, but then-U.S. President George W. Bush ruled it out, saying India and Pakistan couldn’t be compared.

China’s Help

Pakistan’s past will make it tough to convince the skeptics. In the 1980s, it accepted Chinese assistance to build a bomb while it was pledging to enrich only enough uranium to produce power. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, confessed publicly in 2004 to running a network that sold technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

China this year said it has helped Pakistan with six of the seven reactors either built or under construction. Most members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group would consider this a violation of rules, making cooperation with Pakistan “impossible” unless it agrees to new commitments, said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

Still, violations of the rules are common. Russia flouted them to ship fuel to Indian reactors in 2001. India also ran a secret bomb program and, like Israel and Pakistan, has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While China has stopped short of publicly backing Pakistan’s aspirations to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it has questioned the exemption awarded to India that lets it import uranium from countries including Australia and France.

Any deal is unlikely unless Pakistan agrees to safeguard its nuclear facilities under international rules and give up its tactical nuclear program, said Najam Rafique, director at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Pakistan’s leaders mostly want talks to maintain good ties with the U.S. and China, he said.

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