Mission Improbable: Declawing The New Nuclear Tigers

Can President Bill Clinton stop the spread of nuclear weapons? Bomb tests by India and Pakistan in May could set off a nuclear arms race in high-tension regions from Kashmir to the Middle East. Nearly 80 nations have backed Washington in condemning the tests. But so far, neither the U.S. nor the world's four other declared nuclear-weapon states--Russia, China, Britain, and France--have found a viable plan to stop further proliferation. "People are out of ideas at this point," frets Bruce G. Blair, an arms-control expert at Washington's Brookings Institution.

The risk of a conflagration on the Indian subcontinent is worrisome enough. Pakistan and India have fought three wars since gaining independence in 1947. India, too, has a 2,000-mile frontier with China, which it has fought once. But links between Pakistan and the Muslim world raise an even scarier prospect of nuclearization of the Middle East. Israel is believed to have nuclear weapons. Both Iran and Iraq have tried for years to develop them. Now, Pakistan's tests may put Iran closer.

Indeed, Iran's Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharzai, was one of the first foreign visitors to Pakistan after the tests. Although Kharzai also called for restraint and efforts to reduce tension, his main message couldn't have been clearer: "Muslims now feel Pakistan's nuclear capability could play a role of deterrence to Israel's nuclear capability."

BAD HAND. Israel has campaigned hard to thwart any buildup of Iran's military capabilities. It has, for instance, lobbied Washington to lean on Moscow to halt transfer of Russian missile know-how and parts to Tehran. But Israeli officials say they fear Iran may cook up a deal with Pakistan under which, in return for nuclear technology, it provides financial help to a fellow Muslim country hobbled by threatened U.S. sanctions.

Washington has few cards to play. After months of wrangling with Europe over unilateral sanctions against Iran and Cuba, the Clinton Administration isn't even going to ask allies to block aid to India and Pakistan. It hasn't much choice, anyway. European bankers are already knocking at doors in India with offers to replace any U.S. banks that pull out of deals because of sanctions.

Certainly, neither India nor Pakistan is running scared. On Jun. 1, India announced a 14% rise in defense spending and a 61% rise, to $340 million, in atomic research. Pakistan has offers of aid from its Muslim neighbors. Besides, severe sanctions would cripple U.S.-sponsored efforts to control exports of illegal drugs--a $15 billion-a-year trade, a tenth of which passes through Pakistan.

For now, the U.S. is searching for carrots to spur good behavior. Some analysts suggest selling conventional weapons, including F-16 fighters, whose transfer to Pakistan is blocked by Congress. Others argue that the Big Five weapons states should now treat India and Pakistan as equals. To lower the risk of firing nukes, the Big Five could agree to remove guidance systems or warheads from their missiles if India and Pakistan do the same. Surprisingly, the Pentagon is studying a similar scheme for disarming nukes, says Brookings' Blair. Such measures could also reduce the threat posed by Russia's poor control of its arsenal.

But with emotions running so high, it's far from clear that India and Pakistan would go along. Even if the U.S. can move other nuclear states to agree on what they want to achieve, getting there will require a lot more diplomatic deftness than any country has shown so far.