State behavior is largely a product of rational decision-making based on a careful cost-benefit analysis. Countries pursuing crash covert nuclear weapon programs are less likely to remain sensitive to the opportunity cost on the potential spin offs offered by a parallel atomic energy program for peaceful purposes. Yet the Atoms for Peace spirit has been kept alive in South Asia where India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons capability on the heels of peaceful energy programs. Supply side constraints notwithstanding, Pakistan’s strategic enclave—comprising technocrats, scientists and engineers heading key national institutions responsible for the nuclear program, and civilian and -military policy makers together made conscious choices to honor international agreements, commitments and obligations. On the twentieth anniversary of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, it will be useful to look back at Pakistan’s track record in terms of restraint and responsibility as a state actor.
The first test of the country’s commitment to responsible behavior presented itself when in December 1976 Canada decided to impose penalties on Pakistan for India’s 1974 nuclear test. Canada not only unilaterally cut off supplies of nuclear fuel, heavy water and spare parts for the CANDU type Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) but demanded that Pakistan sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty or accept full scope safeguards for its entire nuclear program.
Pakistani engineers took up the challenge and within two years the Chairman of PAEC presented the first fuel element for KANUPP to the President of Pakistan. An indigenous fuel fabrication plant was completed and within four years of the cut off, locally manufactured nuclear fuel began fueling the country’s only power reactor. KANUPP was under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency and although Pakistan began using its own nuclear fuel, it voluntarily opted to indefinitely keep it under safeguards—even as it was a ready source of plutonium when Pakistan was developing fuel cycle facilities outside safeguards for its weapons program and had yet to produce the first significant quantity of fissile material. Pakistan also only commissioned its New Labs pilot reprocessing plant, which had been completed by the early 1980s, until after it began to produce safeguards-free spent fuel from the heavy water Khushab reactor.
From a nonproliferation standpoint, it was in stark contrast with India that diverted spent fuel from the Canadian supplied CIRUS research reactor to produce plutonium for its 1974 test for which heavy water had been supplied by the United States. While Pakistan was struggling to keep the Karachi power reactor alive despite formidable challenges due to abrupt cut off of critical vendor support, its nuclear energy program became the victim of the nonproliferation policies of the Ford and Carter Administrations. In March 1976, the IAEA approved the safeguards for the Franco-Pakistan contract for construction of a commercial-scale reprocessing plant to be built at Chashma. This was intended to service a complex of six Light Water Reactors (totaling 4000 MWe) to be built at the same site as per a long-term nuclear energy plan duly endorsed by the IAEA in 1973. All these plants were to be under IAEA safeguards.
However, France unilaterally cancelled the agreement in 1978 in the wake of a sustained US effort to deny European supplies of sensitive fuel cycle technologies to Pakistan, Brazil and South Korea. Pakistan for its part had agreed to unprecedented and comprehensive safeguards and restrictions to address French nonproliferation concerns to show its commitment to strictly employ the plant in its peaceful nuclear energy program—particularly when it did not require such a large facility for its weapons program in the presence of an indigenous plant outside safeguards. Tied to this was the potential sale of a 600 MWe French power reactor to Pakistan which was approved by ECNEC in March 1976 which also failed to materialize. It took a decade of fruitless efforts before Pakistan and China signed a comprehensive civil nuclear cooperation agreement in September 1986 which paved the way for four power reactors to be built at Chashma—all under IAEA safeguards.
The 1986 Sino-Pakistan civil nuclear deal also effectively broke an international power reactor embargo on Pakistan as it was known to be pursuing the nuclear option. Despite completing indigenous fuel cycle facilities by the early 1980s and cold test of a working nuclear device in March 1983, Pakistan did not conduct a hot nuclear test until after it had to restore the regional strategic balance following India’s May 1998 tests. The United States had asked Pakistan to cap the level of uranium enriched to below 5% as a pre-condition for continuing economic and military assistance. The civil-military and scientific leadership together decided to do just that in 1989 and the freeze was voluntarily retained for several years—even after the Pressler Amendment was invoked in October 1990. This is comparable to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached between Iran and the United States which allowed Iran some sanctions relief in exchange of capping its enrichment program. Previously Pakistan was rewarded with the Pressler sanctions in exchange of self-restraint without reaping any commensurate economic, political or military benefits. Looking back, a familiar pattern is clearly evident in the way Pakistani leaders have been unable or unwilling to bargain for dividends in lieu of unilateral concessions. Although the Pressler Amendment had no impact on Pakistan’s nuclear development and by the time it was enforced, Pakistan had already achieved nuclear capability. It did however adversely impact the operational preparedness of the Pakistan Air Force and the country’s conventional defense posture for a long time by preventing further sales of F-16s and other US-origin platforms for the Navy.
During this time, Pakistan continued to produce low enriched uranium—which can be quickly upgraded to weapon-grade levels. Meanwhile as soon as safeguards-free spent fuel began to be produced in its indigenous plutonium production reactor at Khushab—which was commissioned in early 1998—Pakistan began reprocessing at New Labs that was kept dormant since 1981, primarily for diplomatic and political reasons. Pakistan was therefore theoretically and technically in possession of a breakout capacity to produce plutonium in the early 1980s—although only if it had followed India’s pathway of diverting fuel from a peaceful facility—and in doing so would have violated its own pledge to retain safeguards on fuel which it was producing on its own. Equally significant is the fact that it has kept a clear, verifiable and distinct separation of its civil and military nuclear plants and facilities wherein all foreign supplied power reactors are under IAEA safeguards without any overlaps between civilian and military programs or projects.
Since then, Pakistan—as a state party—has comprehensively plugged loopholes in its export controls. It has refrained from pursuing force goals or military programs for power projection beyond its immediate neighborhood. This includes a thermonuclear weapons development effort, nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers, ICBM-range ballistic missiles, or military space programs. While one might argue that this is partly imposed by resource or technological constraints, yet some of these capabilities—such as thermonuclear weapons or long-range missiles are well within the technical competence of Pakistan’s scientists and engineers. Pakistan had proposed to make South Asia a nuclear weapon free zone, before and after India’s 1974 test, and has recently offered India a bilateral moratorium on nuclear testing—which has also been rejected. The growing asymmetry in national power, conventional and strategic capabilities with India will ensure that Pakistan is only able and willing to pursue force goals consistent with maintaining a semblance of a strategic balance in South Asia.
Given that Pakistan’s deterrence posture emphasizes the primacy of a credible deterrent, nevertheless elements of minimalism and dynamism are driven by a rational calculation of the country’s choices and needs and the balance between pursuing economic development, developing conventional deterrence and harnessing the peaceful uses of the atom.
Dr. Mansoor Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center, Kennedy School, Harvard University.