Washington, Jan. 1: Ahead of next week’s South Asian summit in Islamabad, the US is quietly attempting to revive the idea of a South Asian nuclear-free zone.
The proposal will not be on the agenda of the Islamabad summit. Nor will it be formally discussed by the summiteers.
But US officials dealing with nuclear non-proliferation and counter-proliferation said they have been lobbying for a revival of the idea at briefings and consultations with South Asian diplomats in the run-up to the summit.
For Washington, the proposal has become very urgent following conclusions by non-proliferation officials here that Pakistan sold nuclear secrets a decade and a half ago to Iran, a country defined by President George W. Bush as part of the “axis of evil”.
Following these conclusions, which follow revelations of an earlier tie-up between Pakistan and North Korea on weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration can be expected in the coming months to pressure General Pervez Musharraf to abandon his nuclear weapons programme, much the same way as the Americans persuaded Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to abjure the atom bomb recently.
On account of the intense pressure from Washington on this score, Musharraf found it necessary to tell Pakistanis on Monday that “there is no pressure whatsoever on me to roll back the nuclear and missile programme, we are not rolling back, there is no question, these are our national interests and only a traitor will think of rolling back”.
But the problem for the Americans is that they cannot unilaterally demand a rollback by Pakistan without asking India also to do so.
One American non-proliferation official told this correspondent last week that Washington has “absolutely no problems” with India’s record of export controls or of non-proliferation involving third countries.
But the official acknowledged that forcing Pakistan to give up nuclear weapons while allowing India to keep them would tantamount to pronouncing a death sentence on Musharraf politically and perhaps otherwise.
Hence the idea of a nuclear weapons free zone in South Asia, which would mean that both India and Pakistan are free of those weapons.
Musharraf, who is facing Washington’s music following the conclusions on Iran, has been forced in the last few days to take several steps, which would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.
To start with, about a fortnight ago, Musharraf ordered the removal of giant replicas of Pakistan’s nuclear capable missiles which proliferated across the country after its 1998 nuclear tests.
But the removal of one such model at a prominent intersection in Islamabad caused such uproar among the public that plans to remove them on the road from the capital to Rawalpindi and near the site of the nuclear tests in Chagai have been scrapped.
Civic officials subsequently attributed the removal to plans to beautify Islamabad, but according to information here, the idea was to tone down the country’s nuclear and missile profile and reduce any impressions of military aggression to satisfy Washington.
But last week, in his bid for survival, Musharraf was forced to violate something even more sacrosanct. Authorities in Pakistan questioned Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, on the sale of material to Iran.
In comparative terms, interrogating Khan is tantamount to Jawaharlal Nehru detaining or investigating the actions of Homi Bhabha, the initiator of the Indian nuclear programme.
Two other scientists from Pakistan’s top nuclear facility, Khan Research Laboratories, were also interrogated last month and one of them, its former director-general Mohammad Farooq, is still in detention, according to information here.
US officials have told South Asian diplomats that what they would like to see is an agreement among countries in the region on the lines of the Treaty of Tlatelolco. South America’s nuclear rivals, Argentina and Brazil, signed the treaty a decade ago, declaring their region a nuclear weapons-free zone.
The Americans are likely to work on India through Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, all of which have voted at the UN in favour of creating a nuclear weapons free zone in South Asia.
In addition to this, Washington will pile up unbearable pressure on Musharraf directly, unless more “assassination attempts” convince Washington that such pressures are inadvisable.