In the shadow of the 'Islamic bomb’

ANDREW BILSKI March 23 1987

In the shadow of the 'Islamic bomb’

ANDREW BILSKI March 23 1987

In the shadow of the 'Islamic bomb’


When India became the Third World’s first nuclear power in May, 1974, triggering a low-yield atomic device in the Rajasthan desert, Pakistan’s then-president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, reacted pas-

sionately. Pakistanis, he said, would “eat leaves and grass, even go hungry” to draw level. Last week, just as disarmament talks in Geneva were considering a treaty to eliminate Europeanbased intermediate-range nuclear missiles, it became evident that the Pakistanis had, at last, achieved their dream. And with the entry of the latest—and least-welcome—member of the exclusive nuclear club, there were already signs that Pakistan and its unfriendly neighbor, India, might embark on a nuclear arms race of their own. Declared Leonard Spector, a nuclear weapons expert at the Washingtonbased Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “It is an enormous setback for global nonproliferation efforts.”

The United States founded the nuclear arms club in July, 1945, when it exploded the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. The Soviet Union became the second member in 1949, followed by Britain in 1952, France in 1960 and China in 1964. Although the Israelis have never formally admitted it, experts say that the Jewish state became the next

nuclear power, sometime in the late 1960s. Then, in 1974 India exploded its atomic device—made from materials officially imported for peaceful nuclear purposes. Ever since, Pakistan has been striving to join the club, despite efforts

by the United States to block its entry. Earlier this month confirmation that Pakistan had the capability to produce an atom bomb came from Abdul Qadeer Khan, chief scientist at Pakistan’s secret nuclear weapons research centre at Kahuta, near Islamabad. “They told us that Pakistan could never produce the bomb, and they doubted my capabilities,” Khan said. “But they now know we have done it.”

Khan made the comments in an interview with Kuldip Nayar, a respected Indian journalist.

The 51-year-old scientist boasted that he had succeeded in enriching uranium to 90 per cent— weapons grade. Although Khan later retracted his unusually candid statements, experts in many countries said that they had no doubt Pakistan had indeed crossed the nuclear-weapon threshold.

Moslem Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India have been enemies from

birth. Since the partition of the subcontinent, when British rule ended in 1947, the two countries have fought three wars. With bitter memories of their third war, in late 1971, clearly fresh in his mind, Bhutto declared after the In-

dian nuclear test: “There is a Hindu bomb, a Jewish bomb and a Christian bomb. There must be an Islamic bomb.” Not long afterward, he found the man, the Dutch-trained Khan, to make that dream a reality.

In 1974 Khan, a brilliant scientist and

linguist, became an adviser at the Netherlands’ top-secret gas centrifuge factory at Almelo, near the West German border. There Khan was assigned to translate into Dutch classified documents of a West German uranium-enrichment project. But after just 17 days at the plant Khan was fired: he had been caught reading secret documents that he had not been assigned to

translate. According to Dutch investigators, when Khan returned to Pakistan in 1975 he took with him critical information about the gas centrifuge process—by which weapons-grade uranium is produced—as well as a list of nearly

100 contractors and suppliers who had helped build the Almelo plant. Four years later Pakistan’s own uranium-enrichment facility at Kahuta—a replica of the Dutch plant—became fully operational. Declared Khan: “We purchased whatever we wanted before Western countries got wind of it.”

Khan’s disclosure came at a critical time in India-Pakistan relations. In January the two countries narrowly averted

a fourth war when border military exercises nearly escalated into open confrontation. In a tense, two-week standoff, about 340,000 soldiers faced each other across a 400-km stretch of India’s northern border with Pakistan. Then, a negotiated troop withdrawal—followed by a visit to India by Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq to watch a cricket match between the two nations—raised hopes of a return to peace.

But the publication of Khan’s interview renewed the distrust between the two neighbors. A poll in The Sunday Observer, a national Indian weekly, showed that 69 per cent of respondents believed Pakistan’s claim of having developed a bomb. As well, 75 per cent said that they feared that Pakistan would use nuclear weapons against India, while nearly 50 per cent favored a pre-emptive air strike against Pakistani nuclear installations. Declared rightwing Janata Party MP Lal Kishan Advani: “It would be criminal for the government to sit back and watch Pakistan make the bomb without using our own nuclear option.”

Publicly, Indian officials maintain

that the nation has no stockpile of nuclear weapons. And Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has pointedly refused to reveal how he plans to counter the threat of a Pakistani bomb. But Indian officials said last week that they were taking the threat seriously. Indeed, India may see Israel as a possible counter to the Pakistani nuclear threat. Despite hostility toward the Jewish state by successive Indian governments—and New Delhi’s wholehearted support of the Palestinian cause—India and Israel are equally apprehensive about a nuclear presence in Pakistan. Many observers say that the early stages of Pakistani nuclear-weapons research was partially funded by Libya. As well, Israel clearly fears that Islamabad may transfer an Islamic bomb to the Arabs. Such considerations have reportedly prompted Israel to make secret proposals of a joint preemptive strike against Pakistani nuclear facilities.

Still, Indian government sources say that military co-operation between the two countries is highly unlikely. Instead, they say that they are counting on the powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the United States to abort the deployment of the Pakistani bomb. Pakistan’s apparent entry into the nuclear club has already raised concern in Washington. The Reagan administration, like previous U.S. governments, is formally committed to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Following Khan’s revelations, there were signs that Congress would oppose President Reagan’s plans to provide Islamabad with $5.2 billion in aid over the next six years.

But Pakistan is Washington’s staunchest ally in the region. It monitors Soviet missile and antisatellite tests in Central Asia through strategically located listening posts and provides bases for U.S.-backed Mojaheddin guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan. Because of that, said Selig Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, the Reagan administration takes a “much more benign” view of a Pakistani nuclear capability than many members of Congress.

Still, under the so-called Symington amendment, the United States is forbidden to give aid to countries trying to develop a nuclear bomb. And as the House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee on Asia prepared to examine the aid package this week, staff expert Robert Hathaway said that members were certain to place some restrictions on the funds. For his part, Ohio Senator John Glenn said that he would oppose the aid package. “We should not back a country that is trying to get into the nuclear club,” said Glenn. “The price is just too high.”

Experts on Capitol Hill say, howev-

er, that congressional passage of the aid in some form is likely. Reagan is now asking Congress for a six-year waiver of the Symington amendment, and according to Hathaway, a compromise of two years could likely be reached before the aid vote goes before the full Congress in late summer. Said Steven Goose, an analyst with the Washington-based Center For Defence Information: “The President has a

Whether Pakistan and India embark on a program to produce and stockpile nuclear weapons is considered by experts to be as much a political as a military question. Like Zia, Gandhi faces mounting domestic crises and growing suspicion among his people about the intentions of the neighboring state. The temptation for both leaders to win popularity at home, say analysts, will no doubt influence their decision to embark on a nuclear arms race.

But it could also be a matter of simple economics. Going nuclear would be considerably less expensive than the current conventional arms race between the two countries. India is among the world’s poorest nations, and its 19861987 defence budget stands at a hefty $10.2 billion, while Pakistan is spending at least $2.8 billion. As India’s top defence expert, K. Subrahmanyam, commented in the Times of India: “As for Pakistan, for India too, the nuclear option is the least costly solution.”

ANDREW BILSKI with A JOY BOSE in New Delhi and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington