The nuclear arms race that Pakistan is running

…is not as much against India as it is against Iran (by proxy)

That old canard is being repeated again. Pakistan, we are told, is cranking up a fissile material because “because India has the power to mount a lightning invasion with conventional forces” and that the India-US nuclear deal “frees up older facilities that India can devote to making its own new generation of weapons”. But you would expect the New York Times to lose objectivity and journalistic scepticism of official claims and take its old dogmatic ‘non-proliferation’ line on these matters, when even President Barack Obama says that the danger is about nuclear terrorism.

Now, to contend that there is an arms race between India and Pakistan requires the presentation of two bits of evidence. First, that Pakistan is cranking up its production of fissile materials in response to, second, the growth in India’s. Now, satellite images have shown that Pakistan is activating new reactors and production facilities—built with China’s grandfathering assistance, so check the first requirement.

But where is evidence of the other runner in the race? India, it turns out, has not built a single reprocessing facility over the last decade, despite having the capability to do so. When you consider this, you realise that the claim that “Pakistan is running an arms race because of India” is spurious. It requires either analytical laziness or intellectual dishonesty or both to make such a claim.

Worse, it distracts attention from the real reasons why Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex might be producing fissile material and warheads.

There are two serious possibilities: first, that it is building them for Saudi Arabia so that they can be transferred to Riyadh’s operational control should Iran weaponise its nuclear capability; and second, that it is building a secret second arsenal away from American scrutiny. [See this post and op-ed for details]

Papers like the New York Times will not publish reports about a Pakistan-Saudi nuclear nexus for want of citable evidence. Strangely, they do not require the same standards when it comes to asserting that India is running a nuclear arms race.

The real tragedy has to be the fact that when Mr Obama wants to discuss nuclear terrorism, the biggest risk (not least for the United States)—of Pakistan’s possible secret second arsenal falling into the control of some extreme elements of its military-jihadi complex—goes unnoticed and without comment. There’s a precedent for this: throughout the 1990s, US analysts and newspapers were focussed on the India-Pakistan ‘rivalry’ over Kashmir, totally ignoring Pakistan’s nexus with al-Qaeda until one day in the month of September, 2001.

China, nuclear shenanigans and face

Wal-Mart provides shelf-space. The goods come from China

Gordon C Chang puts it really well:

The significance of Khan’s assertions is that they undermine the stout Chinese defense of Iran. First, they highlight long-held Iranian ambitions to build an atomic arsenal.

Second, by detailing how the Pakistani government was involved in nuclear transfers to Iran, Khan raises new questions about Beijing’s role. Why? The Pakistani nuclear weapons program is essentially an extension of the Chinese one. China, beginning around 1974, transferred bomb technology to Pakistan. Beijing’s assistance was crucial, extensive, and continuous. As Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control has noted, “If you subtract China’s help from Pakistan’s nuclear program, there is no nuclear program.” Moreover, Beijing has remained involved in Islamabad’s nuclear efforts, long after the events Khan so meticulously describes in Sunday’s statements.

The continuation of Chinese involvement in the Pakistani program was revealed when Islamabad ended the Khan ring. Due to Chinese pressure, Pervez Musharraf, then the country’s strongman leader, conducted a hurried probe, forced Khan’s confession, and then immediately pardoned him in 2004 to cut off any disclosures embarrassing to Beijing, which supported the controversial decision to end the inquiry prematurely. Given China’s role in the Pakistani nuclear program and its influence in Islamabad, it was not possible for Khan, with official blessing, to transfer Chinese technology to Iran without Beijing’s knowledge and consent.

Dr. Khan apparently did not mention China’s involvement in the statements disclosed Sunday, but the revelation of official Pakistani links to proliferant activities puts Beijing on the spot nonetheless. As time goes on, we are finding more facts linking China to Iran’s efforts to build the most destructive weaponry in history, including direct transfers of equipment and technology to Iran. Much, if not most, of this information about Chinese involvement remains classified in Washington, however.

Why are we helping China keep its secrets? Perhaps the Obama administration should start disclosing—or start threatening to disclose—what else we know about Beijing’s support for the mullahs. [Fox News]

Riyadh passes the buck, and wins a round

Understanding the Saudi Arabian position on sanctions on Iran

Just what did the Saudi foreign minister mean when he refused to back international sanctions on Iran “because we are closer to the threat (and therefore an ) need immediate resolution rather than gradual resolution”? Riyadh’s position is surprising not least because, as it transpired at a recent conference in Abu Dhabi, organised by NYU’s Centre for International Co-operation and Brookings, the Gulf states stridently called upon China to recognise which side of the Persian Gulf it had more at stake and stop shielding Iran from UN sanctions. [Richard Gowan has more about the conference over at Global Dashboard]

And more importantly, just what does is the “immediate resolution” that Prince Saud al-Faisal called for? As Dan Drezner suggests (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony) these could only mean a deniable nod for preventive air strikes by Israel or a signal that Riyadh will activate its contingency plan for its own nuclear deterrent.

So what could this be about? The answer, in all likelihood, is that Saudi Arabia just passed the buck.

In the event this is about encouraging the United States and Israel to exercise the military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Saudi Arabia benefits to the extent its regional rival suffers while it is the United States and Israel that will attract Muslim anger across the world.

If, on the other hand, the United States & Israel—wisely—do not use force against Iran, Riyadh can blame Washington for being unable to prevent Iran’s nuclearisation and exercise its options to procure its own deterrent. Iran is unlikely to attack Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons anyway, leaving Israel as the net loser. Like India, Israel will have to contend with “jihad under the protection of a nuclear umbrella”.

Either way, Saudi Arabia wins.

In contrast, if it indeed had backed sanctions against Iran, it would have to do its share of the dirty work of having to persuade China to stop protecting Iran. Beijing would extract a price for its acquiescence equal to, if not exceeding the loss to its commercial interests in Iran, which Riyadh would have to substantially bear. In the end, all these costs would come to nought, because sanctions are unlikely to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the unlikely event that sanctions do work, the outcome would effectively be one where Saudi Arabia would have paid for Israel’s security. It’s not hard to see why the Saudis didn’t back sanctions.

What happens next? It’s unlikely that Riyadh will be satisfied with a US nuclear umbrella even if it were offered by Washington. If Iran proceeds with its plans to build a nuclear weapon, we will discover who Pakistan was making all that fissile material for.

Iran, shaken and stirred

India should do business with whoever is in power

Why, many readers ask, has this blog been silent on the extraordinary events in Iran. Vacations and workloads aside, shouldn’t we be discussing the biggest stirring in Iran in three decades?

Yes we should. For whatever might be the immediate political outcome of the May-June 2009 presidential election and its aftermath the nature of Iranian politics has already changed, perhaps profoundly so. The Grand Ayatollah is no longer untouchable. The balance-of-power within the Iranian regime has shifted and has become more broadbased. The distribution of political power from the one to the few, and from the few to the many is good for Iranians. It is also good for most of the rest of the world, including for India. This is true regardless of who becomes president and who political prisoner No 1.

Don’t expect major changes in Iranian government policy—especially foreign affairs. Iran is an old civilisation, has a strong society and a distinct nation-state. Its interests are unlikely to change just because a new political leader or faction comes to power. That might have happened if the upheaval is on the scale of the 1979 Islamic revolution—in 2009, Rafsanjani-Mousavi are ideologically indistinguishable from Khamenei-Ahmedinejad. Salil Tripathi, hardly a hard-nosed realist, writes:

Many have felt tempted to cast the rivalry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi as one between darkness and light, falsehood and truth, fundamentalism and pragmatism, orthodoxy and reform, evil and good. Such Manichean distinctions are pointless. If a week is a long time in politics, three decades make an eternity. Given his bombastic rhetoric, it is easy to see Ahmadinejad as the villain, or the ruler of the land of chup and Mousavi as the hero, or the leader of the gupwalas, to borrow from the sharp distinction Rushdie made in his first post-fatwa novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But they are cut from the same cloth. Mousavi is hardly the harbinger of light. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, not only was he (and remains) a supporter of Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution, but he also presided over a country where teenage boys were sent to the battlefront against Iraq with plastic keys, and told that those keys would open the doors of heaven once they attained martyrdom, as Marjane Satrapi’s stark graphic novel and film, Persepolis, reminds us. [Mint]

Leave aside Mr Mousavi’s past as a conservative and a supporter of nuclearisation, people can change their minds (political leaders more so). There is little that Mr Mousavi has said before and after the elections to mark him out to be a deliverer of profound change. While his cause might have galvanised long-suppressed political emotions into a popular movement, it is unlikely to even lead to his ascent to political power. (Yes, it’s too early to tell, so this estimate is a hazardous one)

What should India do? The government of India shouldn’t take sides in this business, it’s for the Iranians to settle. Once the dust settles, business continues with whoever is the winner. Here’s an old cheat sheet to provide further guidance.

That does not mean that Indian citizens or civil society groups should follow suit: one advantage of being a democracy is that different parts of the political spectrum can engage different actors independent of the government. (Of course, all those parts of the political spectrum might be apathetic, which is yet another failing of India’s foreign affairs community.)

My op-ed in Mint: Pakistan’s nuclear expansion

A less self-centred perspective

In today’s Mint I argue that at the margin, more warheads do not provide more security for Pakistan vis-à-vis India. So, an analysis of Pakistan’s motives must consider alternative explanations.

Bruce Riedel, who chaired US President Barack Obama’s policy review for Afghanistan-Pakistan, points out in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal that there have been “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal, “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb”.

British journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, citing former senior US and Pakistani officials, write that the Saudis wanted the “finished product, to stash away in an emergency, and Pakistan agreed to supply it in return for many hundreds of millions of dollars”. Pakistan also brokered the transfer of the nuclear-capable CSS-2 missiles from China to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s.

As Iran gets closer to building a nuclear arsenal, Saudi Arabia—the Iranian Shia theocracy’s geopolitical and ideological rival—is likely to seek a nuclear balance across the Persian Gulf. Using Pakistan to hold its arsenal in trust allows Saudi Arabia to stay clear of violating its non-proliferation commitments.

Now, even if Pakistan’s own insecurities with respect to its eastern neighbour are kept out of the calculation, Iran’s nuclearization suggests that Pakistan will have to build additional capacity for its Saudi Arabian partner. In other words, Pakistan is in a nuclear arms race all right—but it’s probably a West Asian one. [Mint]

Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear weapons capacity?

Rather, who is it cranking up for?

Consider the following:

—There have been, as Bruce Riedel points out in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb.”

—After 9/11, the United States took steps to ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which included transfer of technology to prevent their unauthorised use. The Acorn has previously argued that this suggests that Pakistan is likely to protect its nuclear autonomy by creating a second, more secret, and perhaps less secure arsenal. In a recent Times of India report, Chidanand Rajghatta points to a briefing document by the US Congressional Research Service which says that Pakistan has developed a “second strike capability”, and infers implications for the India-Pakistan nuclear balance. While the inferences are debatable, it supports the second arsenal hypothesis.

—A country in the middle of a long political and economic crisis, financial bankruptcy, several insurgencies and a war within its own borders, and clearly dependent on the international community for life support, is not only increasing its stockpile of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but also expanding its capacity to produce more. And until November 26th, 2008, Pakistan was still engaged in a ‘peace process’ with India.

—Given the subcontinental nuclear equation, it doesn’t matter to India if Pakistan has 60 warheads or 120, and whether or not it has a “second strike capacity”. Why has India built no new plutonium reprocessing plants—relatively simple projects that don’t need a lot of money and for which competent indigenous technology exists—in the last decade? The Pakistanis are not entirely oblivious to this, and recognise that the marginal utility of the additional capacity to produce nuclear weapons is very low. In other words, there’s little additional security to be had vis-a-vis India for the kind of investments they are making.

So why is Pakistan adding capacity?

Here’s a hypothesis: the additional capacity is partly meant for Saudi Arabia’s proxy arsenal that Pakistan manages in trust. It is linked to a Saudi-Iran nuclear balance and linked to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons capacity. The additional capacity is also meant to strengthen the “second arsenal”, because Pakistan fears that the first one is compromised either by US supervision, snatch plans or both.

What does this imply?

First, that there is a new nuclear arms race—not in the subcontinent, but between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan acting as the latter’s bomb factory.

Second, that because the US has been unable to fully ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, it has caused Pakistan to build more warheads/capacity that has increased nuclear risks to yet unquantified levels.

More Pakistani nukes? That’s Washington’s problem

India is already under risk from the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. So what if Pakistan has some more of them?

No, it should not surprise anyone that Pakistan has been cranking up its capacity to produce more nuclear weapons and delivery systems. ISIS analysts David Albright & Paul Brannan recently sounded alarm that two new plutonium reactors in the Khushab complex might be close to being operational. As Mr Albright says, there is not even the pretence that these reactors can be used for generating electrical power. The fact that Pakistan—international migraine, mortal threat, most dangerous place in the world, 60 miles away from being taken over by the Taliban and all that—is expanding its nuclear arsenal at a time when it is pleading for international aid for almost everything has shocked the Western media, and US Congressmen. This is good—especially if it is coupled with the realisation that the fungibility of money (linkthanks Chidanand Rajghatta) renders absurd the Obama administration’s argument that aid to Pakistan will be monitored, benchmarked if not actually made conditional. [Watch this video]

Now, a bigger Pakistani arsenal increases the risk to the United States and the international community in various ways.

And because of this, it undermines Pakistan’s own security. The more fissile material Pakistan has, the higher the risk (to the international community) with regard to its custodial security. The greater the risk the United States faces, the more it will coerce Pakistan. In the ultimate analysis, Pakistan cannot continue cranking up its nuclear weapons factory without running the risk of a direct military intervention by the United States. It is strategic stupidity—a well-known pathology affecting the Pakistani army’s general staff—that causes Islamabad to expand its arsenal beyond what it has.

But it shouldn’t worry India any more than it already does. So Pakistan has not 80, but 100 warheads now. Deterrence still holds.

So yes, the United States, China and the West need to worry—perhaps even panic—about Pakistan’s expanded nuclear arsenal: what goes around, comes around. The Pakistani government needs to worry about it too. On the other hand, India need not lose additional sleep over it. That’s why calls such as the one by today’s New York Times, which suggests that it is India’s ‘responsibility’ to prevent Pakistan from blowing the beleaguered US taxpayers’ dollars on churning out plutonium for more nuclear weapons, must be ignored. On the contrary, it is for the Obama administration to demonstrate “the kind of regional and global leadership expected of a global power” by ensuring that it doesn’t indulge Pakistan’s dangerously deceitful military-jihadi complex in pursuing its maximalist nuclear ambitions.

Reactors of the grandfathered kind (2)

Actually, there were quadruplets

A report in yesterday’s Hindustan Times (linkthanks Swami Iyer) reveals that China, after all, is assisting Pakistan in building the third and fourth reactors at the Chashma nuclear complex. These reactors have been grandfathered (see this post for details of this deal) over the United States’ objections that that “cooperation on the construction of two new reactors, Chashma III and IV, would be inconsistent with the commitments China made at the time of its adherence to Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines in 2004.”

China clearly believes that presenting the incoming Obama administration with a fait accompli on this front will do the trick. It is unlikely to be mistaken on this account.

Nuclear terrorism is already here

And Pakistan is at the centre of it

The world’s strategic analysts worry about the how the “intersection of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction” poses the biggest threat to international security. [See these reports]

The truth is that the intersection has already occurred. In Pakistan.

Much of the discourse linking terrorists and nuclear weapons revolves around the question of preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into terrorists’ hands. A terrorist organisation can use a nuclear weapon for compellence—to force governments and people to yield to their demands—with or without actually using it first. Mercifully, by all accounts, this scenario is not upon us yet.

But terrorist organisations are already using nuclear weapons for deterrence—exploiting the nuclear umbrella to carry out attacks without the fear of punitive action by its adversaries. That nuclear umbrella is provided by Pakistan’s arsenal, which today protects both Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership and the likes of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. And here’s the rub: the terrorists need not own it or even have their fingers on the trigger. There is enough to suggest that the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States and the November 26th attacks on Mumbai were both conducted with the knowledge and connivance of the Pakistani military establishment. But even if the Pakistani Army were less complicit, its provision of nuclear cover for terrorist organisation makes it part of the world’s terrorists-with-nukes problem. Why would it extend them protection were it not for the fact that such protection promotes its interests?

The Zardari government, as indeed the Pakistani people who elected it, must contemplate on whether they too wish to be part of the same problem. Antagonism against India and national pride are fine, but they should spare a care for their own future. It is impossible for the Pakistani people to escape the consequences of allowing the military-jihadi complex to engage in international nuclear blackmail in their name.

The world’s great powers have already seen how the military-jihadi complex turned against the United States, its former ally. So Pakistan’s current allies won’t, therefore, rest easy merely on the basis of the military-jihadi complex’s current, non-threatening intentions. It is the capability and the willingness to use that they will be concerned about.

Weekday Squib: From centrifugist to columnist

It’s about spinning anyway

Okay, your extra strong dose of irony supplements comes from Pakistan’s The News daily. Their new columnist, a certain Abdul Qadeer Khan, delivers Urdu couplets, self-justification, Musharraf-vilification, Bhutto-sycophancy and a couple of nuggets about Pakistan’s nuclear and missile deals with China and North Korea. But the what touches the heart is advice about “Yes-men who dare not say anything against their views may be good for their egos, but not for the country. Sycophants go out of their way to praise their beneficiary…This often results in destruction of national institutions and unimaginable damage to the country concerned”.

And for the record he “never asked for any favours from the government and never received any.”

Update:It looks like The News carried a sanitised translation of Khan’s original Urdu column in Jang. The erudite Sepoy, over at Chapati Mystery, has an authentic—and even more colourful—translation.