When Other National Security Priorities Trumped Nuclear Nonproliferation

on October 8 | in Bureaucracy, CIA, Congress, Foreign Policy

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was in New York City the other day for the UN General Assembly confab; while he was sojourning in the Big Apple, he met with several Iran experts and former high-ranking American officials at a closed-door meeting. These retired senior officials asked the very sedate President mostly about the future: the state of Iran’s economy, about the fighting in Iraq and Syria, and where do US-Iranian relations go from here.

In fact, at one point the Rouhani remarked something to the effect of, “wait a minute, why does no one wants to talk about the nuclear deal anymore?”

Indeed, the summer’s white-hot political debate over the Iran deal is more or less over. Now policymakers’ attentions are shifting elsewhere, leaving the monitoring, implementation, and associated grunt work mostly to the U.S. intelligence community and the State Department. This lack of attention would be an unfortunate mistake, as senior decisionmakers in the White House and Congress will have to prioritize this issue over almost everything else for years to come.

Why? Because credible intelligence efforts only get the U.S. so far. What if the U.S. intelligence community performs its job as well as it probably can, but America’s leaders decide other priorities trump nonproliferation—despite knowing full well what’s going on?

It’s easy to look in the rearview mirror of history and second-guess people who were making decisions in real time. But we actually already know what happens when nonproliferation takes a backseat to other issues.

After all, it’s one of the reasons why Pakistan is now a nuclear weapons power.

In January 1980, Candidate Ronald Reagan declared halting the spread of nuclear weapons was “none of our business,” a statement President Carter’s team tried to use in a clumsy attack ad several months later. Reagan eventually retracted the statement, and when he came into office, a vast trove of intelligence on Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions were waiting for him.

Pakistan wanted to build nuclear weapons following the 1971 war in order to counteract the conventional capabilities of archrival India. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto followed through on his earlier pledge from several years beforehand, famously declaring if India got the bomb, “then we should eat grass and get one or buy one of our own.”

Through the intercession of a young Pakistani nuclear scientist armed with suitcases of pilfered blueprints named Abdul Qadeer Khan and a massive clandestine effort to procure weapons parts codenamed “Operation Butter Factory,” Pakistan started developing a uranium-based weapon, exploiting purloined European centrifuge technology.

By the late 1970s, the U.S. generally knew what Islamabad was doing. The CIA in 1978 assessed Pakistan wanted to build a nuclear weapons capability for both prestige reasons and deterring India. While the Pakistani effort was still “many years away,” CIA indicated, “That the Pakistanis are almost unanimous in their desire to develop at least a nuclear weapons capability is a truism.”

A few years later, CIA officers burgled Khan’s hotel room, discovering in his luggage a drawing of a “Hiroshima-sized” atomic weapon that could only have come from Pakistan’s closest ally and nuclear weapons power: the People’s Republic of China. In 1982, the Reagan Administration sent former CIA deputy director Vernon Walters to Islamabad to provide “incontrovertible evidence” that Pakistan was developing a bomb, which then-President Zia ul-Haq denied. By 1985, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed Pakistan had “produced” a nuclear weapon. The signs were all pointing in one direction.

But even if one wasn’t privy to classified information, Pakistan’s quest for the bomb was an open secret. In 1979, a West German documentary team aired on AQ Khan and his nuclear exploits, followed by a BBC documentary a year later. In 1981, the book “The Islamic Bomb” was published, with a section on Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons. By 1984, AQ Khan bragged in the press about his enriched uranium that can be used for weapons. By 1987, he told Britain’s Observer “what the CIA has been saying about our possessing the bomb is correct.”

Given the overwhelming evidence Pakistan was developing a nuclear weapons program over the course of many years, why didn’t the U.S. bring crushing efforts to halt it? Congress tried in 1985, sort of, when Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD) amendment required the White House to annually certify Pakistan did not possess a nuclear device. This was a weakened version of a legislative effort by Sen. John Glenn (D-OH) to cut off aid unless the Administration certified that Pakistan neither possess nor was developing a nuclear weapon.

But the real reason was Ronald Reagan needed Pakistan’s assistance in fighting the Soviet Union in neighboring Afghanistan. Making a big to-do about Islamabad’s quest for the bomb would have undermined our mujahidin-friendly proxy war against the Red Army. So despite all the intelligence pointing toward a new nuclear power in South Asia, the Reagan and the Bush White Houses annually certified Pakistan had no nuclear weapons—at least until the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. Then, President Bush decertified Pakistan the next year. But by then, it was too late—Pakistan already had the bomb.

Now, Pakistan possesses over a hundred nuclear weapons and is on track to build many more. The country also has terrorists openly living within its borders, some of who have attacked military bases that possess nuclear weapons. There’s been at least one effort by Pakistani nuclear scientists to offer nuclear weapons assistance to al Qaeda. And lest we forget, as soon as Pakistan had become a nuclear power in the mid- to late-1980s, it started offloading some of their 1970’s era centrifuges to its western neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It’s unclear if the U.S. could have truly stopped Pakistan from going nuclear over given the country’s dogged determination, but the intelligence was certainly there. Had the White House prioritized stopping nuclear proliferation at the time—above bloodying the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan—it might not have turned a blind eye to Islamabad’s atomic efforts.

To govern is to choose between competing, sometimes conflicting priorities. That said, America might have spared itself a lot of grief in the region had it placed as much pressure on Islamabad as it is currently doing in Tehran. That’s why, now that the pitched battle over the Iran deal in Congress has been won or lost (depending on one’s perspective), sustained American leadership interest in stopping nuclear weapons proliferation remains critical.

Keeping Iran from buying or fully developing this WWII-era military technology has been a more-or-less successful endeavor so far. But Members of Congress and the next President can’t lose interest and take his (or her) eye off the ball.

Otherwise, this 1980s rerun won’t be too pleasant–for any of us.


photo: US President Ronald Reagan meets with Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (center) at the Oval Office on December 7, 1982. Standing across from Reagan is national security adviser William Patrick Clark and on the phone in the background is Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

During the meeting, Reagan laid out specific parameter for the Pakistani nuclear program: no assembly or test of nuclear devices, no transfer of technology for such devices, no violation of international safeguards, and no unsafeguarded reprocessing.

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2 Responses to When Other National Security Priorities Trumped Nuclear Nonproliferation

  1. […] U.S. policymakers continued to prioritize nonproliferation and had the IC stayed at the top of its game, the world might have averted another Indian test – […]

  2. […] U.S. policymakers continued to prioritize non-proliferation and the intelligence community stayed at the top of its game, the world might have averted another […]

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