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'A nuclear deal for Pakistan is sheer fantasy'

April 10, 2010 10:27 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's presence at the first-ever Nuclear Security Summit hosted by United States President Barack Obama, beginning April 12, will be key for 'critical substantive reasons', believes Dr Ashley J Tellis, an expert on nonproliferation and nuclear security matters.

Tellis, a former official in the George W Bush administration at the State Department and the National Security Council, was closely involved in negotiating the India-US civilian nuclear agreement.

In an interview with rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa, he also talks about Pakistan's demand for a similar nuclear agreement with the US.

A senior White House official recently said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's attendance at the Nuclear Security Summit will be the key to the success of the summit. Was this just hyperbole?
 
There is no reason to think that the statement is merely hyperbole. Dr Singh's presence at the summit is important for critical substantive reasons. First, it symbolises India's partnership with the United States on an issue that is very important to President Barack Obama personally.

Second, it epitomises the support of a key country that, along with the United States and Israel, would be among the most likely victims of nuclear terrorism, should the summit's objectives not be realided.

Third, and most importantly, it demonstrates that a responsible nuclear power such as India, although not a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, nevertheless supports the United States and the international community more generally in strengthening the global nonproliferation regime. All these considerations taken together make India's presence at the summit significant. It is not often realised that India has worked very closely with the United States behind the scenes to make this summit a success. Hence, Dr Singh's participation will be all the more welcome.   
   
Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao recently spoke of how India believes that the summit can be a milestone in addressing the threat of nuclear terrorism. How so?
 
India has been deeply concerned about the threat of nuclear terrorism. In part, this is simply because of its proximity to Pakistan, which has historically been the fountainhead of both nuclear proliferation and political terrorism. Indian officials are still fearful about infirmities in Pakistan's nuclear programme. But more generally, they are afraid that if extremist groups manage to get their hands on nuclear material or a nuclear device, India would be among the primary targets for their vengeance.

Consequently, the government of India hopes that the nuclear security summit will serve as a consciousness-raising event that highlights the threat of nuclear terrorism, mobilises international action towards combating this threat, and produces an action plan to deal with the most troubling challenges in this arena.

In terms of playing a leadership role at the summit, India has apparently offered to set up an international centre on nuclear security. This is rumoured to be one of the proposals Dr Singh will bring to the table at the summit. How important and tangible of a contribution will such a Centre be if India makes such an offer?

I believe India's offer to set up such a centre of excellence focusing on issues of nuclear security will be a significant contribution for several reasons. First, no such institution currently exists, or at least none which offers opportunities to operators of nuclear facilities worldwide. Offering to set up such a centre offers the best evidence of India's responsible stewardship -- it represents a contribution that India is willing to make towards building a secure global regime.

Do you believe the US will continue to try to influence India to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and ultimately the NPT?
 
I think the prospect of CTBT ratification in the US Senate is virtually zero -- for the foreseeable future. Consequently, I cannot imagine the administration making any effort to lean on India to sign the CTBT. If it did, such an action would have no credibility whatsoever -- and India would respond appropriately.

In terms of the threat of nuclear terrorism, which will be a priority agenda item of the summit, does India live with this danger more so than any other nation?
 
I think the single biggest priority would be to develop and secure consensus on the need to safeguard nuclear materials to certain universally accepted standards. This will not be easy because it will require extensive reviews of current practices worldwide and many remedial actions, some of which will no doubt be costly. But the alternatives are obviously far more dangerous. The biggest threat out there is actually complacency --because the various extremist groups seeking nuclear materials are anything but inactive.    

Pakistan has assured that its nuclear arsenal is safe and secure and will not fall into the hands of terrorists? Are these assurances sufficient? Do you believe the summit has to obtain fresh pledges and assurances from Pakistan?

The security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has increased significantly since 2001, in large part because of the concerted efforts made by Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai and Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division. International pressures undoubtedly contributed to these reforms, as did the terrible activities of A Q Khan. Securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, however, will have to be a continual effort because the political, ideological and social trends in that country are not reassuring. My summary judgment in testimony before the US Congress has been that Pakistan's nuclear capabilities are reasonably secure in peacetime. Fixing the weaknesses in security cannot be done through action at the summit. It has to be done through quiet and continued diplomacy between Washington and Islamabad.
 
With Pakistan's sorry track record, do you think the Pakistanis had some chutzpah in demanding a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one the US struck up with India?
 
I can understand why Islamabad would ask for such a deal: It has less to do with energy and everything to do with seeking parity of treatment with India. Obviously, this is not a request that has the slightest chance of being acceded to: President Obama will not consent to such a deal, and the Congress will resolutely refuse to amend US law for Pakistan's sake, given Islamabad's egregious nonproliferation record.

The likes of Senator John F Kerry have said Pakistan has a long way to go before such a deal could be considered for Pakistan, and have the support in Congress. What's your take on this?
 
There are clearly some within the administration and some outside who think giving Pakistan a nuclear deal similar to that given to India is a good idea. Those holding such a view though are in a distinct minority. I do not know what Senator Kerry's actual views on this subject are, though it appears as if he is attempting to at least leave the door open for such a deal with Pakistan in the future. I don't believe, however, that President Obama will go down such a road, but I am uncertain whether his administration will say so clearly and distinctly to Pakistan.

Consequently, it is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the Pakistani delegation to the recently concluded Strategic Dialogue actually believes that a nuclear deal for Islamabad is on the cards merely because its American counterparts were unable or unwilling to say clearly what everyone who has the slightest knowledge of American politics knows to be true today -- that a nuclear deal for Pakistan is sheer fantasy.

Obviously, Iran, and its alleged march toward a nuclear weapons capability will be a major agenda item at this summit. But India has been advising against punitive sanctions against Teheran. Won't this mount immense pressure on India on this front?
 
I think this pressure is coming -- not specifically directed against India but at all states that continue to do 'business as usual' with Iran. At some point, India will have to make up its mind about how important a threat an Iranian nuclear weapons programme is to India's security -- and act upon it. I think we are soon coming to a point where hard choices will be required regarding Iran -- both in Washington and in New Delhi.