As the time approaches for the upcoming session of Conference on Disarmament (CD), the nuclear comedy circus is back in business. Having failed to stick the nasty narratives about security of Pakistani nukes and their falling into the hands of terrorists, this time an interesting fictional twist has been added regarding interstate transfer of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
To add colours, a close friend and brotherly country Saudi Arabia has been roped in. Pakistan has taken a principled stance at the CD about negotiations on a Fissile Material Treaty. Pakistan is of the view that any treaty aimed at mere production cut-off would perpetuate the prevalent strategic asymmetry; hence any meaningful treaty should take care of existing stocks as well, and should cater for their time bound and verifiable destruction.
This time BBC Newsnight has taken the lead. Mark Urban under the bizarre title “Saudi nuclear weapons 'on order' from Pakistan” argues that Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs form Pakistan at will— at the time of its choosing. Reacting to the story, the spokesperson of Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs has characterized the story as “entirely baseless and mischievous”. Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapons state with robust command and control structure and comprehensive export controls. Pakistan supports objectives of non-proliferation as well as nuclear safety and security. Pakistan is fully aware of its responsibilities. Pakistan’s nuclear programme is purely for its own legitimate self defence. Pakistan does not subscribe to nuclear arms race or trade and adheres to its oft reiterated position about maintenance of a limited arsenal compatible with its compulsions of minimum credible deterrence.
After the recent Nawaz-Obama summit, Prime Minister Sharif reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for the universal objectives of non-proliferation and disarmament. President Obama reiterated his confidence in Pakistan’s commitment and dedication to nuclear security and acknowledged that Pakistan is fully engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues. Post summit joint statement, issued on 24 October 2013, referred to President Obama’s appreciation of Pakistan’s constructive engagement with the Nuclear Security Summit process and its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international forums. At the same time, President Obama also accredited Pakistan’s efforts to improve its strategic trade controls and enhance its engagement with multilateral export regimes. Saudi Arabia’s quest for nuclear weapons has often been projected in the backdrop of countering Iran's atomic programme, the BBC story tries to portray that the Saudis might be able to deploy such devices more quickly than the Islamic republic.
While attributing a piece of information to an unnamed senior NATO decision maker, the story teller says that the official had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery. He goes on to bring-in evidence from Israelis sources to carry forth the story: “Last month Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden that if Iran got the bomb, ‘the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.’ Since 2009, when King Abdullah warned visiting US special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross that if Iran crossed the threshold, "we will get nuclear weapons", the kingdom has sent the Americans numerous signals of its intentions. Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's counter-proliferation adviser until March 2013, told Newsnight: "I do think that the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan that, in extremist, they would have claimed to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan." Story’s construct is based on another flawed assumption that as for many years Saudi Arabia has given generous financial assistance to Pakistan's defence sector, including to its missile and nuclear labs, so the supply of nuclear weapons must be as a result of some quid pro quo. Visits by the then Saudi defence minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud to the Pakistani nuclear research centre in 1999 and 2002 have been used as circumstantial evidence to underline the closeness of the defence relationship.
Reportedly in 2007, the US mission in Riyadh noted that they were being asked questions by Pakistani diplomats about US knowledge of "Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation". By the end of that decade Saudi princes and officials were giving explicit warnings of their intention to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran did. Having warned the Americans in private for years, last year Saudi officials in Riyadh escalated it to a public warning, telling a journalist from the Times "it would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the kingdom". No nuclear maligning story is complete without reference to the so called ‘Khan Network’.
So how could Mark Urban miss that piece from his nuclear nonsense? He says; “The Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was accused by western intelligence agencies of selling atomic know-how and uranium enrichment centrifuges to Libya and North Korea. AQ Khan is also believed to have passed the Chinese nuclear weapon design to those countries. This blueprint was for a device engineered to fit on the CSS-2 missile, i.e. the type sold to Saudi Arabia”. Dead horse of ‘Khan Network’ is used as a magic wand to make all sorts of fictional narratives stick. Some of the points that need scrutiny are: If there was any such global network, then has any other member of this network, from any other country, been brought to justice and meaningfully punished? North Korea’s nuclear programme is Plutonium based, whereas that of Pakistan is Uranium based, so where is the common ground? Was North Korea trying to produce a Plutonium weapon by employing Uranium reprocessing technology? Did Libya end up in making a weapon out of what presumably Dr Khan had provided to it? Allegations of a Saudi-Pakistani nuclear deal started to circulate as early as the 1990s, but have repeatedly been denied by Saudi officials as well. Saudi Arabia has time and again reiterated that their country had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and called for a nuclear-free Middle East, pointing to Israel's possession of such weapons. To give credence to the story, Mark quotes from “Eating Grass:
The Making of the Pakistani Bomb”, by Feroze Hassan Khan that Prince Sultan's visits to Pakistan's atomic labs were not proof of an agreement between the two countries. But he acknowledged, "Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue." Mark goes on to quote Gary Samore that Whatever understandings did or did not exist between the two countries in the 1990s, it was around 2003 that the kingdom started serious strategic thinking about its changing security environment and the prospect of nuclear proliferation, a paper leaked that year by senior Saudi officials mapped out three possible responses - to acquire their own nuclear weapons, to enter into an arrangement with another nuclear power to protect the kingdom, or to rely on the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
Of late Saudi Arabia has started taking independent position on various important international issues. Recently, Saudi Arabia has publically shown its disappointment on the way Syrian crisis and Egyptian coup were handled by the US. In a bold step, it has also declined to accept the rotary membership of UNSC, declaring the forum as undemocratic and non-productive. While Iran is constructively engaged in serious negotiations to resolve the nuclear impasse, and Pakistan is striving to mobilize financial support from the IMF and World Bank for its budgetary support and development projects, story appears well timed to create unnecessary pressures for the three Islamic countries. No wonders the Geneva talks have stalled for the time being.