Pakistan has, in the past, been accused of offering critical nuclear weapons technology to countries like North Korea, Iran and Libya. The rationale behind these transfers varies from reciprocal missile technology sought by Pakistan from these countries to certain personal gains made by several high-ranking Pakistani government officials. Rising tensions between North Korea and the US on the issue of North Korea carrying on with its ballistic missile tests has once again put the spotlight on North Korea’s nuclear programme and the role played by Pakistan in its development.


Pakistan’s tag of a proliferator of nuclear weapons technology is closely associated with the statements made by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former Director General of Pakistan’s Kahuta Research Laboratories and the chief architect of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. In January 2004, Khan admitted that he had engaged in the transfer of sensitive nuclear weapons technology such as centrifuge designs and uranium enrichment technology with countries like North Korea and Iran as early as the 1970s. The dismantling of Libya’s nuclear programme in 2003 also revealed that Pakistan was one of its main suppliers. Following the 2004 revelations made by Khan, the United States and international agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demanded that Khan be provided to them for further questioning by the Pakistan Government. But the government instead placed him under house arrest; and he was eventually declared as a free citizen in 2009.


Pakistan’s own domestic nuclear programme, which began in response to its defeat at the hands of India in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and India’s 1974 Smiling Buddha nuclear tests, presents an interesting story about the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. The role that China played in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear programme has been well-documented but it has been denied on several occasions by China. Several statements made by former US intelligence officials indicate that during the 1980s, China provided Pakistan with the blueprints required to make a nuclear bomb. But it was the sanctions imposed by the Americans during the 1990s that drove Pakistan to seek greater assistance from China and it came in the form of Chinese nuclear weapons technology like furnaces to shape the uranium into a nuclear bomb core and modern diagnostic equipment required to conduct nuclear tests. Chinese scientists were also heavily involved in Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Furthermore, Pakistan received ballistic missile technology from North Korea in a quid pro quo manner for the nuclear weapons technology that Pakistan supplied to North Korea. Pakistan was eventually able to successfully conduct its first nuclear test Chagai-I in 1998, a few days after India conducted its Operation Shakti (Pokhran-II) tests. As a result, Pakistan joined an elite group of countries that possess nuclear weapons, which include the five recognised nuclear weapon states (NWS) who are signatories to Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 – the US, the UK, Russia, China and France. The other NWS are India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel (never publically admitted) that are not signatories to the NPT. The issue of the proliferation of nuclear weapons has widely been debated as a threat to global peace and security.


There exist two basic schools of thought relating to the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. Political scientists like Kenneth Waltz argue that the more number of countries that possess nuclear weapons technology in the world, lesser the chances of a nuclear conflict occurring. Waltz bases his argument on the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which states that no two countries or opposing groups would engage in a nuclear conflict fearing the devastating effects of a nuclear weapon that could wipe out the attacker, the attacked and even neutral neighbouring countries. Waltz, being a neorealist, also believes that for his argument to hold true, the countries in question must possess a strong political leadership. He considers nuclear weapons to be excellent weapons of deterrence. Scott Sagan on the other hand, has a completely different argument. His ‘Organizational Theory’ states that with the spread of nuclear weapons to more and more states, the chances of them falling into the hands of a country that is ruled by a strong military government could spell an impending disaster. Sagan states that organizations like the military have biases and parochial interests, which if left unchecked by an able civilian government, could result in the use of nuclear weapons and the devastation that follows.


In our contemporary international political environment, both the aforementioned arguments have proved to be true to a certain extent. Waltz’s support for MAD was justified during the Cold War era when the US and the USSR came to the brink of a nuclear conflict during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis largely involved a confrontation between the two countries due to the installation of US nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy which resulted in the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, which further led to a US naval blockade of all Soviet ships to Cuba as tensions mounted. But eventually, both countries were able to come to an agreement and were able to refrain from the actual use of nuclear weapons. Sagan’s argument that the possession of nuclear weapons by a country ruled by a military government could be dangerous, as is being witnessed in North Korea which although technically does not have a military government but rather follows a governmental system in which the military is a dominant actor. The government led by Kim Jong-un, a third generation dictator who is heavily supported by the military has on several occasions threatened to use nuclear weapons against its closest neighbour South Korea and countries like Japan and the US. In the past few months, we have seen a flurry of missile tests being carried out by the North Koreans, and the US under the Trump administration responding by sending aircraft carriers to the Korean peninsula as tensions continue to rise in the region. Also under the new US administration, which has on several occasions stated that it would pull out of the P5+1 nuclear deal, tensions between Iran and the US have also escalated. President Trump, on his first international trip, stated in Saudi Arabia that the international community should come together to condemn Iran for its support to terrorist organizations like the Hezbollah. Iran on the other hand, has retaliated by carrying out several missile tests and continuing to publically denounce President Trump’s claims that Iran has played a role in destabilising the West Asian region. This adds further embarrassment to Pakistan, which in the past supplied sensitive nuclear weapons technology to Iran. In this context, Pakistan’s role as a proliferator of nuclear technology in the past has severe repercussions on the international security environment.


Another factor to be considered is the covert support that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has provided and still continues to provide to terrorist organizations like the Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahedeen and others. Pakistan has now become a victim of its own state-sponsored terrorism as more and more terrorist attacks have begun to occur on the Pakistani soil such as the Peshawar bus bombing and the Lahore suicide bombing that took place in 2016. There are widespread concerns about whether or not, due to the rising number of terrorist organizations within Pakistan, sensitive nuclear technology might fall into the wrong hands although Pakistani authorities have on several occasions dismissed these claims. But with the embarrassment to the government from the discovery of the AQ Khan network in 2004, Pakistan’s export mechanism has come under strict scrutiny.


However, in recent years, Pakistan has attempted to distance itself from the tag of being a proliferator of nuclear technology and this could be due to the pressure imposed on the Pakistani government from its American and Chinese allies. Yet, the repercussions from transactions carried out through the AQ Khan network continues to have an impact on the international security environment as all the three beneficiary countries of the network – North Korea, Iran and Libya face their own share of conflicts and issues that continue to have a larger impact on global peace and security. Although Pakistan has in the past stated that Khan acted of his own accord, the role that the government has played in the proliferation of nuclear weapons cannot be completely denied. As far as North Korea is concerned, it has been one of the main beneficiaries of Pakistan’s proliferating activities, and the threat it poses to the international community is quite grave. As tensions escalate between North Korea and the US, the threat of a nuclear conflict has started to become less hypothetical and more realistic.


In the case of Iran, the issue is more nuanced. Some experts consider Iran a responsible nuclear State that will never actually use nuclear weapons but the Trump administration has time and again shown the Iranian government in a bad light. The facts remain that Iran has received assistance from Pakistan for its nuclear weapons programme, which continue to remain a bone of contention between Iran and the other countries in the West Asian region. Adding to this, Iran’s alleged support for organizations like Hezbollah (which it calls the “Lebanese resistance movement”), further raises the tensions between Iran and its neighbours.


Libya however is a different case altogether. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, there has not been a single stable government in Libya; and ever since 2014, a civil war has been raging within the country between various factions and groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The AQ Khan network had begun to offer the Libyan government centrifuge designs and components in 1997 itself. Khan was also accused of acting as a middleman through whom, Libya was able to acquire blueprints for nuclear weapons from China. However, by 2003, Libya had begun to dismantle its nuclear programme adhering to the IAEA regulations. Following the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, various reports emerged, stating that nuclear fissile material could be looted by terrorists, seeking to make dirty bombs from the Tajoura Nuclear Research Centre. Libya continues to be in a state of turmoil and the security of the nuclear fissile material remains a real threat.


But even the staggering amount of evidence against the proliferation activities of the Pakistani government and its surrogates has not resulted in any stringent action against them. At the domestic level, recently a Pakistani Member of Parliament called for an investigation into the proliferation activities carried out by General Pervez Musharraf during his tenure as the President from 1999 to 2008. Yet at the international level, very little has been done to hold Pakistan responsible for its proliferation activities, barring a few strong words from several world leaders. The first step in this regard would be for all the member countries of the UN General Assembly to publically admonish Pakistan at a global level for the role it has played in proliferation in the past. It is high time that a stringent framework, involving economic and trade embargos, be put in place to ensure that the proliferation of nuclear weapons never takes place. Such a framework would be a step in the right direction and would serve as a warning to any country that seeks to engage in proliferation activities in the future.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “Pakistan and the Proliferation Axis” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.