They were dancing in the streets of Pakistan last week. People handed out candies, set off fireworks and fired guns into the air. A newspaper, The Nation, bannered the reason on its front page: "Islamic bomb has finally landed." Hours earlier, Pakistan's government had conducted underground nuclear tests at a remote southwestern desert site near the country's borders with Iran and Afghanistan. The yield from the initial blast went far beyond the estimated six kilotonnes of explosive power detonated below the Chagai Hills. It produced megatonnes of international outrage - and predictions of a runaway arms race between Pakistan and India, which set off its own nuclear devices two weeks earlier. For Pakistan's prime minister, though, the bottom line was clear. "Today," said Nawaz Sharif, "we have evened the score with India. As a self-respecting nation, we had no choice left to us."
At least this time, the explosions came as no surprise. When India set off five blasts on May 11 and 13, the shock was all the greater because other countries had no advance notice. Even the United States' massive intelligence apparatus failed to forecast India's move. Last week, the Central Intelligence Agency issued warnings that Pakistan was about to respond to its archrival - intelligence sources said the Pakistanis made no efforts to hide what they were doing. President Bill Clinton and other leaders appealed to Pakistan to hold off, but to no avail. Only a few hours before the tests, Clinton was on the phone to Islamabad, making what his aides later called an anguished plea to Sharif. The President promised rewards if Pakistan did not go ahead, and threatened punishment if it did. But he was snubbed - underlining yet again the inability of the only superpower to shape events in what has become the world's most volatile region.
India's tests had already destroyed any hope for efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996. Pakistan's response raised even more troubling questions. How far will the two countries go in matching each other's power? Could their testy relationship (three wars in 50 years) spin out of control and spark the world's first two-way nuclear conflict? Will China, another of India's foes, feel obliged to conduct new tests of its own? Will other so-called threshold states - those close to acquiring nuclear weapons, such as Iran and North Korea - now renew their efforts? And what, if anything, can the rest of the world do about the sudden new threat in Asia?
In the short run, the answer seems to be: not much. As they did when India conducted its tests, the major powers immediately imposed penalties and sanctions. Clinton was required by U.S. law to respond to Pakistan's tests by inflicting economic pain. Direct American aid to the country was cut off in 1990 because Washington believed then that Pakistan had acquired a nuclear bomb. But Washington will now use its leverage to oppose loans and credits to Pakistan from global bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A $415-million IMF loan could be derailed, along with up to $1.1 billion a year from the World Bank and $2.6 billion in aid from the Asian Development Bank. Clinton's planned visit to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in November is also in doubt.
Other countries soon weighed in. Japan, Germany and Australia ended loans and aid to Pakistan. Canada cut off non-humanitarian assistance - worth up to $23 million - and said it will urge the World Bank to defer any Pakistani projects. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had also personally urged Sharif by telephone not to go ahead with the tests, and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy criticized countries that condemn India and Pakistan but take no action against them. "It is OK to condemn," he said, "but to get the message across it is also important to take the various kinds of sanctions."
Those sanctions will hit Pakistan hardest. India is much bigger (national output worth $500 billion a year, compared with $91 billion for Pakistan) and has long pursued a policy of economic self-reliance. Aid plays a greater role in Pakistan's economy, its foreign debt is much larger, and its foreign exchange reserves much smaller. The result is that ending international assistance may well lead quickly to crisis in Pakistan - starting with a default on its international loans. It is already a desperately poor country where riots have recently broken out over shortages of food and drinking water. Sanctions, say some experts, could be worse than useless. "Pakistan is vulnerable, and if we seriously destabilize it we might be making things worse for everyone," said Gideon Rose, a former South Asia analyst for the U.S. National Security Council. "The last thing we want is a nuclearized Pakistan which is domestically unstable."
None of that, however, deterred Sharif's government. Pakistan's rivalry with India, rooted in the ancient enmity between Muslims and Hindus in the subcontinent, forced it to match New Delhi's tests. Opposition politicians, editorialists and military leaders had been pressing Sharif to act. He told Clinton, Chrétien and other leaders who appealed to him that he had no choice - especially after Western countries failed to take stronger action against India. "What happened today must be seen as a natural reaction on our part," he said in a televised address.
At the same time, he declared a state of emergency and urged Pakistanis to tighten their belts to prepare for the impact of sanctions. He said he would move out of his official mansion; his ministers' residences, he added, would be turned into schools and clinics. He announced currency controls, a ban on importing foreign luxury goods, and a crackdown on tax evasion. So grim was the atmosphere that one intelligence analyst in Washington even suggested that moving senior government figures could be part of preparations for nuclear war. "It looks to me like they are evacuating, for continuity-of-government purposes," he said. "It's very disturbing."
But despite all the fevered rhetoric, Western experts have many questions about the two countries' ability to inflict nuclear damage on each other - at least in the near future. Even the size of their underground tests is in dispute. U.S. experts monitoring data from the Chagai Hills test site said the estimated six-kilotonnes combined force of the first explosion - equivalent to 6,000 tonnes of TNT - was less than expected. Two more blasts on Saturday were believed to have had a combined force of 18 kilotonnes, nearly as much as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Delivering the weapons is another issue. To do that, both sides have to work out the intricate problems involved in making bombs small enough to be fitted atop missiles capable of striking their enemies' cities. The cycle of threats and escalation began on April 6, when Pakistan test-fired its Ghauri missile, which has a range of 1,500 km - enough to hit many major Indian cities. Ghauri, the Indians point out, was a famous Muslim warrior who defeated a Hindu emperor named Prithvi - which by no coincidence is the name of India's main surface-to-surface missile. India is now developing a new missile, the Agni, with a range of 2,000 km. It could strike anywhere in Pakistan and hit major cities in China. Last week, Pakistan publicly warned India that it was already fitting the Ghauri missile with nuclear warheads "to give a fitting reply to any misadventure by the enemy." But that, say Western experts, is probably bluster. Both countries, they add, are probably a year or two away from being able to equip a long-range missile with a nuclear weapon.
Who is responsible for such a threatening development at a time when the world seemed well on the way to eliminating the danger of nuclear weapons? Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Washington and Moscow have dismantled many of their weapons, while South Africa, Brazil and Argentina have ended their weapons programs. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended permanently in 1994, and two years later 149 nations signed on to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Even North Korea put its nuclear program on ice in return for $5.7 billion in badly needed hard currency from the United States.
But at the same time, many countries had been fuelling the rivalry in South Asia. The United States poured military and high-tech aid into Pakistan throughout the 1980s, when it needed the country as a base from which to help anti-communist guerrillas evict the Soviets from neighboring Afghanistan. China, likewise, helped Pakistan with military hardware and assistance in nuclear and missile technology.
On the other side, India got a start on its nuclear program as long ago as the mid-1950s when Canada first donated a reactor to New Delhi. It received advanced military expertise from the Soviet Union and, more recently, from the United States. Since 1995, sensitive materials such as nuclear safety equipment and computers used to simulate explosions have been sent by U.S. companies to nuclear facilities in India that are not subject to international inspections. That, says foreign policy analyst Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, fuelled Pakistani fears that Washington was giving India an advantage. "Pakistan could hardly refrain from responding to India," he says.
Those ties have complicated the international response to the latest crisis. Aside from imposing sanctions, analysts agree there is not much that outside powers can do. Conservatives may rail against Clinton for failing to stop India and Pakistan from going ahead with their tests, but the post-Cold War reality is that even a superpower has little influence. "We are very rapidly seeing an international system emerging with multiple centres of power," said Ted Galen Carpenter, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "The United States is clearly the most influential, but it is not capable of dictating outcomes." Instead of continuing to insist that India and Pakistan sign the test-ban treaty, he said, outside powers would be wiser to accept that both countries have the bomb and try to put in place so-called confidence-building measures - such as a nuclear hotline between New Delhi and Islamabad.
None of those geopolitical realities, however, carried much weight last week in Pakistan, still basking in the rosy afterglow of its tests. It was a moment to savor - one of the poorest countries in the world had become the newest member of the exclusive nuclear club. Rubia Abrar, a medical student, attended Friday services at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad and offered up a timely prayer: "Thank you, God, for giving us the bomb. After 50 years of independence, we are able to prove ourselves." Sanctions may bite and Pakistanis may suffer. But that, it was clear, was for tomorrow.
THE MISSILE BALANCE:
All are surface-to-surface
Prithvi: Range up to 250 km, capable of reaching most of Pakistan. Based on the Russian Scud, it is under production in India.
Agni: Range of 2,000 km - assuming it works reliably. Latest version has not been tested.
M-11: Range up to 300 km. China has reportedly supplied Pakistan with 30.
Hatf-3: Range up to 800 km, capable of reaching New Delhi. Tested last year, reportedly under production.
Ghauri: Range of 1,500 km. One tested on April 6, but unclear when it will become operational.
The Iranian Threat
Of all the so-called rogue states still seeking nuclear weapons, Iran is almost certainly the closest. Now, U.S. officials fear that the bomb tests by neighboring Pakistan may boost attempts by Tehran's ruling Islamic mullahs to obtain a nuclear arsenal. "Pakistan might very well share its nuclear technology," said New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former ambassador to India. "Make no mistake, we now have an Islamic bomb."
American officials see that as a terrifying prospect. "Iran is so politically unstable," says a source close to the National Security Council. "It's not too much of a stretch to imagine certain religious leaders preaching that the Great Satan - whoever that happens to be at the time - must be nuked."
According to John Pike, a nuclear weapons expert at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, Pakistan's recently tested Ghauri medium-range missile is based on a design provided by Iran. The Iranians bought the design from North Korea, where the missile is known as the No Dong Two. "They are not such undying friends that Pakistan will now give Iran one of its nuclear weapons," says Pike. "There's no share-and-share-alike agreement. But those in the business of figuring out who is helping Iran with its nuclear program certainly will have Pakistan high on the list."
U.S. intelligence experts say Iran once had its sights set on a bomb by 2000, but they now believe it will take until the middle of the next decade. In part, this is because of Washington's pressure on Iran's nuclear suppliers. Nevertheless, the country continues an aggressive effort, despite denials by its leaders. U.S. experts say equipment Iran has tried to buy for its nuclear-energy program clearly suggests plans for weapons development. Intelligence from the former Soviet Union indicates the Iranians are more active than any others in trying to make deals for "loose nukes" with the Russian mafia. And despite heavy American criticism, Moscow remains deeply involved in a three-year-old project to build Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast.
Having completed plant construction that was suspended by the Germans in 1979, the Russians are thought ready to install a 1,000-megawatt reactor. The plant would not contribute directly to weapons development, but U.S. officials worry that training and technology supplied to the civilian side will spill over into a military program. They also are concerned that plutonium embedded in the reactor's spent fuel could be reprocessed into bomb material if Iran obtains the necessary technology. According to Pike, that would put Iran three or fours years away from making a bomb. "At this point," he says, "it is something that we are just worried about, as distinct from being petrified. Petrified will come later."
Maclean's June 8, 1998