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#4081, 9 August 2013
US and Pakistan: The Unlikelihood of a Civil Nuclear Deal
Iranga Kahangama
Research Intern,
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS)

Despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s reinvigorated foreign policy approach to Pakistan, the likelihood of a recently mentioned potential civilian nuclear deal remains doubtful.

Talks of a nuclear deal with Pakistan are often mentioned in comparison to the Indo- US civilian nuclear deal. This logic is flawed however, as the circumstances are different between both countries. Several motivators for the Indian deal don’t apply here: expected US business and commercial benefits, security guarantees regarding nuclear technology, domestic political tensions and global strategic interests.

The commercial activity stemming from the Indian deal has been virtually nonexistent and was rejected legislatively in India; the US would do well to learn its lessons in basing another argument along the same reasoning. Similarly, ongoing security concerns in Pakistan are unlikely to convince the US that the safety of nuclear technology would be protected as in India.  Furthermore, given Pakistan’s history of nuclear proliferation it would likely be seen as controversial if not almost tacit approval of such behavior.

With 60 votes needed these days to virtually pass anything in the US Senate, it is unlikely that this deal would get the strong bipartisan support needed. Between those in government mistrustful of Pakistan, particularly following the Bin Laden raid, and vocal nonproliferation supporters, any deal is likely to be quickly rejected. The White House too would be unlikely to further acquiesce on nuclear issues with Pakistan as it surprised many already by bringing drone strike negotiations out publically. The Obama Administration is unlikely to expose itself to criticism regarding this deal, as nuclear nonproliferation and global zero are considerable parts of its foreign policy. Rather, the administration is likely to push for securing nuclear weapons and reducing fissile materials as mentioned in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.

Despite US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s comments in 2006 as a US Senator that a US-Pakistan nuclear deal was possible, these views were specifically his own and not the government’s. The Pentagon’s priority remains eliminating terrorist groups and militant threats, particularly ones that disrupt US forces in Afghanistan. From the Pakistani perspective, the current political climate demands action against US drone strikes. Cooperation along these two lines will be America’s biggest bargaining tool and likely the furthest engagement the Pentagon would be willing to address currently. Any capitulation on drone strikes is highly likely to not also be accompanied by a nuclear deal.

Think tanks and South Asia analysts mention a possible deal as a gateway towards normalizing Indo-Pak relations by placing both on the same level in the global nuclear order. While a deal legitimizing Pakistan’s nuclear program would theoretically elevate them to the NPT level and force India and Pakistan to be more stable vis-à-vis deterrence, these bilateral agreements only really circumvent the NPT. It also does not address a primary issue between both nations, which remains Kashmir.    

The US-India deal was seen as a move to support India as a counterweight to rising Chinese power. At the time of ratification, there was global support for the India deal including from the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), a 46-country body that overseas the international transfer of nuclear materials. Currently, as China escalates its nuclear power cooperation with Pakistan, it has avoided getting a waiver from the NSG. China and Pakistan lack the global support for commercial nuclear activity, deterring the US from being induced into any sort of deal with Pakistan to avoid Chinese involvement.  

Furthermore, alternative energy assistance to Pakistan from the United States already exists and is likely to be the major way forward, rather than a nuclear deal. By focusing on hydroelectric power and USAID projects that focus on minimizing power loss and theft, the US can promote energy without rocking the nuclear boat. Current funding under the Kerry-Lugar bill gives billions of dollars to power generation in Pakistan but largely focuses on developing smarter grid technology, more accurate meters, mechanisms for revenue collection and overall increased efficiency of power distribution.

Alternatively, the arrival of a new Nawaz Sharif government more keen to normalize relations with India provides an opportunity to consolidate two of Pakistan’s largest problems.  As both sides look to reduce tension, increased trade particularly in the energy sector would go a long way. While admittedly far short of any sort of long-term energy solution, the current environment may be a ripe way to marry two issues in a productive manner.

While a large part of Islamabad’s interest in a civilian nuclear deal lies in its desire to be placed on the same global stage as India in 2005, the US is unlikely to heed that request. Recent discussions to open up civilian nuclear talks are perhaps an attempt by Kerry to leave every option available as a new strategic dialogue begins. Instead, the US may focus on providing direct alternative energy assistance and more broadly focus on drone strike negotiations to curb terrorism. As US interests decline in Afghanistan, it may not seek to prolong a complicated engagement in South Asia by bringing up such a nuclear deal. Instead they are likely content with its strategic Indian partnership and will promote less controversial ways of energy assistance in Pakistan.

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