Bhutto & US Nuclear Politics | Rabia Akhtar

ZULFIQAR Ali Bhutto’s ‘eating grass’ comment after the 1965 Indo-Pak war is famously related to his determination to nuclearise Pakistan. In his reply to a question about Pakistan’s response if India went nuclear, Bhutto, minister of foreign affairs at the time, had remarked with great resolve, “Then we should have to eat grass and get one or buy one, of our own”.

A decade later as Pakistan’s prime minister in 1975, Bhutto assured the international community of the opposite and said: “For poor countries like us, [the] atom bomb is a mirage and we don’t want it. In 1965, when I was the foreign minister, I said that if India had the atom bomb, we would get one too, even if we had to eat grass. Well, we are more reasonable nowadays.” In reality, his earlier resolve had anything but weakened in the 10 years since.

After the Indian nuclear test in May 1974, the London Suppliers Group was established to strengthen nuclear exports and safeguards. Now called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), it initially included four nuclear-weapon states (NWS), with the exception of China: the US, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France (after some persuasion) and three non-NWS — West Germany, Canada and Japan.

More than the Indian Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE), the main US concerns to be addressed through this platform were a) West Germany’s agreement with Brazil to export nuclear reactors and construction of a complete nuclear fuel cycle in Brazil in 1975 and b) two French agreements for export of plutonium reprocessing plants to South Korea in 1975 and Pakistan in 1976.

The US was able to exert pressure on South Korea to cancel the French reprocessing agreement due to its economic and security dependence on the US but Pakistan was not under the US nuclear umbrella and though it was a recipient of US foreign assistance, it was not entirely dependent on it. The US administration was aware that in the absence of leverage over Pakistan due to the decade-old arms embargo (1965-1975), the Pakistan government had sought nuclear cooperation agreements with countries like Canada, France and Germany.

America’s contradictory policies towards Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions have a long history.

The talk of refusing arms sales to Pakistan by the US would later only create an air of mistrust and bad faith whilst proving ineffectual as a coercive strategy. However, driven by congressional pressure, the administration decided to reinforce its stance on non-proliferation with Pakistan in explicit terms: no A-7 jets for Pakistan (that were in the offer) if it proceeded with the reprocessing plant deal. Kissinger travelled to Lahore on Aug 8, 1976 to convince Bhutto in person but to no avail.

In public, Kissinger sought reconciliation but his private tone with Bhutto was cautionary. At a dinner reception given by Bhutto, Kissinger proposed a toast to the long-lasting friendship between Pakistan and the American people and sagely articulated that “… in the lives of all nations, there is a process of constant renewal, and nations have periodically to reprocess themselves. And they have to decide what it is that is worth reprocessing and what it is that is better left alone”.

After Kissinger’s visit, Dawn in its editorial raised the issue of ‘dichotomy’ in the US attitude towards India and Pakistan. It mentioned the shipment of 20,000 lbs of enriched uranium to India “for use in the American-built Tarapur nuclear plant” and the US administration ‘taking shelter’ behind the contract signed in the past between India and the US, even after India’s breach of trust. The editorial suggested that if the US wished to be “such a stickler for reliability of contract, it should not find it difficult to uphold the Pakistan-French contract”.

For the Ford administration, rationale for the continuation of US-supplied enriched uranium to India post-1974 was difficult to justify to the domestic as well as the international audience. Immediately after the Indian test, the US had distanced itself from any ‘role’ in the Indian nuclear explosion. Within the administration, there was confusion about its position on the US role in the event. In July 1976, David Elliott, member National Security Council, scientific affairs, outlined the administration’s ‘new’ position in his briefing memorandum to then national security adviser Gen Brent Scowcroft. He said that new information provided by Canada and India had made it clear that the “initial US heavy water loading of the unsafeguarded CIRUS reactor had not completely evaporated or leaked as was previously believed” and that some US heavy water was “in the reactor during the period when the plutonium was produced for the Indian explosion”.

The quid pro quo that the Ford administration was trying to establish in order for Pakistan to quit the nuclear reprocessing deal did not work with Bhutto. Pakistan and France held their positions against strong US opposition. The outgoing French prime minister, Jacques Chirac, before his resignation on Aug 25, 1976 announced that the Pak-French deal would go through despite US objections. However, with Chirac out of office, French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing aligned his non-proliferation policy to that of the incoming Carter administration and cancelled the $1 billion reprocessing plant deal with Pakistan in 1978.

Bhutto had issues with Ford’s differing non-proliferation policy because: a) Pakistan’s attempts to access nuclear technology from France and West Germany, both opposed by the US, were for peaceful purposes, and b) US was contemplating the sale of enriched uranium to India for its nuclear plants even after India had violated the terms of the Canadian-American agreement and conducted a nuclear explosion in 1974 using US heavy water.

These two contradictory policies whereby the US tried to stop Pakistan’s latent proliferation activities while enabling India to continue its nuclear programme by supplying enriched uranium for its Tarapur plant augmented Bhutto’s nuclear resolve instead of weakening it. During the Ford years, Bhutto managed to keep Pakistan’s uranium enrichment project under wraps by keeping the administration focused on Pakistan’s plutonium reprocessing attempts. For Pakistan, Bhutto was the winner for not giving in to US pressure.

The writer is director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2016


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