Should we stop worrying and learn to love the 'Muslim bomb?'

Pakistan's first nuclear test 15 years ago today frightened the world. But folks have gotten used to it.

By , Staff writer

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    Prime Minister-elect and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) political party Nawaz Sharif speaks to his party workers during a seminar in Lahore, to mark the anniversary of Pakistan's first successful nuclear test in 1998, Tuesday.
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Today is the 15th anniversary of the day Pakistan decided to go nuclear and the world, supposedly, changed forever.

Pakistan's decision to test a nuclear device was driven by age-old enemy India's nuclear tests a few weeks earlier (though India first tested a small nuclear device in 1974, it hadn't crossed that line again; Pakistan had vowed to go nuclear if India did).

India and Pakistan's dueling tests fueled frightened headlines and editorials around the world, economic sanctions that did more harm to Pakistan's economy than to India's (though the situation changed after Sept. 11, 2001), and intense polarization about what was to be "done" about South Asia. It also spurred talk of Pakistan's "Muslim bomb" as if the weapon would somehow be used to in the interests and at the demands of all Muslims, rather than in the interests of Pakistan.

Recommended: How much do you know about Pakistan? Take this quiz.

(The history of that phrase would be interesting to pursue; its first appearance in this paper appears to be 1981 and I also found a quote in an August 1981 New Yorker article in which an unnamed Pakistani general paraphrases former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of the nuclear program, as saying "There is a Christian bomb in the US, a Jewish bomb in Israel, a Hindu bomb in India, why not a Muslim bomb in Pakistan?")

And yet, 15 years later ... nothing particularly awful has happened because of Pakistan having joined the nuclear club. In fact, the past 15 years has been the quietest such stretch when it comes to nuclear testing since the US was first to test a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, following that up just a few weeks later with the only aggressive use of nuclear weapons in history - the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though North Korea exploded its first bomb in 2006, its three separate nuclear tests have been the only nuclear detonations in the past 15 years.

And yet, this paper wrote the day after the Pakistan test in a dispatch from Washington that:

Peace in South Asia, home to the poorest one-sixth of humanity, and the future of global disarmament have been plunged into uncertainty by Pakistan's detonation of five nuclear devices in response to five by rival India. In setting off the devices yesterday in an underground shaft at a site in the remote Chagai region, Pakistan ignored threats of economic sanctions and pleas for restraint by President Clinton.

... Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif bowed to intense domestic pressure stoked by national pride and demands he ensure Pakistan's security... These tests by India and Pakistan have transformed the global balance of power within 17 days.

Transformed the global balance of power? Maybe. They've certainly made India and Pakistan less likely to be invaded. And while they've made their mutual hostility more dangerous, they've also restrained their hands from all out war. The two countries had three major wars before Pakistan went nuclear and, depending on how you view the Kargil conflict in 1991 which claimed about 1,000 lives, one or none since (restraint from both sides may have had something to do with fears of nuclear escalation).

After Pakistan's second nuclear test that weekend, the Monitor quoted the soon-to-be notorious AQ Khan.

"Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, said yesterday that a nuclear warhead could be deployed on missiles "within days" if "we are forced to do something," but he also believes that nuclear capability can help guarantee peace.

Other officials say Pakistan's next move could be diplomatic. "If there is a conciliatory signal from India or the US offering itself as a conciliator, that may move the process ahead," said an official who requested anonymity. "Pakistan could also probe ideas for peace. But the exact strategy is still being devised."

So far, India and Pakistan have avoided another all-out war. And both countries have been more restrained in flexing their nuclear muscles through testing than almost all the other countries that joined the nuclear club before them.

Does this mean the tongue-in-cheek headline at the top of this story should be taken literally? No. Nuclear weapons are scary, and the more people that have them the scarier they get. But the track record of countries who get the bomb behaving responsibly with them has held.

To get the rhythm of nuclear explosions and how governments have responded with tit-for-tat nuclear tests – the ultimate in macho posturing – and how much things have improved, have a look at this fantastic illustration of the timing and location of all nuclear explosions in history up until 1998 (there have been three more tests since 1998, all by North Korea). 

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