THE Bush administration may have stirred up more controversy than compromise in its ongoing negotiations with Pakistan and India over nuclear non-proliferation.
Concerned that escalating tensions between the neighboring South Asian countries could erupt in a nuclear explosion, the US Department of State invited its top officials here to explore ways to avert the possibility. Washington is seeking to diffuse the threat with a five-power pact among the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan to stop the flow of nuclear weapons on the sub-continent.
A dangerous one-upmanship has replaced the usual denials from the two longtime foes about their respective nuclear programs. Pakistan Foreign Secretary Shaheryar Khan revealed during his recent visit here that Pakistan has both the know-how and the materials to construct a nuclear bomb, a fact long-denied by Islamabad.
That public revelation reportedly drew a combative response from Indian government and opposition leaders. Foreign Minister Madhavsinh Solanki quickly asserted that "a bomb is part of our defense preparedness." The head of India's largest opposition party proclaimed: "India must waste no time to go nuclear."
Pakistani officials say India is trying to justify non-participation in a regional non-proliferation agreement.
"Regional non-proliferation efforts are breaking out all over the globe," Mr. Khan told the Monitor. "In the Pacific, in Latin America, on the Korean Peninsula," he says, agreements are possible. "But India says such a South Asian effort would deflect from its own world view of nuclear non-proliferation. It's just an excuse not to enter into an agreement."
Khan says India also dismisses an accord based on its historically poor relations with China, the major nuclear power in the region. "But they've mended their fences with China," insists Khan, who dismisses the Indian rejection as posturing.
Since Oct. 1, 1990, American aid to Pakistan has been severed under the Pressler amendment, which forbids assistance if it is found that Pakistan possesses necessary materials for a nuclear weapon. Pakistani officials say that the drop-off in aid has debilitated Pakistan's conventional deterrent to India, leaving Islamabad no other choice but to build up a nonconventional deterrent.
"It's a bit ironical that this country-specific [Pressler] law is geared toward Pakistan, when we are the one country ready to sign the non-proliferation treaty," protests Khan.
US Central Intelligence Agency Director Robert Gates voiced the Bush administration's concern over South Asian nuclear proliferation during his testimony before Congress on Jan. 15. Both Pakistan and India, he warned, have the capacity to assemble nuclear weapons quickly, and to deliver them by aircraft should a crisis arise. He raised the troubling possibility that a South Asian arms race could spill over into neighboring Central Asia, home to economically strapped former Soviet republics with a multitu de of unemployed nuclear scientists.
Despite the rules of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Mr. Gates said, "some republics or regions may become more closely aligned with their non-CIS neighbors. Trade that earns hard currency is likely to be encouraged, and inhibitions against trade in special weapons materials or equipment may weaken and disappear." The CIA lists India among several countries considered likely to collaborate on nuclear weapons design and engineering with former Soviet scientists. Pakistan, according to Khan , has established relations with Uzebekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, author of the amendment that stipulated Pakistan's aid cut-off, sharpens the focus on Pakistan. He sounded alarm bells while visiting Pakistan in January, where he asserted that the Pakistanis were constructing an "Islamic bomb." He warned of a nuclear-armed Islamic federation - including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and the five former Soviet Muslim republics - by the end of the decade.
A letter from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now circulating on Capitol Hill that argues against commercial arms sales to Pakistan. At issue is whether US commercial sales of F-16 jets, which can be modified to carry and deliver nuclear weapons, are used by Pakistan to further advance its ability to deploy nuclear weapons.
The US must still judge whether the commercial sales would violate the Pressler amendment.
India fears US economic and military aid to Pakistan will be reinstated after Islamabad agrees to take part in the non-proliferation conference, resulting in a stronger Pakistani conventional military force.
Both South Asian governments warn of dangerous domestic discontent if they were unilaterally to cease nuclear development programs.
The US is pressing the two governments to build confidence through compromise. Mr. Sharyerar's Indian counterpart, Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit, is scheduled to arrive in Washington March 4 to pursue these issues.