One of the central relationships forged after 9/11 has hit a rough patch. The latest irritant between Washington and Islamabad came last week as US lawmakers urged Pakistan to wring more information from disgraced nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, alleging that he may yet hold the blueprint to some of Iran's nuclear secrets.
Earlier this month, Islamabad officially closed its investigation. While Mr. Khan remains under house arrest, Pakistani officials say they've given Washington all the details they could get out of him - though that information has never been made public.
"Some question whether the A.Q. Khan network is truly out of business, asking if it's not merely hibernating. We'd be foolish to rule out that chilling possibility," said Republican legislator Edward R. Royce in a statement at the Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation hearing. "Vigilance and greater international pressure on Pakistan to air out the Khan network is in order."
So far, the tough talk is coming only from Congress, suggesting that the White House may be more keenly aware of the many demands already placed on Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, including the pursuit of Al Qaeda suspects, the curbing of cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, and the development of good governance to keep radical Islam at bay. Some analysts say that the demand for access to Khan risks pushing an already delicate relationship to the point of overburn at a time when Pakistan is warming up to Iran.
"Even if the US gets access to Khan, he might not be able to give information on [Iran]. Khan has never been to Iran," says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst in Lahore, Pakistan. "If you apply pressure, you may not get the information you want. The US will have to determine its priorities."
Interrogating Khan is a wish that Islamabad has never granted: Washington has always had to go through the Pakistani military to get to Khan, cherished as a national hero. Some say that's the problem, that Khan has never been pressed hard enough. Pakistan authorities, however, defied Congressional demands last week, saying Khan would never be given up.
"The government of Pakistan does not allow direct interrogation of Khan," says Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, spokesman for the Pakistani military. Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, recently told a parliamentary session that Pakistan would not "take dictation from anybody on our national interests."
Some saw double trouble in these words. For not long after he spoke them, Mr. Kasuri and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz were busy feting Iran's foreign minister, who came to Islamabad with visions of building a $7 billion gas pipeline.
Other signs of a deepening relationship between the two Islamic republics include:
• a proposed joint investment company to boost bilateral trade up to $1 billion;
• the ratification of a bilateral preferential trade agreement by the Iranian Parliament;
• a new Iranian center in Pakistan to provide artificial limbs for quake victims;
• Pakistan's opposition to a military option in the Iranian nuclear controversy.
Washington's relationship with Islamabad, meanwhile, is under greater strain as the US and its allies in Afghanistan face stepped up attacks from the Taliban. Islamabad remains extremely sensitive to claims that the insurgency operates from across the border in Pakistan. Earlier this month, Col. Chris Vernon, chief of staff for British forces in southern Afghanistan, told the Guardian newspaper, "The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan. It's the major headquarters. They use it to run a series of networks in Afghanistan."
Nor has Washington's courtship of Pakistan's nemesis, India, helped matters. The US has offered a civilian nuclear deal to India while flat out refusing one to Pakistan.
It's all led to dampening of relations that some analysts say are now at their lowest point since 9/11.
"Pakistan's real gripe is with the Americans. In recent months an angry Musharraf has quietly, but deliberately defied them. Relations between the two countries have not been so poor since 9/11," writes noted journalist Ahmed Rashid in a recent edition of Pakistan's The Daily Times.
For analysts like Mr. Rashid, pursuing Khan now would be tone deaf at a time when Islamabad is in no mood to do Washington any favors or jeopardize its ties to Tehran.
"[Officials in Washington] don't understand the regime in Pakistan," contends Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent defense analyst in Islamabad. "It's a rent-seeking establishment, providing a service to the United States, like regimes in the Middle East. But ... beyond a certain point, [the Pakistanis] have a mind of their own."
Some see it differently, pointing out that the views recently expressed in Congress do not necessarily represent those of the Bush administration. "The US administration and the Pentagon understand the limits of what Pakistan can do, but the Congress does not," says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a political analyst in Islamabad. Mr. Masood says that Congress, being influenced more by public opinion, has unrealistic expectations that threaten relations with Pakistan.
That's a gamble, given that Khan may have nothing substantive to say. Giving up Khan is also a huge political risk for Pakistan, since it would only add fodder to the claim that Pakistan is America's stooge, analysts point out. Plus, if Khan sings, he may implicate some of those in power. "It's suicidal to hand him over," says Siddiqa.
What is needed instead are better measures to build trust, analysts say. A recent US proposal to generate economic activity in Pakistan's tribal areas, where the Taliban are said to be growing in popularity, is a concrete step in the right direction, points out Masood. He says more bilateral trade and education assistance are the needed antidotes to the current tensions.
Trust, he and others add, cannot be managed so long as the current relationship remains one of demand and follow. "Even if [Pakistan] follows the US verbatim, there will still be so many frustrations," says Masood. "Raising the expectations too high can spoil the relationship."