LAHORE, Pakistan — Long derided in liberal Pakistani circles as a fanciful conspiracy theory, the notion that the US has designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will likely gain traction here following a report that the US has mounted a secret effort to remove highly enriched uranium from a Pakistani reactor since 2007.
The report, based on a leaked cable released by WikiLeaks, was first carried in The New York Times.
The perception that America is attempting to rob Pakistan of its nuclear capability has long been touted by Islamists and hardliners in Pakistan, and is frequently brought up alongside the theory that the security firm Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) is responsible for a spate of suicide bomb attacks on civilian targets over the past few years. The US, for its part, has been keenly aware of the sensitivity of the issue, so much so that in May 2009, Ambassador Anne Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts for fear of stoking the Pakistani media’s suspicions.
Boon to hardliners
According to security analyst Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood, the WikiLeaks revelations will prove a boon to hardliners in Pakistan.
“It really reinforces [what until now] has been a conspiracy theory – that America has always been after nuclear assets and gives a big handle to the right and those who have been saying America is not a our friend and saying they are following a dual policy: with India they are friends but with Pakistan they are trying to simultaneously undermine us.”
General Masood predicts the WikiLeaks cable report will have a serious short-term and long-term impact on US-Pakistan relations, and undermine those Pakistanis who have spoken up in favor of closer cooperation with the US in recent times.
“It places such people on the defensive – it looks like the US is trying to get close to Pakistanis who are more Westernized but who are compromising Pakistan’s national interest,” he says.
According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, an eminent Pakistani nuclear physicist based at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the report probably refers to the highly enriched uranium Pakistan received from the US in the late 1960s as part of the “Atoms for Peace” program, before its weapons program began.
“As far as I can guess, the leak refers to highly enriched uranium that Pakistan received from the US in the late 1960’s or early 1970s for running the small 5-mw research reactor at PINSTECH,” he says, in reference to a research center based close to Islamabad that is aimed at producing atomic energy. “There is no other reactor in Pakistan that runs on HEU. I suppose that the US wants it back because of fears that Al Qaeda might get its hands on it somehow.”
Pakistan gained its own nuclear enriching capability in 1976, therefore the removal of some highly enriched uranium by the United States would not eliminate its ability to create nuclear weapons.
Attempt to create misperceptions?
Separate WikiLeaks cables concerning Pakistani politicians could also prove embarrassing to its allies.
In one cable, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia derides President Asif Ali Zardari as the biggest hurdle to progress, stating, “When the head is rotten, it affects the whole body.”
President Zardari however received a tepid lukewarm “endorsement” from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, “Zardarni [sic] is dirty but not dangerous,” while… Sharif is “dangerous but not dirty – this is Pakistan. Sharif cannot be trusted to honor his promises,” a reference to Pakistan’s foremost opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif.
Farhatullah Babar, the president’s spokesman, said via text message that “President Zardari regards Saudi King Abdullah as his elder brother. The so called leaks are no more than an attempt to create misperceptions between two important and brotherly Muslim countries.”