By Cyril Almeida
Occasionally, very occasionally, the military mind here hits upon a good idea. The offer to supply nuclear fuel cycle services under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards may be one of those ideas. Let’s begin with the science bit in this maze of scientific jargon and high-stakes international politics.
What Pakistan has offered is analogous to an oil-refining facility. If you have a generator and barrels of crude oil, you can’t very well pour the oil into the generator and flip the switch; you need petrol or diesel. So for countries looking to, say, set up a nuclear power plant — all the rage nowadays — Pakistan is offering to prepare the nuclear fuel that will power the plant which will produce electricity. That’s all we really need to know.
Why is this a good idea?
Pakistan is the bad boy of the nuclear world. Well, maybe not as bad as North Korea or Iran, but bad enough. Neither are we truly accepted as one of the members of the nuclear club nor are we trusted with the technology.
The reasons for this are varied. First and foremost, we screwed up: see A.Q. Khan. (Sure, there may be explanations and mitigating circumstances but we made our own bed.) Then we have loads of jihadis running around blowing up stuff (and themselves). We have an Army which jealously guards its nukes but forgot to inoculate itself against its own progeny, the aforementioned jihadis.
We aren’t very stable politically. We, and let’s be honest, have lots of Muslims who are right-leaning and our leaders occasionally succumb to kooky ideas involving Pakistan punching above its weight. And all that comes before you enter the exotic realm of conspiracy theories.
So whatever Pakistan does, it just can’t cut a break on its nuclear programme. It is a stick used to beat Pakistan with whenever it gets a bit frisky and demands to play with the boys.
To see how it works we need go no further than Exhibit A, a Reuters story on their Indian website after Pakistani Prime Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani made the surprise nuclear offer: “Pakistan, the country of the disgraced nuclear scientist who provided Iran, Libya and North Korea with uranium enrichment technology, is once again offering its atomic fuel services to the world”.
Not so subtle, is it? You have to click through to page 3 before you find this: “UN nuclear chief Yukiya Amano told reporters that there had been some improvements in nuclear security in Pakistan”.
Unsurprisingly, then, Pakistan has been desperate to change the subject, as it were, from our nuclear sins to our legitimate nuclear concerns. The Army wants the subject changed because it is obsessed with India, but there is reason for others — Pakistanis who aren’t in the same camp as the Army — to also hope they succeed in changing the subject.
Here’s how changing the subject may work: the offer to provide nuclear fuel services puts Pakistan in a category of law abiders rather than nuclear scofflaws. Well, maybe not exactly “law abiders” but at least it creates space for us to escape from our perennial defensive crouch. In the world of diplomacy, having something new and original to say can nudge along a dialogue stuck on the same old hackneyed subjects.
Of course, the impact should not be overstated. The offer made headlines in Pakistan but barely registered in the international media (other than, predictably, India). What it does indicate, though, is that General Headquarters is indulging in a bit of creative thinking, a way out of the nuclear-pariah morass. This is new.
It’s unclear to what extent credit goes to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for this, but it is noticeable that on his watch the Army has become more forthright. We’ve seen it on India, Afghanistan and the Afghan-India connection. And now we’re seeing it with the nuclear programme.
Rather than begging for recognition and legitimacy, the nuclear establishment has, in making the nuclear fuel offer, acted like it already is a recognised and legitimate player. It is an interesting move, though the pay-off isn’t clear at this stage.
Hopefully someone will bite at Pakistan’s offer. And if it is a western country, then all the better. Here’s why. Keeping Pakistan on the defensive on all things nuclear means the Army is on the defensive and in uber-suspicious mode. That leads to less-than-welcome outcomes.
Take this example. Ever since the US-Indo civil nuclear deal appeared on the horizon, the Army here has been clamouring for one. But is a similar deal really economically viable for Pakistan? Nuclear power plants are expensive, very expensive. Where is Pakistan going to get all those billions of dollars from, assuming a deal is in fact possible?
And the cost-of-electricity calculations overlook aspects unique to nuclear power: safety and security. By the time the cost of proper safety measures and adequate security are factored in, the electricity generated could be more expensive than the already pricey thermal option we are trying to shift away from.
So why are we arguing for a similar deal? Partially because it will bestow our nuclear programme with a legitimacy it currently lacks. Political legitimacy at a steep economic cost is something the Indian economy can absorb, but can the same be said about Pakistan’s?
Yet none of these issues can be debated meaningfully as long as the Army knows how the rest of the world regards its nuclear programme: as an unfortunate aberration that must either be tolerated for strategic reasons or defanged sooner than later.
Since the nuclear programme is in fact going to remain foundational to national security for the foreseeable future, even those here who don’t always agree with the Army should be rooting for the latest gambit to pay off. A nuclear power at ease about the legitimacy of its programme in the eyes of the world is less likely to be reductionist and more amenable to sophisticated options.
Put another way, the Army may be more reasonable if the world learns to treat its nuclear programme more reasonably.
Source: Deccan Chronicle