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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 March, 2004, 12:16 GMT
Is Pakistan's nuclear programme dying?

By Paul Anderson
BBC correspondent in Islamabad

In all the heat generated by Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, confessing to nuclear proliferation, relatively little attention has been paid to the future of the country's nuclear weapons programme.

AQ Khan Pakistani nuclear scientist
AQ Khan dramatically confessed to leaking nuclear secrets in February.

In the 1970s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto famously declared that Pakistanis would go to any sacrifice to match India's nuclear weapons programme, even if it meant the people being reduced to eating grass.

Now they have a nuclear programme, they are discovering that weapons technology is a dynamic business which requires constant maintenance and upgrading.

That maintenance has been promised by President Pervez Musharraf.

But nuclear specialist and journalist Shahid ur Rehman believes the president will run into difficulties, the seeds of which were sown many years ago.

"Pakistan's programme was based on smuggled, imported technology," he says. "AQ Khan and his friends went shopping all over the world with the connivance of the Pakistani army.

"By contrast, India's programme was not as sophisticated, but it was indigenous. If there are curbs on India they will not suffer."

Shahid ur Rehman argues that it will be impossible for Pakistan to upgrade its nuclear programme legally.

"If Pakistan needs a nuclear component, they will have to approach the international market. They will not sell it, so Pakistan will have to buy it on the black market."

That means, he argues, that: "Pakistan's nuclear programme is now almost half dead. They won't be able to modernise facilities which are becoming obsolete. It is a de facto roll back."

And that is precisely what President Musharraf has promised to avoid.

"We will continue to develop our capability in line with our deterrent needs. I am the last man who will roll back," General Musharraf promised recently.

Inspections debate

So far, there is no obvious pressure on Pakistan to embark on nuclear reduction or a roll back.

But that could come, if or when new revelations about its proliferation history come to light.

The country could also come under pressure to open its facilities for inspection.

Supporter of AQ Khan
Many Pakistanis regard Dr Khan as a hero

"The outside world would be quite justified in asking the Pakistani government for proper assurances," says AH Nayyar, a physicist and nuclear expert from Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

"They could demand to inspect the log books of all sensitive organisations in Pakistan to make sure every single kilo of highly enriched uranium is taken account of. That could be very intrusive," he says.

But as long as President Musharraf is in power, that is extremely unlikely.

"No to an internal independent inquiry and no to United Nations inspections teams," he said after AQ Khan's dramatic confession last month.

He might have added 'no' to joining the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which has been mooted as a possible consequence of the proliferation scandal.

But it has been ruled out by one government official after another.

Pakistan would have to be legally recognised as a nuclear weapons state first, which is unlikely, and India would have to join the NPT at the same time, which is also unlikely.

Double standards?

NPT touches another nerve. There's a widespread belief in Pakistan that it is being singled out for scrutiny while India's weapons programme is overlooked.

Take the recent hi-tech agreement between India and the United States, on cooperation in nuclear power and space technologies.

Samina Ahmed, from the International Crisis Group, believes it is a green light for proliferation.

Launch of nuclear missile at Khan Research Laboratories
Khan's Kahuta plant is Pakistan's main nuclear weapons laboratory

"Transfers of dual-use technology, nuclear technology and space technology is violating a basic principle of the Non Proliferation Treaty," she says.

"It is dangerous and counterproductive.

"Dangerous because with some of the gaps in India's nuclear weapons programme being filled in with American support, that will encourage India to go ahead with its ambitious nuclear programme.

"And counter-productive because it will lead to other states playing catch-up."

While these argument rage, Pakistan is quietly hoping the whole issue will go away.

Or if it does not, that the focus of attention is turned on what President Musharraf says is the real menace - the European companies which he says form the backbone of the nuclear black market.

So far though, there is little sign of that happening.

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