US sanctions hit Pakistan’s plan to join Nuclear Suppliers Group

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The US and Pakistani flags. Photo: iStock

Pakistan’s plan to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group has come under a cloud after the US imposed sanctions last month on seven Pakistani companies over suspected links to nuclear trade. The companies have been put on the “Entity List”, which means they need special licenses to be involved in any business in the US.

Multiple diplomatic sources have confirmed that Washington has issued regular warnings about nuclear trading to Islamabad, urging the country to curb such activity.

“The US has feared that Pakistan’s nuclear capability will get into the wrong hands, and has historically kept a close watch on developments in the country,” a senior diplomat told Asia Times.

“However, under the [US President Donald] Trump regime, the tone has gotten stricter and the latest sanctions appear to be Washington playing hardball with Islamabad,” he said.

Foreign Office officials say the timing of the sanctions will hinder Pakistan’s NSG bid, with the Geneva meeting scheduled in June, where potential memberships for states – including Pakistan – will be discussed.

Pakistan targeted ahead of nuke suppliers’ meet?

The general feeling that the US is specifically targeting Pakistan ahead of the NSG meet also stems from the fact that no details have been provided over transactions that have landed the companies on the Entity List.

“One can speculate that these were dual-use items, i.e. technologies that can be used either in commercial products or weapon systems,” prominent nuclear scientist and political analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy said to Asia Times.

“To decide is complicated: should inverters (used now even in air conditioners) be considered banned items because they are used in powering centrifuges that enrich uranium? Laser gyroscopes? There are no clear answers. Hence, I think that these US sanctions are intended as a signal of America’s displeasure with Pakistan,” he said.

Physicist and nuclear activist Abdul Hameed Nayyar said Pakistan had used undercover traders to acquire components of sensitive nuclear technology.

Country ‘paying for its grave sin’

“Some traders have actually been prosecuted in the US and are serving prison terms. The present case could also be something of that nature,” he said. But he believed that Pakistan’s case to be a member of the NSG faced a more serious challenge on other fronts as well. “Pakistan is known to have proliferated nuclear technology, and is paying for that grave sin.”

Meanwhile, Pakistani officials maintain that there is a transparent mechanism in place for dealing with the suppliers of dual-use items, but the US “Entity List” maintained by US Department of Commerce regularly adds and removes items.

Government officials say that Pakistan has sought to attain NSG membership by improving its regulations. An example of this was the Export Control Act from 2004, which was related to nuclear and biological weapons and delivery systems. It also announced lists of goods and technologies subject to regulatory control in 2005, which were reviewed in 2011 in compliance with the NSG lists.

However, officials and analysts are quick to point out that Pakistan isn’t alone wanting to be part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as India is also keen to join the club.

“India and the US are forging an enduring strategic partnership, yet notwithstanding US efforts for assisting India’s exceptional and unconditional NSG membership, an impasse still exists on this issue, thereby eluding the much-needed consensus,” Maimuma Ashraf from the Islamabad think-tank Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) said.

“Since India being in the NSG could permanently block Pakistan’s entry into the group, Pakistan has intensified efforts to ensure non-discriminatory membership criteria for all non-Non-Proliferation Treaty states instead of a merit-based approach. Universal criteria for all non-NPT states could certainly strengthen the non-proliferation regime.”

Nuclear security ‘much better’

Analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy agrees that India will use the latest sanctions to try to deny Pakistan entry to the NSG, but he says unless Washington can make a convincing case that US laws were surreptitiously violated to evade export controls connected to non-proliferation, this won’t amount to much.

“After all, it is well known that many countries – not just Pakistan – seek to buy US technology through front companies,” he says.

However, Abdul Hameed Nayyar says there’s a good chance India will eventually get NSG membership and Pakistan might not.

“The stigma of proliferation has been impossible to wash away [for Pakistan]. The only thing standing between India and it getting membership is China, which is insisting that NSG membership must not be opened to any country that has not signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.”

With China insisting that relaxation for one such country should mean relaxation for all would that open the door for Pakistan?

“It is not clear that that [it] would,” says Nayyar. “Islamabad may cry hoarse in calling it double standards, but if the criteria for joining the club is good nuclear behavior then keeping proliferators out would be regarded justifiable.”

Hoodbhoy is more optimistic, underscoring Pakistan’s improved nuclear security. “Dr A.Q. Khan and his nuclear Walmart left a lasting impression upon the world, of course. That won’t go away for at least another decade. But since then Pakistan has much improved the security of its nuclear materials and one hasn’t heard of any further claims of nuclear non-proliferation violations,” he says.

Pakistan’s adherence to NSG guidelines on export controls and nuclear safety and security standards were lauded by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general Yukiya Amano last month, dubbing Pakistan’s nuclear reactors “the safest”.

“To enhance its political standing and improve its non-proliferation credentials, Pakistan may consider to sign the IAEA Additional Protocol and to join the other three export control clubs as well, which would be a significant leap in its pursuit of nuclear legitimacy,” Maimuna Ashraf said.

Hoodbhoy, though, had a word of caution. “On the other hand, it is a fact that Pakistani society has been radicalized and no one has forgotten insider attacks upon military facilities. This worry should haunt us all.”

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