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Pakistan Calls for Fissile-Material Ban Talks to Address Existing Stocks

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

The international Conference on Disarmament, shown in February. Pakistani officials say they would be willing to negotiate at the Switzerland forum a consensus agreement on banning new fissile material production if addressing levels of existing stocks were also on the agenda for the talks. The international Conference on Disarmament, shown in February. Pakistani officials say they would be willing to negotiate at the Switzerland forum a consensus agreement on banning new fissile material production if addressing levels of existing stocks were also on the agenda for the talks.

WASHINGTON -- Pakistan is pressing the United States and other key member nations of the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament to agree to discuss potential limits on current inventories of fissile materials as part of negotiations regarding a ban on new production, according to officials in the South Asian nation and outside experts.

Talks on preventing the manufacture of weapons-grade plutonium or uranium “should also cover existing stocks,” one senior Pakistan Foreign Ministry official told Global Security Newswire in a brief interview last month. “Otherwise, it may not further the cause of nonproliferation.”

The official requested anonymity in this article to offer more candor on a diplomatically sensitive subject.

Russia and the United States hold by far the largest quantities of the world’s stocks of highly enriched uranium and military-usable plutonium. The idea behind negotiating this type of global accord would be to effectively cap the number of nuclear weapons that could be produced into the future, and create an international regime that would help to discourage further proliferation.

Pakistan, which has a nuclear arsenal numbering roughly 100 warheads, in recent years has blocked consensus on negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty at the Geneva, Switzerland-based disarmament forum. As a nuclear-armed nation not recognized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Pakistan has complained that a simple ban on production would lock in stockpile advantage wielded by neighboring rival India and other atomic powers.

Islamabad would like to first produce enough fissile material so it can be assured of a warhead arsenal sufficiently sized to absorb any Indian first strike and still be capable of nuclear retaliation, Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, said on Monday. India has a nuclear force similar in size to Pakistan’s arsenal.

Islamabad does not seek to “match Indian warhead by Pakistani warhead, Indian bomb by Pakistani bomb,” Lodhi said during a panel discussion at a nuclear policy conference sponsored here by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

However, the Nuclear Suppliers Group decision in 2008 to allow India to engage in sensitive atomic trade deals despite not being an NPT signatory had an “instant and strategic” impact on South Asia, she said.

The unprecedented waiver enabled India access to nuclear markets while producing fissile materials at military sites that would not be subject to international safeguards inspections. Pakistan has since pushed for a comparable NSG exception for its own atomic energy program, though experts say this is unlikely to occur.

Now Pakistan must “close the gap” in terms of fissile material capacity and “re-establish the strategic equilibrium of balance that was disturbed,” Lodhi said.

“Pakistan needs enough fissile material” to meet its “sufficiency requirements,” which includes a stockpile that would allow the nation to have “a credible second-strike capability” against India, Lodhi said.

Whether discussion of existing material inventories must lead to reductions or ceilings on fissile material quantities under a treaty “could be subject to negotiations,” said the senior Pakistani official, speaking at the government’s diplomatic headquarters in Islamabad. “But the idea is essentially to cover the existing stocks as a subject on the table, whenever this discussion takes place.”

With the support of the five major nuclear powers – China, France, Russia the United Kingdom and the United States -- the U.N. General Assembly voted in 2011 to consider options for negotiating an FMCT accord outside of the consensus-driven Conference of Disarmament.

“That may not be a very good idea.  I think that there’s a general consensus that Conference on Disarmament is the right forum where such discussions take place,” the Foreign Ministry official said. “We think consensus is required if you want to advance the cause of nonproliferation.”

“Shifting the venue is not going to solve the problem,” Lodhi concurred on Monday. “If we are running after symptoms and not dealing with the causes, we’re not going to do any better than we did in the last two or three years, when efforts were made -- or at least threats were made -- to shift the process out of the CD. But frankly those efforts came to grief.”

Russia and China are among several nations that appear reluctant to initiate formal negotiations on such a ban without the global consensus that the Conference on Disarmament offers. Even some U.S. officials and experts have voiced concerns about establishing a precedent in which selected issues lacking unanimous support in Geneva are taken outside to other forums for majority vote or some other decision-making process.

Yet, some regulation of fissile material stocks is likely to be included in any FMCT negotiations into the future, said Christoph Eichhorn, Germany’s deputy federal government commissioner for disarmament and arms control.

“If the nuclear-weapon possessor states really want an FMCT, they have to take note of that reality,” he said, speaking on the same Monday discussion panel. “Our hope would be that they could be a little bit more flexible on this point, for example, allowing a more open formula in the mandate on treatment of stocks.”

He added: “If that happens, it will be probably much more difficult to block progress.”

“But they’re not blocking because we like blocking,” interjected Lodhi, who is currently a political commentator outside of government. “We’re blocking because we have security interests which have been jeopardized. … So far the international community has put nothing on the table” to meet Pakistan’s concerns, she said.

“So either it gives us equal treatment with India, or it gives us a clear mandate which says that past production -- existing stockpiles -- will be reduced,” she said. In either of these cases, Lodhi said, “we would be prepared to unblock.”

The same Carnegie expert panel also discussed, among other issues, the prospects that Pakistan might sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Neither Islamabad nor New Delhi has inked the accord, though both are among a small number of nations for which ratification is required before the treaty could enter into force.

The United States has signed but not ratified the treaty, and has not conducted any underground explosive tests since the early 1990s.

Pakistan has also honored an informal unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, as has India, Lodhi said. Islamabad would sign the test-ban agreement if New Delhi did, she said.

Pakistan would not be the first nation in South Asia to break the testing moratorium, a senior official at the army’s Strategic Plans Division told GSN late last month.

"We did not bring nuclear testing to this region,” said the official, whose organization oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. “We will not be the ones to resume testing in this region.”

In the past, Pakistan has proposed to India a bilateral moratorium on underground nuclear explosive tests, but New Delhi has rejected the idea, the official said.

Asked if Pakistan might consider signing and ratifying the test-ban treaty if Washington goes on to ratify it, Lodhi suggested that some regional progress might yet follow.

Pakistan is “willing to sign the CTBT if others -- particularly India -- does so,” Lodhi said. Were Washington to ratify the agreement, “we would make a very quick phone call to New Delhi,” saying “let’s jump, and jump together,” she said.

The official representing Pakistan’s powerful army and its nuclear directorate, though, was not quite as definitive.

Pakistan would not “automatically” sign and ratify the test-ban accord if India or the United States took their own next steps on the matter, the senior official said.

“We will consider crossing that bridge when we get there,” the Strategic Plans figure said in e-mailed responses to questions.

CLARIFICATION: This story was changed to more closely reflect the broad nature of paraphrased comments about existing fissile material stocks attributed to Christoph Eichhorn, a German government official.

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