Pakistan Knocking at the Nuclear Door

A key ally confirms that his scientists can build the Bomb

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Long before neighboring India detonated its first and only "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974, Pakistan's then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto vowed that his nation would develop the capacity to make atomic weapons even if the effort required its citizens to "eat grass." Bhutto did not live to make good on that pledge. But the man who deposed him and ordered his execution, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, took it just as seriously. Last week, after years of doubtful claims that Pakistan's nuclear research program was not aimed at building weapons, Zia acknowledged with surprising candor that his country has achieved the means of doing precisely that.

In an interview with TIME, the President declared, "Pakistan has the capability of building the Bomb. You can write today that Pakistan can build a bomb whenever it wishes. Once you have acquired the technology, which Pakistan has, you can do whatever you like." Zia added, however, that Pakistan still has no actual plan to make nuclear weapons.

His assertion nonetheless makes Pakistan a potential ninth member of the nuclear club.* And it confirmed widespread reports that within the past year Pakistani scientists had acquired or learned how to produce all the components of an atomic bomb, including a nuclear triggering device and weapons-grade uranium. Zia insists that Pakistan has not yet manufactured enriched uranium -- an assertion that is doubted by some observers, including U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Deane R. Hinton. Indeed, Zia seemed to imply that Pakistan could produce a bomb within a month, a deadline that most scientists consider would be difficult to meet unless weapons-grade uranium was on hand (see interview).

Pakistan's announcement that it can "go nuclear" at any time it chooses presents sharp dilemmas for its neighbors and allies. In New Delhi, the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has come under pressure from conservative politicians to start building nuclear weapons. Relations between the longtime rivals on the subcontinent are already tense. Last week, following an angry standoff involving some 370,000 Indian and Pakistani troops that began in January, the two nations' forces began withdrawing from the Rajasthan sector of the border, continuing a pullback agreement worked out late last month. But the incident has left both sides edgy.

Pakistan's new capability also puts the U.S. on the spot. For years Washington has warned Islamabad against developing nuclear arms. In 1979 the U.S. cut off military and economic aid to Pakistan. When Jimmy Carter offered to restore some assistance following the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, Zia contemptuously told the ex-peanut farmer that the funds would not be missed because they amounted to "only peanuts." In recent weeks there have been renewed cries in Congress to punish Pakistan for continuing to defy U.S. nonproliferation policy. John Glenn, leader of the movement in the Senate, warned last week that Pakistan's nuclear weapons-building capability "has the possibility of setting off a regional nuclear arms race."

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