US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had been expected to announce the sale of nuclear-capable Lockheed-Martin F-16 strike fighter aircraft to Pakistan during her maiden tour of the region in mid March. But that didn’t happen. This was partly because the two sides still needed to work out some issues in their quid pro quo relationship, in which nuclear non-proliferation is increasingly acquiring a central place. But also because President George W. Bush wanted to hear Rice’s take on her talks in Pakistan before making a final decision. Then, too, it was important to break the news first to New Delhi before its general release.
India has protested vehemently against the F-16 sale to its nuclear neighbor. The Bush administration has attempted to sweeten the bitter pill by demonstrating its aspiration to promote India as a major world power with an eye to its offsetting the growing economic and military might of China. There are more perks on offer to New Delhi: state-of-the-art F-16s and even F-18s, with 18 aircraft for immediately delivery and another 108 to be assembled in India via a technology transfer agreement.
Similarly, while the US has offered Pakistan F-16 aircrafts on “take-and-fly-away” basis, the deal for India would be a license for its home production of F-16s. Overcoming its extreme reluctance, the US has also offered to sell to India civilian nuclear technology and could end selling New Delhi a nuclear reactor.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘ sources in Islamabad and New Delhi put it this way.
With India, the US is developing strategic ties; with Pakistan, the Americans are bent on turning the country around and keeping it secure.
US-India relations cover a much broader ambit – political, economic and military, whereas in Pakistan, the primary US aim is to keep the country under its eye and on the track charted by General Pervez Musharraf since September 13, 2001.
Pakistan’s key role in the global war on terror necessitates give-and-take within a framework in which Indo-US relations are not subject to unnecessary and avoidable friction. In any case, the idea is to improve American ties with the two nuclear-armed neighbors while also nudging them to improve their own ties and become less suspicious of each other’s motives.
The policy has worked fairly well for the US until now.
New Delhi sees F-16 sale as hardening Musharraf’s posture
However, Indian observers have noted to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in New Delhi that America’s sale of the F-16 fighter jets to Islamabad has sent mixed signals to Pakistani leaders. They judge from his track record that Musharraf will harden his bargaining stance in the ongoing peace negotiations with India and already see signs of this happening.
Speaking to Pakistani Air Force cadets on March 27, 2005, within hours of the F-16 announcement, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz stated that while Islamabad wanted peace with its neighbors, “it can only be achieved through force”.
The very next day, on March 28, 2005, there were reports in the Pakistan media that General Musharraf had noted in response to an email query to his website (www.presidentofpakistan.gov.pk) that “India had to resolve the Kashmir dispute if it wants to avoid more Kargils.” He was referring to the 1999 Pakistani intrusion into Indian-controlled Kashmir that brought the region to the brink of full-scale war.
With the award of major non-NATO ally status to Islamabad in June 2004, Pakistan became the fourth Muslim country after Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain to enter into long-term strategic and military relations with the US. This status made Pakistan eligible for priority delivery access to defense items, the stockpiling of military hardware, purchase of depleted uranium, cooperation in defense and research programs and loan facilities.
Six months after attaining this status, in January 2005, the Pentagon proposed a $1.2 billion arms sale package to Islamabad, the first promised any American ally in Bush’s second term as President in November 2004. The package included eight P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft, six Phalanx rapid fire guns for the Navy and 2,000 TOW 2 missiles for the Army.
Since his re-election, Bush Junior has shifted his focus from Osama bin Laden to Iran and its nuclear weapons potential. In this context, Pakistan has acquired added importance for the White House given the US intelligence agencies’ need of a presence in Pakistani territory for gathering intelligence on Iran’s nuclear installations and in case of a decision to mount a military operation against Tehran.
There are strong intimations that Musharraf has already agreed to assist America in this eventuality.
Centrifuges handed over, but no enriched uranium sample
The United States further required Musharraf’s cooperation to advance the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation of suspicions that Iran has illegally constructed a uranium enrichment facility.
This suspicion arose when IAEA experts during a spot inspection found that some of the centrifuges in the Iranian facility contained highly enriched uranium, indicating that Iran might have already started clandestinely producing weapon-grade enriched uranium.
The Iranian government strongly denied this charge, claiming that it bought the centrifuges second-hand from an outside party (most probably Pakistan) and that the traces of the enriched uranium found in the Iranian facility might have come from the supplier of the centrifuges.
For more than a year, the nuclear watchdog has been demanding that Pakistan hand over some of its centrifuges for comparison with those found in Iran and a sample of its enriched uranium to see if it matched the trace found in the Iranian facility. Until last month, Pakistan refused. But since early March, Western media quote IAEA officials in Vienna as disclosing that Pakistan has relented and agreed to hand over some centrifuges from its Kahuta enrichment facility.
Just days ahead of Condoleezza Rice’s March 2005 visit to Pakistan, Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed stated that the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, the discredited Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, was responsible for the under-the-counter centrifuge sale to Iran.
The statement came out of the blue. Later, a government spokesman tried to play it down by claiming the federal minister had said nothing new. It was a lame explanation at best to cover the lapse by a minister in officially confirming for the first time the extent of Dr A Q Khan’s nuclear assistance to Iran. The demand to hand over the centrifuges reportedly figured during the March 16-17 Rice-Musharraf talks in Islamabad.
In a subsequent television interview on March 24, the Pakistani president announced he was considering sending some nuclear centrifuges to Vienna for inspection.
“To end the issue once and for all, we want to send nuclear centrifuges to Vienna for inspection and the matter is under consideration”, he said. But he did not indicate whether he would also accede to the IAEA’s request for a sample of enriched uranium from Kahuta.
Will Musharraf also give up the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline?
Within 24 hours of General Musharraf’s statement, President Bush notified the Congress of his decision to clear the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, giving credence to rumors in the diplomatic circles that the F-16 lollipop was the reward for the General’s cooperation on nuclear parts for the probe against Iran.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, however, claimed that the release of American F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan had nothing to do with the US-Iran standoff on Tehran’s nuclear program or Pakistan’s willingness to hand over obsolete centrifuges to the nuclear watchdog in Vienna.
Most people scoffed at this denial.
Indeed, diplomatic sources in Islamabad even expect Musharraf to go so far to please Washington as to wriggle out of the important project for the construction of a 2,775-km long gas pipeline from Iran to supply gas to Pakistan and India.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s energy sources describe the proposed $4.16 billion pipeline as originating in Asaluyeh, Iran, on the Persian Gulf coast near the South Pars fields and entering Pakistan through Khuzdar. One branch goes to Karachi on the Arabian Sea coast, while the main section continues on to Multan or Rahim Yar Khan and then heads to New Delhi.
Islamabad and Tehran had been discussing the technical aspects of the project, and were expected to sign a memorandum of understanding by the end of March 2005.
But the United States wants Pakistan and India to build a gas pipeline linking them to Turkmenistan through Afghanistan – instead of Iran. This project was mooted before the Rice visit when she publicly acknowledged that Washington was against India buying gas from Iran. The amount of time the US secretary spent discussing the Iranian gas pipeline with Indian leaders left nobody in doubt that averting the project was high on her agenda and part of the Bush administration’s grand scheme for tapping the rich oil and gas reserves of Central Asia.