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The Atomic Nucleus of Pakistan-US Ties

In recent weeks, there have been reports of the Pakistani government working to “reset” its relationship with the United States. Pakistan’s main goal is to build holistic ties with the U.S across trade, investment, and other areas. In reality, Islamabad’s looking to carve a position in Washington on its own terms, rather than be a conduit for America’s interests in Afghanistan (as it had been since the 1980s).[1]

Remarkably, the discussion comes amid Pakistan’s 23rd anniversary as a nuclear weapons power – i.e., the underlying force influencing U.S-Pakistani ties since the 1970s.

Following India’s underground tests in 1974 – i.e., Smiling Buddha – the U.S started tightening measures to both stop ongoing and prevent future proliferation of nuclear technology. Pakistan, which was an active beneficiary of the U.S-led ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative, was left with the choice of fully abandoning any and all efforts for nuclear weapons – or see itself closed off from Washington’s favour.

Pakistan chose the latter. Yes, the ramifications of its choice did not materialize until 1990 via the Pressler Amendment (which required the White House to bar the sale of conventional arms to Pakistan unless it could certify that Pakistan was not working on nuclear weapons). However, the build-up to that situation started in the mid-1970s, and arguably, had shaped the nature of US-Pakistani ties towards one of general suspicion and pragmatic, security-centric transactions (especially in relation to Afghanistan).

With its “reset” initiative, it seems that Pakistan is trying to steer its relations with the U.S to a time similar to the 1950s and 1960s. Though defence was a major aspect to U.S-Pakistani ties at that time, it involved other aspects that were either aimed at – or at least resulted in – industrial development and, above all, economic growth that mirrored the advancements of other countries in Asia. For some Pakistani decision makers, this period was Pakistan’s ‘golden age’ in terms of its overall potential and regional influence.

However, it would be erroneous to imagine that Pakistan’s stature at that time was unrelated to its ability and intentions to acquire nuclear weapons. Pakistan got the most out of its ties with Washington at a time when it did not desire nuclear weapons. The moment that calculus changed, the relations – and benefits that came through those ties – became less holistic and, arguably, less cordial at the highest levels…

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[1] Peerzada Salman. “New American administration offers chance of reset in Pak-US ties, say experts.” Dawn. 13 January 2021. URL: