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'Pakistan had the bomb by 1989'

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Last updated on: March 10, 2004 17:20 IST

Benazir Bhutto is one of the few people eminently qualified to talk about Pakistan's nuclear programme. Not only was her father, the late prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the moving force behind the project, she herself was closely associated with it through two terms as prime minister.

In the second part of an exclusive interview with Senior Editor Shyam Bhatia, Bhutto discloses that Pakistan not only achieved operational nuclear capability by 1989 but then cut back on its enrichment programme following intense pressure from the West.

Part I: 'Zia wanted to defeat America'

When you became PM, did the military keep you out of the enrichment plant at Kahuta?

I don't remember, I really don't remember. I think I may have been to PAEC, but I don't remember if I went to Kahuta. I would really have to check the records to see if I went or not. They tried to keep me out of the nuclear programme.

By bypassing you with papers?

Right, but I put myself in it in December [1988] because this was the biggest issue. I asked the army chief and he said, 'It's got nothing to do with me, it's the president.' I asked Ishaq Khan [then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan] and he said, 'There's no need for you [to know].'

I thought, I'm the prime minister and there's a war going on, a political war, where the president is trying to say the army comes under him, security comes under him, the nuclear programme comes under him. But my party would say no, we have a parliamentary system and parliament is the elected body and security issues must come before the parliament and the prime minister is head of the parliament, so she must be involved in security discussions. Otherwise she becomes a glorified municipal mayor, which is what Ishaq and the military had Nawaz Sharief [then opposition leader and later prime minister] saying.

So did you have no contact with the nuclear establishment?

I picked up the phone and called Munir, whom I knew very well, and I picked up my phone and he said who else knows, Qadeer Khan. They both turned up to see me. So then the president and military establishment decided they had to deal with me, they could not bypass the prime minister. Because, while they might say they had no power over the military, I could sack the scientists and then what would they do?

Or I could take the press into confidence, I could take parliament into confidence. So then, because I asserted myself, the president called me up within hours of my calling the scientists and telling them I want a briefing, where we stand, where are we?

What did the president say?

He said, 'Come, we'll have a meeting together.' So then we decided to set up a command committee. Originally, the programme was under the prime minister who was the chief executive. When Zia took over as president, he kept himself as the head of it because under Zia the chief executive was the president. So it went to the president and army chief.

When I became prime minister, they tried to keep it with the president and army chief, but later they inducted me and it became the president, the prime minister, and the army chief. We would meet at the presidency and, when we wanted briefings on anything, we would call the scientists.

So in 1988 uranium enrichment was running at 93 percent, which is weapons grade level?

Enrichment was at 93, but we had done a cold test by... well, we decided about the proliferation and we decided it was important first to achieve a certain level. So they did a cold test around January '89.

So that was without the nuclear core?

I don't know how cold tests are done. But they said before I gave any guarantees to the West, I must have a cold test to see if everything works.

Between January and March the cold tests were done. I don't know if they did it in January or they did it several times, or what they did. But it was completed by March.

Because I told them how many bombs do we need to destroy civilization? I said who will be left to destroy civilization? Okay, we need some in case one gets wiped out and another gets wiped out, some degenerate and something else happens. I said, 'You tell me how many you need.'

And what did they say?

I don't want to get into that, there are certain things that I feel I must keep quiet about. So I said whatever you need, you keep that much. But beyond that we don't need. So we figured we had enough, we didn't need and we would give the statement that for confidence-building, to protect our laboratories we would not export.

I could not understand why the Americans were insisting on exports, that there should be no exports. But they and IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency] -- and there were meetings in Vienna with my adviser for defence, he was also part of the enlarged committee.

So by 1989 Pakistan had an operational nuclear capability?


A stockpile existed by then?

Not only a stockpile but bomb components existed and it was only a question that we put them together or did not put them together. So not putting together the bomb components meant a time lag, which the West said gave it confidence that nothing would be done impetuously.

But there must have been huge political pressure from the West at that time.

As I said, the sense of paranoia that our sites would be blasted out, our laboratories. Everyone was concerned, even the military was concerned. The army was concerned, the president was concerned, the Pressler amendment was there. Soviets were withdrawing by February and there was concern that as soon as the Soviets withdrew we would no longer be a frontline state in the fight against Communism. And that is when our nuclear installations could come under attack.

So we had a very narrow time frame during which we could actually negotiate to satisfy international concerns.

I didn't want to keep it secret. There was the question of how do you continue secretly? So I thought that rather than have a secret or covert programme if we had achieved our security needs, we could have an open policy of what we had intended to do. So we had non-intrusive verification because the Americans claimed their satellites could pick up the volume at which the enrichment plant or the gas centrifuges worked.

So they could pick up whether we were doing 93 percent or not. And at the time we were negotiating what I remember is going from 93 percent to 60 percent. Not going to 5 percent, which is non-weapons grade.

So there was a kind of cutback in a way, a self-imposed restraint?


In that first period of your prime ministership?


So what were these non-intrusive inspections?

That the satellites could pick up the speed at which the enrichment plant was working so with those revolutions -- because at 60 percent you beat at a certain level and at 90 percent you beat at another level.

Were you surprised by the nature of the non-intrusive inspections? It must have come as a shock.

I don't know, this is what I was told, you do so many things in government that the way you retain your memory is to retain what are the important things. I don't remember who told me, but I was told the Americans would be able to monitor what we were doing.

So at that stage in 1989 you gave them the reassurance that you will not put the components together?


And you imposed the voluntary self-restraint of cutting back to 60 percent [enrichment]?


So the amount, the volume of highly enriched uranium decreased?

Yes, so then if you want to make more weapons you have to take that 60 and go to 90. So you always have the option. What we said was that so long as our security is not threatened, we will not put the device together.

So we kept open the option of putting our device together in the event of what we perceived as a security threat, which to our minds meant that if India detonated a device we would have the option of putting it together and, if there was a war, and we felt it was necessary for our deterrence, we would be putting it together.

So we did not rule out putting it together.

Did you think this was realpolitik or a moral position you were taking?

It was realpolitik and also a moral position which we also had long discussions on. There was also the argument made that why should we give [in to] America, we should try and see what we can do to disperse our capacity. We do have the uranium one. But I thought that was too messy and that would involve a whole secret network of trying to set up alternative laboratories because these were known. Also trying to shift the materials. I didn't like that. I argued how many times do we need to destroy each other and at the end of the day they agreed with me.

In return for our restraint the Americans agreed to suspend the Pressler Amendment and give us the aid.

Did they do that?

Yes, $4.6 billion was the quid pro quo, whereas under Zia we got less, we got $4.2 billion for fighting the Soviets. But the Soviets were gone and we got $4.6 billion and, instead of getting 20 or 40 F-16s that we got under Zia, we got 60 F-16s. They weren't delivered because my government got overthrown in 1990 and the Americans alleged that we had crossed the line and that we had gone back to 90 per cent uranium enrichment.

Part I: 'Zia wanted to defeat America'
Part III: 'I felt I was a victim of a conspiracy'


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