347. Briefing Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Bowdler) to Secretary of State Vance1

A Nuclear Pakistan in 1979

On the basis of our analysis of the available evidence, we [less than 1 line not declassified] have concluded separately that the Pakistanis will not be able indigenously to produce enough fissile material to construct and test a nuclear explosive device before the end of 1982. [2 lines not declassified]

On the other hand, [2 lines not declassified] have led us to examine two other propositions: (1) the Pakistanis are moving ahead more quickly than we have thought; (2) they are purposely trying to mislead us into thinking that they have a nuclear capability.

On the first of these propositions, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Pakistanis have stolen or purchased enough fissile material to make an explosive device, [1 line not declassified]. There is also a long-shot chance that the Pakistanis have enough material on hand to construct a device, but the procedure is technically difficult and politically risky, involving diversion of safeguarded fuel, and we doubt that they would choose to follow it.

On the second proposition, from our vantage point, there seem to be many disadvantages for the Pakistanis in trying to convince others that their nuclear program is more advanced than it is. The perception that Pakistan is going nuclear could arouse further international concern and opprobrium, prompt India to retaliate or to build nuclear weapons, end any possibility of further supplies for their nuclear power program, and severely damage their relations with the US.

From the Pakistani point of view, however, there are several reasons why they may want to appear to have a nuclear capability:

—Such a claim could enhance Zia’s political position, since the nuclear explosives program is highly popular in Pakistan as a means of countering India’s military superiority and matching its 1974 nuclear [Page 814] test. In addition, for a variety of reasons, Zia is likely to cancel the elections scheduled for November, even though this move could threaten his tenure. An announcement that Pakistani scientists had developed a nuclear weapons capability could help Zia through this crisis.

—The Pakistanis may be gambling that a known nuclear capability will persuade the US and other Western suppliers to end punitive pressures on Pakistan in support of non-proliferation. They may even calculate that we would gradually restore aid programs and improve bilateral relations.

—Pakistani leaders may believe that convincing India they have a bomb will deter an Indian preemptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. ([1 line not declassified] some Indian leaders are considering that option.)

—The Pakistanis may also think that if they can sufficiently alarm the Indians, New Delhi might agree to some form of mutual nuclear restraint—the South Asia nuclear weapons free zone, a non-first-use agreement, or mutual or international inspection of facilities. (Desai has already labeled US pressure on Pakistan a “back-door method” to get India to agree to inspections.)2

—The Pakistanis probably believe that only a nuclear weapons capability can restore Pakistan’s international prestige. They seem convinced that even the perception of this capability would virtually guarantee a much-needed influx of economic and financial assistance from wealthy Arab countries.

If the Pakistanis have chosen this bluff as policy but are unable to carry out a test, we would expect them to continue to drop hints throughout the summer, and then let it be known in the fall that they have constructed a device but “choose not to test it.” They could then publicize their posture of self-restraint while again proposing nuclear negotiations with the Indians.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P87000–0565. Secret; Noforn; Nocontract; Orcon; Nodis. Drafted by Karen Longetieg (INR/RNA/SOA); cleared in INR/STA. Telegram 147619 to Islamabad, June 8, transmitted the text of Bowdler’s memorandum to the Embassy with the following explanation: “We submitted the following memorandum to the Secretary on June 8. Ambassador Hummel and NEA/PAB who reviewed it, asked that it be repeated to you for any comments you may have.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850040–2003)
  2. In telegram 9582 from New Delhi, June 2, the Embassy reported Desai’s June 1 press briefing, during which the Prime Minister was asked about a reported U.S. proposal to create a nuclear weapons free zone in South Asia. Desai responded that “such a proposal was a ‛backdoor method’ to induce India to accept international inspection of its nuclear facilities.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790252–0954) The New York Times reported on May 27 that the Carter administration had proposed a nuclear-free zone in South Asia backed by security guarantees from the United States, Soviet Union, and China. (“Curb on Atom Arms in South Asia Urged,” New York Times, May 27, 1979, p. 8)