Pakistan’s Precedent-Setting Role in Today’s Nuclear Problems, and Israel’s Attempts to Counter It

March 8, 2022 | Oved Lobel
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With Iran on its way to obtaining nuclear weapons—perhaps regardless of whether a deal is concluded in Vienna—it may well be up to the Jewish state to stop it. Israel already prevented both Iraq and Syria from obtaining nuclear weapons with now well-documented airstrikes. So far, it has reportedly favored clandestine measures to slow the Islamic Republic’s path to the bomb. Oved Lobel calls to attention to new information about another covert campaign, in the 1980s, to nip Pakistan’s nuclear program in the bud—which came close to using bomber jets as well:

If Israel’s efforts to halt [the Pakistani nuclear] network had succeeded, not only would Pakistan have been stopped from getting nuclear weapons, but in all likelihood, so too would North Korea—while Iran’s ongoing nuclear program would never have gotten off the ground, and the same can be said for the abortive nuclear programs of Libya and Syria.

Israel planned a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities at Kahuta around the same time as the bombing of Osirak, [the location of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, in 1981]. Since 1981, India had been planning a strike against Kahuta to halt the weapons program, and in 1983 Indian officials secretly travelled to Israel to purchase electronic-warfare equipment to overcome Pakistan’s air defenses around the facility. After threats by Pakistan, Israel offered to launch the strikes from two Indian airbases, an operation which then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed off on in March 1984. The U.S., however, leaked the plans to Pakistan and put extreme pressure on Israel, which backed down.

U.S. complicity, across political parties and administrations, supported Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program. . . . The Pakistanis, primarily out of anti-American and Islamist ideological zeal with a touch of financial desperation, gave the Iranians centrifuges, enrichment plant plans and reportedly even weapons designs. . . . Pakistan also reportedly began training Iranian nuclear scientists.

By pretending the nuclear issue did not exist as an irritant in the relationship, the U.S. was able to forego sanctions on Pakistan and partner with it in Afghanistan, first against the Soviet Union and then against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, issues it prioritized over nuclear proliferation. This would prove to be a fatal error of judgement, as Pakistan’s double game in Afghanistan—where it was the key backer of the Taliban and also protected al-Qaeda—would ultimately lead to a transnational terrorism campaign against the West and eventually the 2021 retreat of the U.S. from Afghanistan—delivering the country straight back into the hands of the Taliban.

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