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June 19, 1998


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Spectre of Islamic bomb returns to haunt Western analysts

US intelligence analysts, stung by their failure to anticipate nuclear tests in South Asia, are reassessing their conclusion that Pakistan is unlikely to share its capability with other Muslim countries "raising the spectre of an Islamic bomb.''

Although they do not yet view these scenarios as likely, US analysts are watching for signs that economic sanctions imposed on Pakistan may boomerang, compelling Islamabad to gain scarce cash by trading on its nuclear technology, according to US intelligence officials.

A congressional aide familiar with intelligence issues said the Central Intelligence Agency's counter-proliferation centre was also concerned that individual Pakistanis might sell their knowledge abroad.

"While it might not be Pakistani policy to proliferate, there might be an individual willing to do so,'' the aide said in explaining the CIA analysts' thinking.

These developments come a month after India and Pakistan surprised US analysts with an exchange of underground nuclear blasts. Once burned, the intelligence community is anxious not to be caught off-guard again. A critique of the episode ordered by CIA director George Tenet found that the agency failed to give sufficient weight to contrary opinions.

That finding by a panel headed by retired Adm David Jeremiah is now driving a close examination of whether Pakistan might sell bomb-making material to fellow Muslim nations such as Iran, according to administration officials and congressional aides.

However, the prevailing view, both among intelligence analysts and outside experts, remains that Pakistan developed its nuclear capability at great expense after decades of toil and is unlikely to give it away lightly.

They say the sole purpose of its programme was to counter rival India's nuclear capability, not to challenge Israel. The Islamic faith shared by Pakistan and West Asian states does not automatically lead to friendly relations.

"Pakistan's relations with Iran, for instance, are very testy at this time,'' said Geoffrey Kemp, a national security aide during the Reagan administration and now with the Nixon Centre for Peace and Freedom.

US intelligence has closely watched tensions between Iran and Pakistan over the minority Shiite Muslim population, seen in Shiite Iran as the victim of Pakistani oppression. A number of Iranians have been killed in Pakistan in recent years, adding to the tension.

Proliferation worries come at a time when the Clinton administration is offering to begin a new relationship with Iran if it abides by international standards of conduct -- including rules barring the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

West Asian analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies says the United States is "grossly overdramatising the whole thing, acting like we've suddenly discovered India and Pakistan are nuclear powers.'' Calling Pakistan's weapon the Islamic bomb, Cordesman said, "is a little like calling the weapon the United States dropped on Hiroshima a Christian bomb.''

Moreover, Pakistan has little to spare from its own bare bones nuclear programme.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security estimated in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Pakistan has enough enriched uranium for 16 to 20 nuclear weapons. Having depleted that stockpile with its recent underground tests, regional experts say, Pakistan would be in no position to sell its precious fissile material.

The concept of an Islamic bomb dates back to the late 1970s when ousted Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto mused on the idea from his jail cell.

"We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability -- a Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilisation have this capability ... The Islamic civilisation is without it, but the situation (is) about to change,'' he wrote in 1978.

Far from hailing Pakistan's achievement, the Muslim world's main international group, the Organisation of Islamic Conference, issued a statement last month expressing "deep concern over this serious development.''

But Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian movement, Hamas, said, "Pakistan's possession of nuclear power is to be considered an asset to the Arab and Muslim nations.''

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi caused a stir when he said Muslims in West Asia had long worried about Israel's nuclear capability and could now feel confident that a fellow Islamic nation possessed similar abilities. Kharrazi later said Iran had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons and urged India and Pakistan to work out their differences.

Sen Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a staunch supporter of Israel, sounded the alarm, saying after the Pakistani tests, "Now you have the Islamic bomb and it will inevitably be pointed at West Asia.''

In Jerusalem, David Bar-Illan, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel was concerned not about an Islamic bomb but about weapons proliferation in general.

"The point is not whether or not nuclear power is in Islamic hands,'' Bar-Illan said. "The point is that we are worried about the possibility that Iran and Iraq, two very antagonistic regimes which are sworn to Israel's destruction, might put their hands on nuclear weapons, that proliferation of nuclear power makes that possibility more likely.''


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