Bhutto stands firm on nuclear issue

April 11, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Refusing to apologize for Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto demanded yesterday that her country be treated like a valued American ally and not be "cast aside" like a Cold War relic.

Ms. Bhutto, who meets with President Clinton today, said Pakistan continues to pay a heavy price for its pro-Western policies -- maintaining Afghan war refugees on its soil and incurring more casualties than any other country in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

And just as the United States depended on Pakistan in its Cold War against the Soviet Union, it needs its ally as much as ever as a bulwark against terrorism and Islamic extremism, and to project stability into volatile Central Asia, she said.

"Those who stood by the United

States during its moments of maximum danger, in its half-century fight to contain communism, should not be cast aside because the U.S. perceives that the danger has passed," the prime minister said in a speech to the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies here. Borrowing a phrase from the Republican majority in the House, she said that Pakistan has a "Contract with America."

If Pakistan's perceived nuclear capability has deterred India -- its enemy since the two countries were separated in 1947 -- then "I certainly have no apologies to make -- not in Islamabad, not in New Delhi and not in Washington, D.C.," she said.

The Harvard- and Oxford-educated prime minister has used her high-profile visit, which began last week, chiefly to press Congress to repeal a decade-old law intended to punish Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program.

Sponsored by Sen. Larry Pressler, a South Dakota Republican, the 1985 law blocks sales of U.S. military equipment and military aid to Pakistan unless the president certifies that Pakistan does not have a nuclear weapons program.

Since 1990, neither President George Bush nor Mr. Clinton has been able to overlook strong evidence that Pakistan can easily assemble nuclear weapons. The United States stops short of saying that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, and Pakistan continues to deny it.

As a result of the law, the United States has refused to release 28 F-16 warplanes, worth $650 million, that Pakistan has already paid for and for which it must pay $50,000 a year in storage costs. With other military equipment also held up, Pakistan claims that it is actually owed $1.4 billion.

"If the United States will not honor its legal contract with Pakistan, we want the United States to respect its obligations, act honorably and return our money," Ms. Bhutto said yesterday. "The planes -- or our money back. Plain, simple and fair."

The F-16s were built by the Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. at its Fort Worth, Texas, division. Radars for the planes are supplied by Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Linthicum.

In a weekend interview with the Wall Street Journal, the prime minister suggested that Pakistan might turn either to France or to Russia as a source of warplanes if the United States continued to deny them.

This threat aside, support for the Pressler amendment has eroded both in the Clinton administration and on Capitol Hill. Besides failing to end South Asia's nuclear standoff, opponents say the law curbs U.S. investment in Pakistan, limits cooperation against terrorism and could, some officials fear, eventually drive Pakistan closer to the United States' nemesis, Iran.

The Clinton administration last year tried to make a deal with Pakistan: It would release the planes in exchange for a Pakistani commitment to "cap" its nuclear program. Pakistan balked.

Despite the rebuff, the administration still wants to weaken the law, officials say. Right now, officials argue, it blocks support for the Pakistan military's fight against terrorism and prevents U.S. companies from getting the "risk insurance" needed to invest in the country. "We see a need for some fine-tuning," Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph S. Nye told Congress last month.

In Congress, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, says that the Pressler law should be modified. In an article last week, he said the law "has pushed Pakistan away from the United States and toward China and Iran." Sen. Hank Brown, a Colorado Republican, is searching for some way to accommodate Pakistan.

On the other side, Mr. Pressler has mounted a fierce campaign to preserve the law bearing his name.

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