ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan on Monday defended its decision to deny the United States access to a nuclear research reactor after leaked diplomatic cables revealed a U.S. attempt to remove enriched uranium from the facility.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told Reuters that the nuclear reactor in question had been provided by the United States in the 1960s. The Americans, he said, wanted the fuel back because they said it was their property.
“We said no, because it’s now our property and we will not return it,” Basit said. “This only shows that Pakistan is very sensitive about its nuclear program and would not allow any direct or indirect foreign intrusion.”
The United States has been secretly trying to convince Pakistan to allow it to remove the uranium because of fears the nuclear material might be stolen or diverted for use in a nuclear device, the New York Times reported in its coverage of the WikiLeaks release of U.S. embassy cables.
But Pakistan has refused visits from American experts, according to a May 2009 report by former U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, because “If the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they would certainly portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’” a Pakistani official told her.
Pakistan’s nuclear program has been under suspicion since 2004 in part because of leading scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s illegal smuggling ring stretching to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
The revelation is part of a massive dump of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables by the Website WikiLeaks and given to five newspapers: The New York Times, the Guardian in London, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais.
The cables provide candid and at times critical views of foreign leaders as well as sensitive information on terrorism and nuclear proliferation filed by U.S. diplomats, according to The New York Times.
Some 220 cables were posted by WikiLeaks on a dedicated page, http://cablegate.wikileaks.org.
In addition to Washington’s concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear material, other cables regarding Pakistan revealed:
* Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah speaking scathingly about President Asif Ali Zardari, calling him the greatest obstacle to that country’s progress. “When the head is rotten,” it quoted the him as saying, “it affects the whole body.”
Zardari’s office responded by saying the president regards the king as an “elder brother.” “The so-called leaks are no more than an attempt to create misperceptions between two important and brotherly Muslim countries,” his spokesman Farhatullah Babar told Reuters.
* In July 2009, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and de facto defense chief, said Zardari was “dirty but not dangerous.” Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was “dangerous but not dirty — this is Pakistan.” He said Sharif, who heads the main opposition party to Zardari, could not be trusted to honor his promises.
* A rail link between Iran and Pakistan would be delayed for the foreseeable future because of unrest from Baluch militants in both countries.
* Likewise, a natural gas pipeline agreement between Iran and Pakistan, signed with great fanfare earlier this year, is unlikely to bear fruit anytime soon because “the Pakistanis don’t have the money to pay for either the pipeline, or the gas.”
* In February this year, Turkey’s Deputy Undersecretary for South Asian Affairs Engin Soysal told U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns that Ankara had excluded New Delhi from a regional summit with Afghanistan and Pakistan to soothe Islamabad’s sensitivities.
He also told Burns that the Pakistani military was unhappy with Zardari, but was not inclined to intervene militarily. “Nevertheless, senior officers’ patience may not be infinite,” Soysal is reported to have said. “Zardari needs to increase the democratic legitimacy of parliament.”
Alberto Rodriguez, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, said he couldn’t comment on specific documents, which are still considered classified, but said so far, he didn’t know of any reaction from the Pakistani government.
“There’s been no fallout yet,” he said. But, he added, the release of the cables “doesn’t do very much for the global engagement with other countries.”
The White House condemned the release by WikiLeaks and said the disclosures may endanger U.S. informants abroad.
“As far as relations between Pakistan and the U.S. is concerned, I don’t think they will be affected in any manner because we understand each other’s positions very well and we are trying to expand our relations,” Basit said.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani