The United States will discuss concerns about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal during a visit to Washington next week by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the White House said on October 15.
The Obama administration is concerned that Pakistan might be on the verge of deploying a small tactical nuclear weapon that would be harder to prevent from falling into the hands of militants.
The New York Times reported on October 15 that the administration is also seeking to prevent Pakistan from deploying missiles that could reach beyond its main foe, India, and was thus exploring a possible deal to limit the Pakistani arsenal that could involve relaxing restrictions on access to nuclear technology.
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest played down the prospect of an agreement limiting Pakistan's nuclear program, in an echo of the administration's recent deal to curb Iran's nuclear activities.
"I would not be overly excited about the prospects of reaching the kind of agreement that is being speculated about publicly," he said. "But the United States and Pakistan are regularly engaged in a dialogue about the importance of nuclear security. And I would anticipate that that dialogue would include conversations between the leaders of our two countries."
Earnest added that the administration was confident the Pakistani government was "well aware of the range of potential threats to its nuclear arsenal" and that "Pakistan has a professional and dedicated security force that understands the importance and the high priority that the world places on nuclear security."
Outside experts question whether Pakistan would be willing to curb its nuclear arsenal, which it views with pride as its only real defense against India.
But nuclear-armed Pakistan has long been a worry to the West. It is troubled by violent Islamist militant groups, and the prospect of a nuclear device falling into the hands of radicals there is among the worst fears of security officials worldwide.
Those concerns were fed by the revelation a decade ago that one of the founders of Pakistan's nuclear program was shopping the nuclear technology on the global black market to nations like Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
The New York Times said the United States spent as much as $100 million during the Bush administration on a program to help secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, an effort that has continued under Obama.
The newspaper said U.S. officials were concerned that smaller, short-range nuclear weapons Pakistan designed to use against any Indian invasion were easier to steal and to use if they should fall into the wrong hands.
Pakistan maintains there is no chance of Islamist militants procuring atomic weapons.
Pakistan has had the world's fastest-growing nuclear arsenal. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center said Pakistan has the capacity to add 20 warheads annually and could have as many as 350 weapons in 10 years' time.
With reporting by Reuters, UPI, and The New York Times