WASHINGTON -- Poised to test a nuclear weapon and escalate the South Asian arms race, Pakistan is demanding a higher price for restraint than the United States seems willing to pay.
Pakistan wants both a U.S. security guarantee and sufficient economic punishment against India to force the Indians to abandon their nuclear program, according to a visiting Pakistani Cabinet minister.
"In order to be able to exercise restraint, Pakistan obviously looks for security guarantees" from the United States, said Syeda Abida Hussain. "So, nothing short of a categorical assurance leading up to a guarantee on Pakistan's security would be satisfactory.
Defining a "categorical assurance," she said: "If Pakistan faces a nuclear threat from India, then America would not remain a silent observer but America would come to Pakistan's assistance." This would "by implication involve military assistance," she said.
U.S. officials have rejected the idea of a security guarantee.
"It seems a very unlikely step, and I think the Pakistanis understand that," a State Department official said yesterday.
In an interview, Abida Hussain, whose portfolio contains population, welfare, science and technology, called for "severe and lasting" economic sanctions against India that would punish New Delhi and force it to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
The economic penalty meted out to India so far is unimpressive, in Pakistan's view.
The World Bank sent a "mixed signal" Tuesday in deciding to postpone, but not cancel, more than $800 million in loans to India, said Agha Ghazanfar, an official at the Pakistani Embassy.
A State Department official said postponement was the toughest action the United States expected from the World Bank, but that other decisions are pending that could cost India billions of dollars' worth of lost financing.
At the White House yesterday, press secretary Mike McCurry said: "We are working very hard to make a strong, and we hope persuasive case to the government of Pakistan why testing is not in the interest of the people of Pakistan. Whether or not we make that successful is unknown."
President Clinton has spoken to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif three times since the Indian nuclear tests two weeks ago and sent a high-level delegation to Pakistan to urge restraint.
U.S. intelligence officials say Pakistan has completed preparations for an underground nuclear test in response to India's series of five tests that surprised the world.
"Basically, they're ready to roll," an intelligence official said. Another U.S. official expressed puzzlement as to why Pakistan has waited this long to test.
"It's unclear whether they waited for a political decision or out of technical necessity," the official said.
David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, said Pakistanis may be unsure of their ability to mount a formidable enough test to impress India, which claims to have tested a thermonuclear -- or hydrogen -- device.
"India has been taunting them: 'If you don't test an 'H' bomb you're proving you're inferior,' " Albright said.
Pakistani officials know they face U.S. sanctions if their country tests a nuclear device.
But they are heavily outgunned by India in conventional weaponry and under strong domestic pressure to compete in the nuclear arena.
In place of a security guarantee, which even some of Pakistan's key supporters on Capitol Hill don't support, the Clinton administration is prepared to endorse a lifting of the so-called Pressler amendment, which blocks all military and most economic assistance to Pakistan.
The measure was enacted in 1990 as a penalty for steps Pakistan had taken to develop its nuclear capability. Repeal of the law would allow Pakistan to receive 28 F-16 warplanes it has purchased from the United States.
But Pakistan's information minister has been quoted as saying: "These F-16s cannot address Pakistan's vital security concerns."
Monsoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani ancestry who maintains contacts with the Pakistani government and the Clinton administration, says that in addition to a security guarantee, the United States should provide Pakistan with military hardware and intelligence help.
This means more F-16s equipped with advanced technology, helping Pakistan put an anti-ballistic missile system in place and giving Pakistan access to U.S. intelligence technology so it can keep watch on India.
In the interview, Abida Hussain also called for U.S. help in easing Pakistan's debt burden, which officials put at about $32 billion.
In Pakistan yesterday, Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan reiterated that his nation needs only 12 hours' lead time to test a nuclear device. "It is just like putting the key to the lock it's not question of if, but when," he told the Associated Press.
Pub Date: 5/28/98