Iran, Pakistan and Nuclear Ambitions

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Nicole Waintraub

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2011 Volume 32 Issue 3

Nicole Waintraub was an intern with Project Ploughshares from September 2010 to August 2011.

Developments in Iran’s nuclear program are often viewed from the perspective of North American and European policy priorities. Here I explore the issue from the perspective of one of Iran’s most embroiled neighbours: Pakistan. This article, which draws on a series of confidential interviews with retired Pakistani senior military and diplomatic officials and nuclear scientists, is part of a larger research project to gauge the perspectives of Iran’s neighbours on the possible development of nuclear weapons by Iran.

Generally positive relations between Pakistan and Iran are rooted in a common history, ethnicity, and language. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s relationship with Iran has vacillated greatly over the past half-century. It can be broadly divided into four periods: the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran (1941-1979), the Khomeini years (1979-1989), the post-Khomeini period (the 1990s), and post-9/11 (2001-present).

The time of the Shah was viewed by many as a period of enlightenment in the Muslim world because of the leadership of secular modernists in the formation of the nascent nation states of Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Pakistan’s government became a secular military dictatorship under Ayub Khan and relations with Iran grew stronger.1 At one point, there were suggestions that Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan could form a confederation of states, bolstered by oil from Iran and manpower from Pakistan; this idea, never developed, lingered in the minds of many people. Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan did, however, cooperate with Turkey in forming the Regional Cooperation for Development to encourage mutual economic and social development. As well, both Iran and Pakistan were key players in U.S. alliance politics of the Cold War to contain the influence of the Soviet Union in the region.2

Pakistan-Iran relations shifted dramatically in the late 1970s with the revolutionary overthrow of the Shah in Iran3 and the rise to power in Pakistan of President Zia-ul-Haq, a devout Sunni leader. Not only did Iran and Pakistan experience growing ideological friction, they also had vastly different regional orientations. At the time, Iran saw its nemesis as Iraq and the Arab world, while Pakistan was focused on its rivalry with India and, beginning in 1980, the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s nuclear program developed in this context, primarily in response to the development of nuclear weapons by its arch-rival, India.

Although Iran and Pakistan attempted to rebuild their relationship during the 1990s, their efforts were complicated by clashing approaches to Afghanistan. While Iran supported the Shi’a minority in Afghanistan, Pakistan supported the predominately Sunni Taliban. Despite this important difference, an overwhelming force in favour of rapprochement was a common heavy scrutiny and sanction by the U.S.—Pakistan because of its growing nuclear weapons program and Iran because of its open disregard of U.S. policy directives.4

After the events of September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Afghanistan, the Afghanistan factor changed completely. Iran, increasingly antagonistic toward the U.S. under President Ahmedinejad, saw the invasion driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan while at the same time bogging the U.S. down in a counter-insurgency war. Meanwhile, Pakistan found itself ambiguously aligned with the U.S. in the so-called “war against terror.”

Commentators acknowledge the problematic dealings that Pakistan has maintained with the Taliban. Nevertheless, it is understood that Pakistan’s cooperation is fundamentally important to U.S. objectives in the region. This tenuous relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. has harmed Pakistan’s relations with Iran.

To be sure, other factors have a bearing on the relationship between Pakistan and Iran. Most notable of these is the rise of China and the economic opportunities it creates for both countries. Iran and Pakistan have independently formed ties with China based on economic interests and, in Pakistan’s case, to counter-balance India’s role in the region. Relations of these four countries are and will remain complicated. For example, China’s development of the Gwadar Port in Pakistan is an important component of its sea connections to North Africa.5 However, this port is in direct competition with the Chabahar Port in Iran, an Indian initiative that is seen in Pakistan as an attempt by India to deny China its foothold in the region and to undermine Pakistan’s longstanding role in transit trade with Afghanistan.

On the nuclear issue

Many of the experts I interviewed think that the Western press has radically overstated the nuclear relationship between Iran and Pakistan. They believe that A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who, between 1980 and 2000, covertly sold designs and technology to support nuclear weapons development in Libya, Iran, and North Korea, was personally greedy, but not working for the political and military leadership in Pakistan when selling abroad. Although elements of Pakistan’s military establishment supported nuclear proliferation in Iran, the Pakistani government did not take this position officially or publicly. Pakistan staunchly supports every country’s right to nuclear energy, but only for peaceful purposes.

When asked to outline perceptions held by the general public on the possible militarization of nuclear development in Iran, my sources listed the following:

  1. Anti-American – Some believe that the U.S. is trying to ensure that no further Islamic countries develop a nuclear weapon. Iraq and Libya figure prominently here. Many Pakistanis hold that the more weapons Pakistan produces, the more difficult it will be for the U.S. to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. This view tends to be more sympathetic to further development of Iran’s nuclear program.
  2. Balance of power in the Middle East – Some feel that Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the Middle East is problematic. Thus, it would not necessarily be a bad thing for Iran to balance the power dynamic in the region with nuclear weapons of its own. Such a development would not, however, have a direct impact on Pakistan.
  3. Sunni vs. Shi’a rivalry – Others believe that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be a Shi’a bomb, which could provide sufficient grounds for the predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Such a development is undesirable, as it would place a significant amount of pressure on Pakistan.
  4. Nuclear weapons nonproliferation – Some feel that the nonproliferation regime is a coalition of the likeminded. Friends with nuclear weapons are given support and a seat at the table, while others are vilified and sanctioned. In this view, countries with a nuclear-weapons capability that capitulate to outside pressure leave themselves vulnerable.

Official thinking in Pakistan focuses on the dire consequences at domestic, regional, and international levels should Iran develop nuclear weapons:

  1. Nuclear proximity – If Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, Pakistan would be flanked by two nuclear-armed countries—Iran on the west and India on the east. At best, relations with Iran have been mixed. Relations with India have degenerated into war on several occasions. Being sandwiched between two nuclear-armed states would make Pakistan very uncomfortable.
  2. Sunni-Shi’a tensions – There is concern that the Shi’a minority in Pakistan (approximately 15-20 per cent of the total population) would be emboldened if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon, a ‘Shi’a Bomb’. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country with a significant Shi’a minority, might also decide to develop a nuclear weapon, also increasing pressure on Pakistan.
  3. Reaction of U.S. and other international partners – Pakistani officials are keenly aware of the public debates in the U.S. and Israel on pre-emptive strikes against Iran. Were they to occur, Pakistan would find itself in an impossible position. Not only could it suffer in the crossfire of such pre-emptive strikes, Pakistan would come under a great deal of pressure to pick a side.

Official thinking in Pakistan is also driven by concern about increasing ties between India and Iran,6 although India’s nuclear deal with the U.S. and a vote against Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors have complicated that relationship. Many commentators feel that India will continue to orchestrate a strategic encirclement of Pakistan. The implications for Pakistan of a relationship between a nuclear India and a nuclear Iran are unclear, but must be of concern.

Emboldening the minority

Commentators in Pakistan do not believe that Iran poses a direct threat to Pakistan, with or without nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the development of nuclear weapons in Iran would present serious impediments to long-sought stability in Pakistan by potentially emboldening its Shi’a minority, and would place tremendous pressure on its foreign policy. Many Pakistanis also wonder how such a development would affect its longstanding conflict with India. The result of the development of nuclear weapons by Iran would likely be a further destabilization of Pakistan and Pakistan’s relationships with its Asian and Middle East neighbours.


1. See Robert LaPorte (1969), Succession in Pakistan: Continuity and change in a garrison state, Asian Survey, 9:11, pp. 842-861; Wayne Wilcox (1969), Political change in Pakistan: Functions, constraints and goals, Pacific Affairs, 41:3, pp. 341-354; Sumit Ganguly (2000), Pakistan’s never-ending story: Why the October coup was no surprise, Foreign Affairs, 79:2, pp. 2-7.

2. See Shirin Tahir-Kheli (1977), Iran and Pakistan: Cooperation in an area of conflict, Asian Survey, 17:5, pp. 474-490.

3. See Janne Bjerre Christensen (2011), Strained Alliances: Iran’s troubled relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan, Danish Institute for International Studies Report, 2011:03.

4. See Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid (2008), From great game to grand bargain: Ending chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs, 87:6, pp. 30-45.

5. See Christopher J. Pehrson (2006), String of pearls: Meeting the challenge of China’s rising power across the Asian littoral, Strategic Studies Institute.

6. See C. Christine Fair (2007), India and Iran: New Delhi’s Balancing Act, The Washington Quarterly, Summer, pp. 145-159; Monika Chansoria (2010), India-Iran Defence Cooperation, Indian Defence Review, 25:1.

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