Facing mounting international concern over how Pakistan safeguards its nuclear arsenal, military officials Saturday insisted that their system was fail-safe and that the weapons would never fall into the hands of extremists.
Retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai said his nation's nuclear security apparatus is "second to none," with a strictly controlled military chain of command, checks and balances, and monitoring of scientists and others with sensitive knowledge.
"There is no conceivable scenario that Pakistan's military weapons are going to fall into the hands of extremists," he told foreign journalists in a briefing at the Chaklala military garrison here. "The weapons are absolutely safe and secure."
Kidwai, who heads the Strategic Plans Division, which oversees Pakistan's nuclear program, acknowledged that officials had become more alert to threats posed from within the volatile South Asian nation, including political turmoil and a rising terrorist threat. Some international experts have questioned whether Pakistan's security is adequate to prevent nuclear material from falling into the hands of extremists.
The country was shaken by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month, an attack that many here believe was carried out by government forces. The crime is under investigation, though officials have blamed Taliban militants. Meanwhile, the military has been battling Taliban and other Islamic extremists along the Afghan border.
President Pervez Musharraf, on an eight-day trip to Europe, has faced questions about Pakistan's nuclear program. He has said that the only way weapons could become endangered is if religious militants were to rout the army or come to power in elections. He said neither was "remotely possible."
Pakistan's nuclear question has been an issue in U.S. presidential debates. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that Pakistan's estimated 50 nuclear warheads should be safeguarded by a joint U.S.-British security team.
On Saturday, Kidwai said Pakistan's arsenal was in the safe hands of 10,000 soldiers who secure facilities and provide intelligence under a control system headed by top military and political leaders.
"We are capable of thwarting all types of threats, from insider, outsider, or a combination," he said.
The military has also improved its transportation of nuclear materials, Kidwai said. He noted that there were 800 incidents a year internationally involving the illegal transportation of illicit radioactive materials. "None of them," he said, "are in Pakistan."
Pakistan detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1998.
Its security program was tightened in light of a scandal in 2003 involving the father of the Pakistani bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold nuclear weapons designs and components to Iran, North Korea and Libya in the 1980s and 1990s for personal gain.
Many experts believe senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials were complicit in Khan's ring. His voice touched with anger, Kidwai on Saturday vehemently defended his military brethren.
"Don't you think that after all these years, at least one name would have surfaced if that was true?" he asked.
Pakistan, an ally in the Bush administration's battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, has recently launched a public relations campaign to reassure the international community about the safety of its nuclear stockpile. Several U.S. lawmakers visited Pakistan and met Kidwai and other officials.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said he was reassured that there was no danger of the Muslim nation's weapons falling into the hands of militants.
Others question that assessment.
"I don't think we can rest easy given the situation in the country as a whole," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
In the past, he said, some Pakistani military officers had collaborated with extremists plotting to assassinate Musharraf. "If we can't trust the people guarding the president, how can we trust the people guarding the nuclear weapons?" Bunn said. "I believe that their security is impressive, but I also believe it faces impressive threats. I remain worried."
Kenneth Luongo, executive director of the Partnership for Global Security, a Washington-based research organization focusing on weapons of mass destruction, said his group had published an article on the strides Pakistan's nuclear program has made since 1998.
"Their No. 1 vulnerability is people," he said. "It's clear that people in military and physics departments in various universities are more fundamentalist than in the past."
On Saturday, Kidwai said two Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but they were later cleared of wrongdoing. After the attacks, he said, his nation accepted an American offer of what he called basic training and some materials totaling less than $10 million.
He said Pakistan's nuclear warheads and missiles are so complex that some have 20,000 working parts.
"Even if terrorists got ahold of one of these things, they couldn't use it," Kidwai said. "They're not do-it-yourself kits."
US President George W. Bush warned Iran Monday that the United States will "confront those who threaten our troops" and defend its allies and interests in the Gulf.
Bush, in excerpts of his State of the Union speech provided by the White House, also urged Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, embrace political reforms, and "cease your support for terror abroad."
"But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf," he said.
His message echoed US warnings about an early January face-off between US and Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz and came as Washington pushed for new UN sanctions against Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.
"Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you, we respect your traditions and your history, and we look forward to the day when you have your freedom," said Bush.
"Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, and cease your support for terror abroad," he said.
Bush was to deliver the speech at 9 pm (0200 GMT Tuesday). The White House said it would be his final State of the Union address before leaving office in January 2009.
2. Russia Completes Fuel Deliveries to Iran's First Nuclear Plant
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Russia delivered early on Monday the final batch of a fuel shipment to the Bushehr nuclear power plant it is building in southern Iran, the Islamic Republic's nuclear officials said.
With the eighth delivery of five metric tons, Russia has supplied a total of 82 metric tons of low-enriched uranium to the light-water nuclear power plant, which has been the focus of international attention over fears Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
The first delivery to the plant, being built by Russian contractor Atomstroyexport, arrived on December 16, 2007 following months of project delays that Moscow attributed to payment arrears, but which Iran blamed on pressure from Western nations.
Under a bilateral intergovernmental contract, Russia has agreed to deliver 82 metric tons of nuclear fuel, divided into eight shipments. Deliveries were monitored by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Atomstroyexport confirmed on Friday the final delivery of nuclear fuel to Bushehr NPP.
"The final, eighth, batch of fuel has been delivered to the nuclear plant in Bushehr," the company's spokesperson Irina Yesipova said.
Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham earlier said Tehran expects bilateral relations to substantially improve as a result of the fuel deliveries.
"Russia and Iran maintain good, developing relations. The deliveries of nuclear fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant are also a good pretext for boosting cooperation between our countries," he said.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who has led international calls for sanctions against Iran over its refusal to freeze its nuclear program, said last month that he supported the start of Russia's enriched uranium deliveries to the Islamic Republic, and that Tehran no longer has any excuse to develop its own enrichment capabilities.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed Bush's comments in late December, saying it would not be economically viable for Iran to continue its uranium enrichment program.
However, Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali-Hamenei insisted earlier this month that Tehran would continue enriching uranium for future nuclear power plants.
Western nations fear Iran seeks to produce nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists it needs nuclear technology to generate electricity.
Two sets of UN Security Council sanctions are currently in place against Tehran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment.
The five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany agreed on January 22 at talks in Berlin on a draft for new measures against the Islamic Republic, strengthening two previous rounds of sanctions but falling short of the punitive steps proposed by Washington. The draft was circulated on Friday in the Security Council and may be discussed by the end of this week.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said last Saturday that Tehran was hoping that the UN Security Council would not pass new sanctions against the country.
"We hope that the Security Council will not make the wrong decisions, knowing that there are no grounds for doing so," the IRNA news agency quoted Mottaki as saying on the sidelines of an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.
He reiterated that last year the IAEA issued a generally positive report on Tehran's cooperativeness with UN inspectors, and a U.S. intelligence community report stated that the country had dropped nuclear weapons research several years ago.
Tehran plans to hold tenders for the construction of 19 new nuclear reactors and to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity at its NPPs in the next two decades.
1. US Envoy Seeks Complete Nuke Declaration from NKorea
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A US envoy who will visit North Korea this week said Tuesday it must make a "complete and correct" declaration of its nuclear programmes to get stalled disarmament talks moving.
Sung Kim, director of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, said he would spend two or three days in Pyongyang for talks aimed at making progress in six-nation negotiations.
The North missed a December 31 deadline, set by a six-party deal, to declare all its nuclear activities. It says it submitted a list in November but the US insists it must account fully for a suspected secret highly enriched uranium weapons programme.
Kim arrived in South Korea Tuesday for consultations and will go on to China Wednesday and Pyongyang the following day.
Asked if any agreement by North Korea to discuss the uranium programme would be an acceptable first step in a declaration, he replied: "No, the requirement is for a complete and correct declaration of all of its nuclear programmes."
Pyongyang blames the current deadlock on its negotiating partners for failing to honour their side of the bargain -- especially Washington for not starting to remove it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The US insists the nuclear list must come first.
"The United States stands ready to fully discharge its obligations in the second phase, should North Korea discharge its obligations," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday in Washington.
North Korea is also working to disable its plutonium-producing atomic plants as part of the deal involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.
Kim declined comment on South Korean media reports that it has slowed this process down.
The reports quoting diplomatic sources said the process of removing fuel rods at the Yongbyon complex had slowed to around 30 a day from an expected 80-100, meaning it could take weeks longer than expected.
The North, which staged a nuclear test in October 2006, warned in January that it could slow down the work in response to what it sees as the slow delivery of compensation.
Under the six-party deal the North was due to receive up to one million tons of fuel oil or equivalent energy aid, but only around 200,000 tons has so far been shipped.
1. US to India: Let's Wrap Up N-deal While Bush is President
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With the future of the civil nuclear deal looking uncertain, US ambassador David Mulford Monday underlined the need for India to wrap up a safeguards pact with the IAEA so that it can be completed in the lifetime of the Bush administration.
Underscoring the importance of concluding the deal, the envoy hinted at difficulties in reviving it under the next US administration despite broad bipartisan support in Washington to expand the relationship with New Delhi.
But he said that even if the deal were not to go through in the near future, it would not affect the "diverse, multi-faceted nature" of India-US ties, which he insisted would be "a key relationship in the world and one of the most important for the US in the next 20-25 years".
"It is practical for India to complete the entire process this year. Time has been passing," Mulford told reporters, when asked how he viewed the prospects of the nuclear deal given the political opposition to it in New Delhi.
"If it does not finish this time, it will have to wait for a new Congress and a new administration in the US. There will be practical problems," he said.
Keeping in mind the way the Left allies of the government reacted the last time Mulford asked India to conclude the deal quickly, the envoy was cautious this time and emphasised that the US was waiting for India to complete its political process.
"We are not pushing. We are patiently waiting for India to complete its process and conclude a safeguards pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)," he said.
"The US respects India's political process. It underlines our keen desire not to interfere in the domestic political process.
"We will wait for India to work through. The US will be ready to do its own part. I hope it will be successful," he said, while making a strong pitch for the deal, which he stressed was "good for India, good for the US and good for the world". "The earlier we start, the better it is."
Asked if he had any time framework in mind, the envoy said: "I can't speak for the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group). I don't know how much time it will take for the NSG. We know there are different views in the NSG. It's not constructive to speculate," he replied, when asked about the deal's fate in the 45-nation NSG.
The NSG has to take a favourable view of the India-US nuclear deal and amend its guidelines to allow global trade in nuclear technology and fuel with New Delhi, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Mulford indicated at difficulties that may beset the nuclear deal under a new American dispensation.
"Four years ago when the US president decided to make an exception for India, he took a radical step in the nuclear non-proliferation history," he said.
"This is an extremely sensitive issue in the US. It is a major, major issue. The public deeply cares about it.
"When a decision was taken to include India in the system, that required a change in the US atomic law for the first time.
"Democrats and Republicans voted together because of the views they took of India, India's position in the world and its record in non-proliferation," the ambassador added.
But alluding to a manifold increase in bilateral trade, defence ties and people-to-people contacts spurred by a streamlined visa system by the US, Mulford said: "You look at the magnitude and diversity of the relationship. This relationship is not going to be adversely affected if the deal goes not through. It's here to stay, it's going to grow and it's going to become one of the most important relationships in the world.
"It's going to be a key relationship for the US in the next 20 years. Common interests are bringing us together," he added.
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