The US was so concerned by the growth of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan in the 1980s that it toyed with the proposal of appointing a “nuclear emissary” to the two countries to help tamp down tensions.
The proposal is analysed in a top secret memorandum dated September 6, 1985, part of about 13 million declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which have been released online.
A year before the memorandum was drafted by the CIA’s Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis, then US President Ronald Reagan had warned Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq that India could take “military action to pre-empt your nuclear programme”, according to state department documents declassified in 2015.
Though Gandhi “probably will avoid anything approaching agreement to serious US involvement in the problem”, the Pakistanis will “welcome an emissary but will want assurances that the US can deliver India on any specific measures”, the heavily redacted memo states in its summary.
The memo states Gandhi’s “personal style and priorities” have provided impetus for warmer ties with the US but adds: “We are not sanguine that even a meeting with Gandhi will produce positive results.” The CIA also stated that, in its judgement, Gandhi doubted the US’ desire to “deal evenhandedly” with India and Pakistan.
“By the mid-1980s, India was becoming more and more aware of the Pakistan-China nuclear cooperation. The intelligence had been accumulating and Rajiv Gandhi got major inputs on the Pakistani programme,” said Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar,director of independent think-tank Society for Policy Studies.
“Besides, he had a very good visit to the US in 1985 and he had ambitious thoughts on nuclear issues. So there were political reasons for the US to look at the issue of an emissary.”
But Bhaskar said the US efforts were “slightly misplaced” because “they were doubly aware of the Pakistani programme and even enabling it” despite the Pressler Amendment of August 1985, which banned sales of military gear unless the US president certified that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device.
The memo also provides a tantalising bit of information – that Gandhi was apparently looking at “alternative approaches” to the India-Pakistan nuclear issue, including possibly arms control rather than non-proliferation.
At the time, Gandhi had been making a major push with a six-nation grouping for nuclear disarmament, a pet topic for the late prime minister. These moves would culminate with Gandhi’s speech at the UN General Assembly in 1988, when he outlined an Action Plan for a nuclear weapon-free world.
- A trove of 930,000 declassified documents, running into more than 12 million pages, recently posted online by the CIA provides fascinating insights into the way the US spy service covered India.
- Hindustan Times did a deep dive into the documents to find out how the CIA tracked important events and personalities in India over a period of more than five decades beginning in the late 1940s.
The CIA believed Gandhi would be more willing to consider US efforts aimed at non-proliferation if Washington “acknowledged the right of non-aligned nations to increased participation in arms control for a”.
As for the Pakistanis, the CIA concluded they would “play along” and “welcome any nuclear emissary Washington might send”. It even states Zia, knowing “Pakistan has little to lose”, would, unlike the Indians, give a relatively low-level emissary a serious hearing.
“The specific Pakistani reaction to the emissary will hinge on the Indian response,” the memo states.
But the CIA had “grave doubts” that even a formal nuclear agreement would mean that Pakistan would end its quest for an atomic weapon.
Less than 13 years later, India and Pakistan would both emerge as nuclear weapon states with a series of tests in May 1998.