Motivations for Pakistan to go nuclear

By Nidaa Shahid


There are different motivations which drive a country towards acquiring any weapons capability. Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear weapons program stems primarily from their value as a deterrent against India. During the 1970-80’s Pakistan and India both were in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons capability in order to deter their perceived threats. For India this quest started much earlier than Pakistan, as they conducted a so called Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) in 1974.

Two major motivations which are thought to have had an influence over Pakistan’s quest for this capability in the 1980’s are a) security against the developing Indian nuclear weapons capability and b) prestige that is associated with having a capability which only a select few countries in the world were able to acquire.

There are compelling arguments which can be made regarding which motivation weighed more heavily in Pakistan’s decision. Some of these arguments will be discussed subsequently to ascertain the actual drivers of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

Arguments for prestige

The weapons for prestige argument stems from several statements and actions of Pakistani leaders in the early years of Pakistan quest for developing nuclear weapons capability. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who first served as a federal minister and later as the Prime Minister, was always inclined towards acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Even before he came to power he was pressing President Ayub Khan to consider a nuclear weapons development program, a desire which was only intensified once he was in power.

While he understood the strategic importance of having nuclear weapons as a security guarantee against India, Bhutto also associated the weapons with being a status symbol for Pakistan. This is evident from what he writes in his book If I Am Assassinated: “We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability. The Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilizations have this capability. The communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilization was without it, but that position was about to change.”

Thus, one prestige related argument is that Pakistan wanted to bolster its status and influence among the Islamic states which led it towards a nuclear weapons capability. This argument is driven further home with the above mentioned statement by Bhutto. However, the fact remains that Pakistan never considered nuclear option till 1971 once it realized that its survival against conventionally strong India can’t be guaranteed without a nuclear deterrent.

Another related argument which is made is that by acquiring this technology Pakistan was seeking to become a supplier state of these technologies to Middle Eastern countries. However, both these arguments are voided by the fact that none of these eventualities have come to pass; even after Pakistan acquired a full-fledged nuclear weapons capability.

Although, reports of Saudi Arabia buying Pakistani nuclear weapons emerge from time to time, however, Pakistan has on all occasions addressed these reports accordingly and there is no evidence that such transactions exist or have ever existed. Likewise, Pakistan has not gained any special leverage among the Islamic countries because of its nuclear weapons. Thus, both these arguments augmenting prestige do not carry much weight.

Similarly, other argument made about Pakistan in CIA declassified documents of the time are that Pakistan desired great power status and sought regional dominance which led it towards acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. This argument too is flawed as Pakistan has never aspired to become a regional hegemon and has time and again reiterated that its nuclear weapons capability is purely to deter against the Indian threats.

Even the nuclear capabilities which Pakistan has acquired over the years are limited in scope, such that these only cover Indian Territory. Thus, although the prestige argument is made time and again, it is over shadowed by other arguments which present a far more compelling reason for Pakistan going nuclear.

Arguments for security

That Pakistan made these weapons because of security considerations is another argument which is dominant in the literature on Pakistan’s nuclear program. Pakistan has perceived a threat from India ever since its inception which only intensified following the 1971 war resulting in separation of East Pakistan as well as the Indian PNE in 1974.

The test further hardened the resolve of Pakistani leaders to acquire a nuclear capability to offset the Indian developments in this regard. Thus security became a major reason behind Pakistan’s acquisition of these weapon systems in the early 1980’s.

According to Mark Fitzpatrick, “Pakistani moves to develop a nuclear weapons capability are a direct response to the perceived threat from India’s growing nuclear explosives and space programs. The motivations behind Pakistan’s policy are entirely India-specific. Every aspect of Pakistan’s nuclear posture has been conceived with that potential aggressor in mind.”

Another scholar has put Pakistan’s concerns in the following words, “Bhutto had been concerned with India’s pursuit of the “nuclear option” for several years… A key motivation for Pakistan’s program was concern over India’s well known progress toward having its own nuclear option, and the public declarations by key leaders in India that they must acquire nuclear arms.

This argument is further substantiated not only by literature from Pakistani and western scholars but also by different U.S. government memos which have been declassified in recent years. For example, one memo states that, “Pakistan is strongly motivated to develop at least a potential nuclear capability, in part for prestige purposes but more strongly because it genuinely believes that its national security could ultimately be threatened by India.”

The argument that the rationale behind Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons was prestige is not convincing enough. The empirical evidences and statements by both Pakistani and non-Pakistani leaders proves it to be security driven. A CIA memo has also substantiated this argument in following words, “Pakistan’s nuclear program is motivated in large part by fear of India and we U.S. are unwilling to provide a security guarantee against India.

Thus, another motivation for Pakistan was the lack of external security guarantors towards which led it towards a nuclear weapons program of its own against an Indian nuclear armament program. This is not to say that Pakistan did not try other means of deterring an Indian threat.

Nuclear weapons were not the first conclusion which Pakistan reached, when it perceived a threat from India. Pakistan also tried other military and non-military means of deflecting an Indian threat, which were recognized by the U.S. government as well. A CIA memo in this regard acknowledges Pakistan’s efforts in the following words;

“A nuclear explosives program is not the only possibility for countering an India that has exploded a nuclear device. Pakistani’s have considered alternatives ranging from major changes in their conventional forces to international guarantees.

None of these alternatives appear very promising, however. Pakistan has drawn up extensive shopping lists for conventional military materials, but even if it were able to obtain most of these items, they would be insufficient to alter the military balance in Pakistan’s favor. Whatever gains Pakistan is able to make are likely to be offset by the ongoing improvements of India’s military forces…Non-military alternatives to a nuclear weapons capability have also been considered. In 1974 Pakistan introduced a plan in the UNGA for a South Asia NWFZ.”


As is evident Pakistan was not eagerly awaiting an opportunity to start developing its nuclear weapons program, which would have been the case if prestige was the dominant reason for going towards a nuclear weapons program. Pakistan was a rather reluctant entrant in the nuclear domain, only embarking towards a nuclear program after trying all other diplomatic and institutional remedies.

Pakistan had legitimate security concerns which were further augmented by a lack of external security guarantors and India’s growing regional and global great power plans as well as their expanding nuclear weapons capability in the 1980s. Thus, the conclusion can be drawn that the predominant factor in Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons was and has remained security and not prestige.

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