According to declassified documents released after requests by the National Security Archive at George Washington University and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, officials in President Jimmy Carter’s administration showed concerns about Pakistan’s trajectory and tried both pressure and aid incentives to seek a change in its behavior.
The documents said the secretary of state Cyrus Vance instructed US diplomats in Western Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan to warn governments that Pakistan or its covert agents were seeking nuclear material.
Vance acknowledged that Pakistan was motivated by concerns over historic rival India. But he voiced alarm that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said that Pakistan would share nuclear weapons around the Islamic world.
“We believe it is critical to stability in the region and to our non-proliferation objectives to inhibit Pakistan from moving closer to the threshold of nuclear explosive capability,” Vance wrote, the year before the overthrow of Iran’s pro-Western shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
According to documents Britain was running a parallel campaign, Vance said. Britain banned the export of inverters – which can be used in centrifuges that produce highly enriched uranium – and urged other countries to follow suit, Vance said.
Most countries sounded sympathetic, though West Germany – a major industrial exporter – insisted it already had adequate safeguards.
Pakistan nonetheless pursued nuclear weapons and detonated a bomb in 1998 in response to a test by India. The Pakistani scientist who built the bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had access to sensitive technology in the Netherlands.
France initially supported the project but backed out in 1978 due to fears that it would be used to produce weapons.