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Senators pour cold water on Pakistani nuclear hopes

The State Department is being extremely cagey about how it views the prospect of a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, which multiple reports say the Pakistani delegation is likely to propose this week in Washington. But the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Not so much. When you think about it, the State Department’s ...

The State Department is being extremely cagey about how it views the prospect of a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, which multiple reports say the Pakistani delegation is likely to propose this week in Washington. But the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Not so much.

When you think about it, the State Department's position makes perfect sense. Why throw cold water on the idea only one day before the brand-new U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue? Even though the practicalities of giving explicit nuclear assistance to Pakistan are extremely complicated, to say nothing of the politics -- giving that country's proliferation risks, ties to extremists, and failure to punish one-man nuclear arms merchant A.Q. Khan -- it doesn't hurt to let them dream, right?

"I'm sure that that's going to be raised and we're going to be considering it, but I can't prejudge or preempt what the outcome of our discussions will be," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Pakistan's Express TV Group in a Monday interview. She was quick to point out that a similar deal with India "was the result of many, many years of strategic dialogue."

The State Department is being extremely cagey about how it views the prospect of a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, which multiple reports say the Pakistani delegation is likely to propose this week in Washington. But the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Not so much.

When you think about it, the State Department’s position makes perfect sense. Why throw cold water on the idea only one day before the brand-new U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue? Even though the practicalities of giving explicit nuclear assistance to Pakistan are extremely complicated, to say nothing of the politics — giving that country’s proliferation risks, ties to extremists, and failure to punish one-man nuclear arms merchant A.Q. Khan — it doesn’t hurt to let them dream, right?

"I’m sure that that’s going to be raised and we’re going to be considering it, but I can’t prejudge or preempt what the outcome of our discussions will be," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Pakistan’s Express TV Group in a Monday interview. She was quick to point out that a similar deal with India "was the result of many, many years of strategic dialogue."

At Tuesday’s State Department press conference, spokesman P.J. Crowley was equal parts polite and vague when questioned about a nuclear deal.

"As far as I know, we have not been talking to Pakistan about a civilian nuclear deal," he said. "If Pakistan brings it up during the course of the meetings in the next two days, we’ll be happy to listen."

OK, so the administration is open to listening to Pakistan’s desire for a deal within the context of the strategic dialogue. And the Pakistanis made it clear in their 56-page prep document that they want such a deal.

Any objections?

Actually, yes.

On Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are still smarting from the last deal they made with Pakistan (when Pakistan complained about the billions of dollars U.S. taxpayers are giving them) and still fighting over who gets to spend those billions, the prospect of a sweeping new nuclear deal with Pakistan seems too far-fetched to even discuss right now.

"I don’t think it’s on the table right now considering all over the other issues we have to confront," Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry, D-MA, told The Cable. "There are countless things that they would have to do in order to achieve it. If they’re willing to do all those things, we’ll see."

Kerry emphasized that he believed a nuclear deal was not "directly" part of the strategic dialogue this week.

"There are a lot of things that come first before that. It’s really premature," he went on. "It’s appropriate as something for them to aspire to and have as a goal out there, but I don’t think it’s realistic in the near term."

His words were echoed by his Republican counterpart Richard Lugar, D-IN, who told The Cable he believes the idea of a nuclear deal should be delinked from the strategic dialogue.

"I think it’s premature. It’s not likely to be part of the agenda at this time," he said.

Lugar said he totally understands Pakistan’s desire for energy cooperation and even gets why the country would sign a gas pipeline deal with Iran, which could certainly irk the United States as it pursues petroleum sanctions against that very regime.

"Everybody is desperate for resources and that has superseded a number of other considerations," Lugar said.

Kerry and Lugar each met separately Tuesday morning with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was in Washington ahead of the State Department talks.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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