WASHINGTON • The Obama administration is exploring a deal with Pakistan that would limit the scope of the Asian country's nuclear arsenal, the fastest-growing on earth.
The talks - the first in the decade since one of the founders of Pakistan's nuclear programme, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was caught selling the country's nuclear technology around the world - are being held in advance of the arrival of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Washington next week.
The talks focus on US concerns that Pakistan may be on the verge of deploying a small tactical nuclear weapon - explicitly modelled on weapons that the US deployed in Europe during the Cold War to deter a Soviet invasion - that would be far harder to secure than the country's arsenal of larger weapons.
But outside experts familiar with the discussions, which have echoes of the Obama administration's first approaches to Iran on its nuclear programme three years ago, expressed deep scepticism that Pakistan was ready to put limits on a programme that is the pride of the nation and that it regards as its only real defence against India.
The discussions are being led by Mr Peter Lavoy, a longtime intelligence expert on the Pakistani programme who is now on the staff of the National Security Council.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the talks and broke from the administration's previous position of refusing to comment.
"A deal like the one that's been discussed publicly is not something that's likely to come to fruition next week," he said. "But the United States and Pakistan are regularly engaged in a dialogue about the importance of nuclear security. And I would anticipate that that dialogue would include conversations between the leaders of our two countries."
The central element of the proposal, according to other officials and outside experts, would be a relaxation of strict controls put on Pakistan by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a loose affiliation of nations that tries to control the proliferation of weapons.
"If Pakistan would take the actions requested by the United States, it would essentially amount to recognition of rehabilitation and would essentially amount to parole," said Mr George Perkovich, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has maintained contacts with the Pakistani nuclear establishment. "I think it's worth a try, but I have my doubts that the Pakistanis are capable of doing this."
NEW YORK TIMES