Pakistan said Saturday that it had formally protested to the United States over remarks by President Joe Biden questioning the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons.
“We have summoned the ambassador of the United States to Pakistan, Mr. Donald Blome, to the foreign office Pakistan for an official demarche,” Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told a news conference in Karachi.
Biden told a Democratic Congressional fundraiser Thursday night that Pakistan “may be one of the most dangerous nations in the world” for possessing "nuclear weapons without any cohesion.”
The White House published Friday the transcript of the president’s address in California, which has since sparked outrage in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.
“As far as the question of the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets are concerned, we meet all, each and every international standard in accordance with the IAEA,” Zardari reaffirmed.
Zardari apparently confused his country ‘s nuclear weapons program with the civilian nuclear program because Pakistan’s weapons-based nuclear development is not under the IAEA monitoring.
He said he was surprised by Biden’s statement and attributed it to a “misunderstanding” that Zardari said stemmed from a lack of engagement between Islamabad and Washington.
At the same time, the foreign minister attempted to downplay the significance of the remarks, saying Biden did not make them at an official function or in an address to his nation.
"We should allow them an opportunity to explain this position. I don't believe that this should negatively impact the relations between Pakistan and the United States," Zardari noted.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended as “nothing new” the remarks made by the president, saying he "views a secure and prosperous Pakistan as critical to U.S interests.”
Zardari traveled to the U.S. this month where he held wide-ranging talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, marking the 75th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two countries.
But opposition leaders led by Pakistan’s populist former prime minister, Imran Khan, slammed Present Biden for questioning the security of the nuclear weapons.
“Unlike the U.S., which has been involved in wars across the world, when has Pakistan shown aggression, especially post-nuclearsation?” Khan asked on Twitter.
He also questioned assertions made by the Pakistani government that it had “reset” bilateral relations with the United States, calling the American president’s statement a “total failure” of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s foreign policy.
Khan, a known harsh critic of the U.S.-led military invasion of Pakistan’s neighbor, Afghanistan, was removed from office in April of this year in a parliamentary no-confidence vote advanced by the Sharif-led then-opposition alliance.
The ousted cricket-star-turned-politician alleges without evidence that the vote was orchestrated by Washington in collusion with Sharif and the Pakistani military. Both Washington and Islamabad deny the accusation.
Khan, 70, was still in power when Washington withdrew all U.S. forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 after almost two decades of war with Taliban insurgents, who have since seized control of the conflict-torn country.
Pakistan was a U.S. ally in the war and provided its ground, as well as air routes, to ferry crucial supplies for tens of thousands of U.S.-led international forces in landlocked Afghanistan. But some in Washington say Islamabad's military and intelligence agencies covertly aided the Taliban to enable them to sweep back to power in Kabul, souring bilateral relations.
Pakistan's close military and economic partnership with China is also a cause of concern for Washington. U.S. officials repeatedly have warned that Beijing’s billions of dollars of investment in developing Pakistan’s infrastructure and power plants under China’s Belt and Road Initiative could end up being a “debt trap” for Islamabad.
Pakistani and Chinese officials dismiss those concerns. China also maintains deep military cooperation with Pakistan.
Beijing has built several nuclear power plants to help the neighboring country meet its energy shortages. The nuclear cooperation is strictly in line with IAEA requirements and safeguards, officials in both countries maintain.
“Ever since May 1998, when Pakistan first began testing nuclear weapons, claiming its national security demanded it, American presidents have been haunted by the fear that Pakistan’s stockpile of nukes would fall into the wrong hands,” wrote the Brookings Institution on its website late last year.
“That fear now includes the possibility that jihadis in Pakistan, freshly inspired by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, might try to seize power at home,” wrote the author of the statement at the nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington.