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Nuclear security worries drive latest U.S. penalties on Pakistan

Entrance to U.S. Department of Commerce building in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of Commerce building in Washington, D.C. Photo: Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

The Commerce Department this week sanctioned seven Pakistani companies for alleged links to nuclear trade. Their place on an “Entity List” requires them to obtain special licenses to do business with the U.S.

This move follows other U.S. penalties against Pakistan, including a successful push to put Pakistan on a “gray list” of countries not doing enough to stem terrorist financing and a freeze on all U.S. security assistance to Pakistan. But Commerce’s action should not be seen as part of the existing campaign to pressure Pakistan to crack down harder on terrorists.

Why it matters: Commerce’s move does underscore Washington’s concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation record — even as nuclear watchdog groups cite improvements in Pakistan’s nuclear security.

This was not a Pakistan-specific move — Washington also sanctioned 15 Sudanese companies — and the seven sanctioned Pakistani firms are not exactly corporate powerhouses. Penalizing them won’t produce damaging economic consequences for Pakistan.

Yet these concerns recall the saga of AQ Khan, a senior Pakistani nuclear scientist — and father of the country’s atomic bomb — who admitted to sharing nuclear secrets with North Korea and Iran in the 1980s and 1990s.

What's next: Pakistan is seeking membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group — a prestigious, 46-member club that seeks to reduce nuclear proliferation by tightly managing nuclear trade. Likely concerned about Pakistan's joining the NSG, Washington may now have dealt a major blow to its membership prospects.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.

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