PAKISTAN'S nuclear program has once again taken the country into controversy after a statement last week by Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and current opposition leader.
``I confirm Pakistan possesses an atomic bomb,'' Mr. Sharif said at a public rally here. His remarks caused a row here and immediately sparked fresh concerns over their implications for the country's foreign relations.
In recent years, Islamabad has resisted pressure from many Western countries to ratify the international Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would require it to open up its nuclear facilities for inspection. Pakistan wants its enemy, India, to comply with the same safeguards before it will comply with the demands.
India, which exploded an atomic device in 1974, denies it has a nuclear-weapons program, but says it is developing its own medium- and short-range conventional missiles. It, too, has refused to ratify the treaty.
Sharif's statement was followed by speculation within the country over whether Pakistan tried to develop nuclear weapons while he was prime minister between 1990 and 1993. Then, the government publicly denied that its program was meant for anything other than meeting the country's growing energy needs.
The Pakistani government moved fast to distance itself from the statement. Once again, it conceded that it has a nuclear program, but insisted that it was only for ``peaceful purposes.''
``We have the technical capability with which we could develop nuclear weapons, but we have taken a sovereign decision not to do so,'' said a foreign office spokesman in Islamabad.
Some analysts say that Sharif's statement was probably motivated by a desire to embarrass the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, ahead of an opposition campaign next month to demand the government's dismissal. But no one could tell how much, if any, damage the remarks would do to Pakistan's foreign-policy interests.
``He [Sharif] has taken it upon himself to topple the government at all costs, even if it is at the cost of the national interest,'' charged Asif Ahmad Ali, the Foreign Minister, claiming that the opposition leader's remarks were politically motivated and should not be taken seriously.
``We do not intend to make nuclear weapons. His [Sharif's] remarks are based on total fabrication,'' Mr. Ali added.
But that response did little to prevent India, Pakistan's next-door neighbor, from saying that Sharif's remarks confirmed its fears.
The controversy over the nuclear program has already harmed Pakistan's relations with Washington in recent years. The United States cut off all its aid to Pakistan almost four years ago, following allegations that Islamabad's nuclear program had developed to the point where it could be used for producing weapons.
An agreement for the sale of as many as 71 F-16 fighter planes has also been blocked by the US government under the Pressler Amendment, which forbids weapon sales to Pakistan unless the president can certify that Islamabad's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.
More recently, Western experts have accused Pakistan of involvement in efforts to smuggle plutonium out of Germany, which could eventually be used to produce weapons. But many Pakistani officials respond by arguing that given the prevailing tensions between India and Pakistan, the deterrent effect of the nuclear programs of the two countries is probably the best guaranty of peace.
Some officials and diplomats also say the US decision to block the arms sales would only force Pakistan to increasingly rely on its nuclear ability.
``The nonproliferation lobby may feel satisfied that no major arms sales to Pakistan are taking place. But such an effort has done nothing to bring the country to accept a settlement,'' says one senior official who spoke anonymously.