Richard Olson, US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Congress that the United States has held candid discussions with Pakistan on its short-range nuclear weapons and Pakistan is willing to engage with the US on this issue. This may be a Congress briefing, where statements –especially when it comes to foreign affairs – are often open-ended and prospective, but even with such caveats, Richard Olson’s statement represents a shift in the country’s positions.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has become a constant fixture in recent dialogues with the United States; however both sides maintain starkly contrasting standpoints. The US believes that Pakistan’s production of tactical nuclear weapons is a problem as it increases the likelihood of one being launched, while Pakistani authorities maintain that all aspects of its nuclear program are aimed at maintaining security parity with the much larger – and hostile – neighbour India. As such Pakistan has categorically denied any need to place impediments on its nuclear program. Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary even gave a press conference on the issue in Washington DC at the sidelines of Pakistan-US dialogue where he minced no words about the matter, saying “Pakistan has made low-yield nuclear weapons in response to India’s actions under its cold-start doctrine”. If “candid talks” were held and Pakistan was “willing to engage”, then this contradicts Pakistan’s hard-line stance on the matter.

Of course if Pakistan is willing to engage then it will expect the US to deliver on some sort of civilian nuclear agreement, and Richard Olson alluded to this fact in his comments. That is one of the things that Pakistan has pushed for intensively internationally. The China supported bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is part of the same project; get reliable resources for its civilian nuclear program. This again is a shift from the US stance that claims that India’s inclusion into the NSG was a one-off event.

Along with Kashmir, the nuclear program is interwoven with Pakistan’s nationalistic narrative, and is a topic where the country makes few concessions. Hence, a nuclear deal of any sort may be a far-off possibility, but the fact that both nations are engaging on this subject is encouraging. This line of dialogue must be continued.