ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s new prime minister, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, has begun his tenure with renewed promises that the country’s nuclear weapons will remain in safe hands.

Under different circumstances, the prime minister’s words would have been considered merely routine in view of the country’s status as a new nuclear power. In the past few weeks, though, a spate of allegations — appearing mainly in the U.S. press — that Islamabad supplied nuclear knowhow to Pyongyang in exchange for missile technology have renewed global concern over Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power.

Since Pakistan conducted maiden nuclear tests in 1998, successive governments have time and again sought to placate worldwide concerns over the possibility of nuclear materials and related scientific knowledge slipping out of government control by routinely restating official policy to try to convince the international community that the country remains committed to the principles of nonproliferation even though security imperatives forced it to acquire nuclear-weapons technology.

Many among the most ardent critics of nuclear proliferation are keen to see Pakistan make a long-term commitment to open up its nuclear facilities to global inspection while, in the short term, ratifying instruments such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — which binds signatories from carrying out further nuclear tests.

Jamali’s promises may be the first of many as Pakistan attracts the global spotlight. Recent remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin raising concern over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets have only added to the international community’s focus on the country.

For Pakistan, international outcries against its weapons systems are not new. Periodic leaks by the U.S. intelligence community in the 1980s, which were channeled through American newspapers, pointed fingers at Islamabad’s nuclear program, then under the control of the late military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, a close friend of the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

But it was not until 1990, under the administration of President George H.W. Bush, that the United States slapped punitive economic and military sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear-weapons program.

Ironically, the latest leaks come at a time when Pakistan remains closely engaged with the U.S. in the war on terror, as it helps the Bush administration to fight against al-Qaeda forces in the region. The future of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons may be determined by two vital factors:

First, due to continuing military tensions with India over the division of the Himalayan state of Kashmir — which brought the two countries close to war again this year — Pakistani military planners make a compelling argument in favor of retaining the country’s nuclear option, claiming it has helped deter the outbreak of another full-scale Indo-Pakistani war.

Of course, strong arguments can also be made in support of halting nuclear-weapons programs that lack vital safeguards. Still, India and Pakistan must first begin to resolve their political differences before moving toward the mutual acceptance of nonproliferation measures.

It is difficult to ease long-standing military tensions and move toward reconciliation unless such an effort is backed by a strong international push toward for a settlement of the 55-year-old Kashmir dispute, which has claimed thousands of lives.

Second, Pakistan’s conventional military strength has deteriorated since U.S. sanctions were put in place in 1990, forcing Islamabad to increasingly rely on its nuclear-weapons capability. Despite convincing arguments against nuclear proliferation, security imperatives force every country to consider all options to safeguard its interests.

Heightened concerns about nuclear-proliferation critics now reflect worries over Pakistan’s links to North Korea. Resolving problems related to Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons status may involve a fundamental review of the region’s history, the roots of political turmoil and military tension and, last but not least, an appreciation of the factors that define security in one of the world’s most sensitive trouble spots.

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