The story of how Nawaz Sharif pulled back from nuclear war

On Saturday, Nawaz Sharif swept to victory in Pakistan's parliamentary elections, capping a frantic election season and handing the former prime minister a sufficient number of seats to assemble what is likely to be a far more stable government than his country has witnessed in recent years.

But observers of Pakistani politics in the United States are likely to wonder what Sharif's election means for the troubled relations between the two countries. And one paragraph in the New York Times write-up of Sharif's victory offers a clue:

He first came to American attention during Pakistan's tense confrontation with India in 1999, when the possibility of a nuclear conflict was averted thanks to mediation by President Bill Clinton.

In a mere 30 words, the Times reviews an episode that brought the world about as close to nuclear war as it has come since the Cuban missile crisis. And Nawaz Sharif, the man about to assume power in Pakistan, was one of the central characters in that drama.

In the spring of 1999, the Pakistani army, without notifying then-Prime Minister Sharif, crossed the Line of Control and seized strategically vital outposts in the Kargil district of Indian-controlled Kashmir. India had abandoned the mountainous outposts for the winter, and moved swiftly to retake their territory when they realized what had happened. The ensuing conflict became known as the Kargil War.

Abandoning its Cold War ally, the United States identified Pakistan as the belligerent and threatened to cut off a much-needed IMF loan package in an effort to force Islamabad to withdraw to the Line of Control. Wedged between the Pakistani military and the White House, Sharif flew in desperation to Washington for a tense July 4 meeting. Fearing for his life, he brought along his wife and children.

On the morning of the 4th, Clinton's advisors convened to inform Sharif that American intelligence had gotten wind of Pakistan's plans to mobilize its nuclear weapons. If Clinton decided to recognize Pakistani territorial gains, India would surely escalate the conflict, risking a nuclear response from the Pakistanis. If Clinton managed to get Sharif to retreat to the Line of Control, nuclear war would likely be averted, but Pakistani military leaders would probably depose Sharif at their first chance.

Sandy Berger, the U.S. national security advisor, told Clinton that he was heading into the single most important meeting with a foreign leader of his presidency. The goal was to get Sharif to retreat but give him sufficient political cover to hang on to power. "If he arrives as a prime minister but stays as an exile," Berger told Clinton, "he's not going to be able to make stick whatever deal you get out of him."

After a back-and-forth between the two leaders, Sharif asked to meet privately with Clinton. Alone with Sharif and Bruce Riedel, a National Security Council official taking notes, Clinton informed the prime minister of the Pakistani military's nuclear preparations (Sharif seemed surprised) and threatened to issue a statement pinning the blame for the conflict on Pakistan if Sharif refused to pull his forces back. According to Riedel's account of the meeting, Clinton compared the situation to the Cuban missile crisis and asked Sharif if he realized what would happen if even one bomb were dropped. Sharif finished Clinton's sentence for him, noting that it would be a catastrophe.

Out of options and having realized that Clinton would never recognize Pakistan's territorial gains, Sharif beat a hasty retreat and agreed to withdraw his forces. The only political cover he secured was a commitment from Clinton to take a personal interest in the 'Lahore process,' which was aimed at resolving the India-Pakistan border dispute. But that was all he got. Nuclear war was averted, and Clinton secured a diplomatic victory.

Three months later, Sharif was deposed and eventually exiled by the man who ordered Pakistani forces into Kargil: Pervez Musharraf. Now Sharif is set to return to power, while Musharraf is under house arrest.

It's a remarkable reversal of fortune for two men who very nearly started a nuclear war.



Barbara Walters's greatest interviews with world leaders

For those born after a certain year, Barbara Walters may be best known for her banter with the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Elisabeth Hasselbeck on her talk show The View -- or her interviews with the likes of Monica Lewinsky and Michael Jackson. But with the 83-year-old Walters officially retiring next summer, we wanted to remind the whippersnappers among us to show some respect: Before The View, Walters snagged interviews with some of the most defining world leaders of the late 20th century.  

Walters, after all, rode in a jeep with Fidel Castro, picking his gun up off the floor when they forded streams so it wouldn't get wet. She sparked a fight between the shah of Iran and his wife over whether women were capable of ruling countries. She asked Jiang Zemin whether he knew what happened to Tiananmen Square's tank man. More recently, she spoke with Bashar al-Assad about the Syrian military's brutal campaign against its own citizens.

Below is a selection of some of Walters's most noteworthy sit-downs with world leaders in the more than 50 years she's been on television.

Fidel Castro

Walters first met Fidel Castro in 1975, but had to wait two more years before she was able to nab the first American TV interview with the Cuban president. During her time on the island, Castro brought her to the mountains where he had been a guerrilla fighter (Walters and her production team spent the night at his camp). Her interview with him lasted five hours and, "in an unprecedented action," almost all of it aired on Cuban television. "The only part he deleted," Walters wrote, "was my question about whether he is married and his evasive answer. 'Formally, no!'"


Shah Reza Pahlavi

In the interview below, Walters asks the shah about how much support the CIA was providing to the Iranian regime. "Does the CIA play any part in this country today?" she asks. "Sure -- gathering information. We don't mind," the ruler replies. 

The interview also included questions about the shah's views on women. "So you don't feel that women are in that sense equal, if they have the same intelligence or ability," Walters inquires. "Not so far," the shah replies. "Maybe you will become in the future. We can always have some exceptions."

"I give the shah credit," Walters later said. "He was certainly not politically correct ... he said what was on his mind."


Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin

It was an historic milestone in November 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to officially visit Israel since its founding. While he was there, Walters got him to agree to a joint interview with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (Begin told Walters that he convinced Sadat to do the interview together "for the sake of our friend Barbara"). In the video below, Walters describes how she arranged the interview (footage of the interview itself wasn't available).

Walters later spoke of her admiration for Sadat. "He had such courage," she said.


Jiang Zemin

During his interview with Walters, the new Chinese premier displayed what the New York Times called "a stunning cynicism" about the bloody crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square, which had taken place just a year earlier.  The army behaved "with great tolerance and restraint," Jiang told Walters. "I don't think any government in the world will permit the occurrence of such an incident as happened in Beijing."

"It takes a lot to stop Barbara Walters in her tracks," New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield wrote. But even she was stunned when Jiang called the incident "much ado about nothing."

"We feel it's a great deal to do about something," she eventually retorted.


Bashar al-Assad

As late as 2011, Walters was still going after big names, scoring an exclusive interview with President Bashar al-Assad after the protests in Syria had begun (Walters later took some heat for assisting an aide of Assad's who she admitted helped her get the interview).

"Do you feel guilty?" Walters asks Assad toward the end of the conversation. "I did my best to protect the people, so I cannot feel guilty, when you do your best," he responds. "You feel sorry for the lives that has been lost, but you don't feel guilty -- when you don't kill people."

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