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Iran Nuclear Talks in Kazakhstan: Remember When Diplomacy Worked

The Kazakh nuclear experience is a reminder of the power of diplomacy and the economic incentives at the disposal of the international community.

Published on February 25, 2013

The next round of nuclear talks with Iran begins tomorrow in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the outlook ranges from pessimistic to barely optimistic. The West suspects Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. And a broader debate rages about how to satisfy states’ rights to civilian nuclear use without increasing proliferation and how to address the tensions between nuclear haves and have nots.

As negotiators grapple with these issues, they ought to contemplate the significance of their setting. The Kazakh nuclear experience demonstrates that diplomacy can strike the fine balance between seemingly competing disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear-energy interests.

In the early 1990s, with the Soviet Union’s political structure collapsing, the international community anxiously watched the newly independent Kazakh government to see what it would do with the Soviet nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons facilities left on its territory. Would it try to resist the removal of the weapons, even though it did not have access to command and control systems? The question on the fate of the fissile material was made scarier by the fact that nobody, including the Kazakhs, knew exactly how much bomb fuel was present in the facilities scattered around Kazakhstan.

International anxieties were alleviated when Kazakh officials opted to return nuclear weapons and materials to Russia. In an environment where the tension between nonproliferation and disarmament is becoming more fraught and the debate on access to nuclear fuel technologies is intensifying, the views and choices of this Central Asian state are worth studying. Kazakhstan’s decision provides an important example of how diplomatic and economic tools employed by the international community can make such a choice possible.

Dealing With Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Inheritance

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the primary concern for Kazakhstan, a new country with fragile sovereignty, was security. Kazakhstan saw the lack of legally binding negative security guarantees as one of the key weaknesses of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It sought more substantive guarantees of its sovereignty and security from nuclear powers in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons.

To assuage this concern, in a 1994 Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Kazakhstan’s Accession to the NPT, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia provided legally binding negative security guarantees. They reaffirmed their commitment not to use nuclear weapons against Kazakhstan and to respect Kazakhstan’s independence and sovereignty. They also provided positive security assurances by pledging to seek UN Security Council assistance for Kazakhstan should the country be attacked or be threatened by an attack with nuclear weapons. France and China assured Kazakhstan of their commitment to its security in similar statements.

Kazakh officials also worried about how to safely dismantle and remove nuclear weapons from their territory. The international community, led by the United States, offered technical assistance in that area, most notably under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

But most critically, the international community made foreign direct investment and access to international institutions and markets available to Kazakhstan, providing an economic lifeline desperately needed to ensure the new country’s stability and strengthen its statehood.

Both Kazakhstan and the international community as a whole were better off as a result. But these early decisions were essentially just the starting point on Kazakhstan’s complicated nuclear path.

Kazakhstan straddles what are often seen as competing interests: disarmament and nonproliferation. As a developing, non-nuclear-weapon state, Kazakhstan can relate to the concerns expressed by many states about the double standard of the global nonproliferation regime, which divides the world into those with a nuclear capability and those without. It is vocal in criticizing the nuclear-weapon states’ lack of progress toward nuclear disarmament.

At the same time, Kazakhstan throws its weight behind efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. It is a part of a nuclear-weapons-free zone with its Central Asian neighbors. At Semipalatinsk, a former Soviet nuclear testing site located in eastern Kazakhstan, it hosts exercises necessary to beef up the global verification regime that will support the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty once it comes into force (the agreement, which prohibits nuclear explosions, has been in limbo since 1996). It is active in the Nuclear Security Summit, a biannual forum of about 50 heads of state designed to elevate the goal of securing nuclear material to the highest political level. And Kazakhstan has a strong record of cooperation and transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

With its abundant uranium resources and a successful civilian nuclear industry, Kazakhstan also plays a significant role in the global nuclear market. It has developed a sophisticated nuclear fuel production capacity and has ambitious plans for enhancing this capability in the future.

On the contentious issue of uranium enrichment, which will be at the center of the talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan supports states’ rights to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. But it has also offered to host the IAEA nuclear fuel bank, an initiative designed to provide countries with incentives to forego developing national enrichment capacities. Aside from the nonproliferation value that Kazakhstan sees in the fuel bank, hosting it would be beneficial for Kazakhstan’s nuclear fuel industry because it would further promote the country’s position on the global nuclear fuel market.

For its own uranium enrichment needs, Kazakhstan relies on Russia. It has secured shares in one of Russia’s enrichment plants and has access to Russia’s enrichment services but not the technology. It calls this setup, which notably works for both Kazakhstan and the nonproliferation regime, “enrichment under a Kazakh flag.”

Kazakhstan’s nuclear decisions are not driven by pure idealism or blind respect for the goals of disarmament and nonproliferation. They are a result of economic and strategic calculations about what is best for the country, of foreign policy preferences that put nuclear issues center stage, and of a national identity that embraces both disarmament and nonproliferation values.

Negotiating With Iran

While Kazakhstan’s story and situation are very different from Iran’s, lessons can be drawn from its history for today’s dilemmas. The most important relates to dealing with countries’ security concerns. Strengthened security assurances from key powers were of critical importance to Kazakhstan’s denuclearization process.

Iran’s fundamental concern is that the United States will attempt to force a change of regime in Tehran. The United States and other key powers might want to consider providing security assurances to the Iranian leadership. Minimizing the sense of vulnerability that Iran’s leaders feel will increase the chances of a negotiated solution.

Domestic concerns also matter. Kazakhstan’s domestic situation was generally conducive to giving up Soviet nuclear weapons and materials. That was not least because of the tremendous damage done by the radioactive fallout from Soviet nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk. Nonetheless, there were also nationalist groups that had to be appeased on some level. For the sake of the domestic audience and its own national interests, the Kazakh government had to know it was not giving up its nuclear inheritance for nothing in return.

Due attention from key Western powers to domestic politics in Iran and easing the way for the Iranian leadership to make decisions favorable to the international community is key to any progress. In this respect, providing Iran with something that can be interpreted as a “concession” from the West would help. That “concession” might involve accepting that Iran will continue to enrich uranium to low levels under conditions that would prevent it from developing the capability to weaponize without being detected. In order not to aggravate an already troubled relationship, the Western media and policymakers should resist responding to Iran’s radical rhetoric if it is designed for domestic consumption and move away from caricaturing Iran.

More importantly, when P5+1 negotiators from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States meet in Almaty tomorrow they should attempt to decouple the question of safeguards violations from the recognition of a country’s right to peaceful fuel-cycle activities. Iran has violated its nuclear safeguards agreement and that should be framed as the fundamental problem, not its desire to develop a fuel cycle.

It is unfortunate that many countries perceive the Iran standoff as a struggle for the right to nuclear energy. That stance is detrimental to the nonproliferation regime because it makes non-nuclear-weapon states more resentful of nonproliferation objectives.

P5+1 (and later, U.S. bilateral) negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program might benefit from attempts to normalize relations in other areas as well. For instance, negotiations on the fate of Kazakhstan’s nuclear inheritance were part and parcel of a broader dialogue in the areas of trade, the Kazakh economy, and military-to-military cooperation. Those in Kazakhstan who dealt with the nuclear issue back in the 1990s note that the broad approach adopted by the United States to its engagement with Kazakhstan was critical.

The lessons from Kazakhstan’s case are a reminder of the power of diplomacy and economic incentives at the disposal of the international community. And they underscore the importance of creating an environment in which an individual state’s choices work both for the country and the global nuclear order.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.