BACKGROUND: Kazakhstan became a staunch defender of nuclear non-proliferation in August 1991, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev decreed the closure of his country’s only nuclear test site located near the city of Semipalatinsk. Almost twenty years later, the date of August 29th was officially recognized by the United Nations as the International Day against Nuclear Tests, in commemoration of all the nuclear explosions since the invention of the atomic bomb.
In December 1993, Kazakhstan’s Supreme Council ratified its accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Several months later, Kazakhstan received, together with Ukraine and Belarus, security guarantees from the world’s recognized nuclear powers and reconfirmed its intention to abandon atomic weapons. The Kazakhstani Government also allowed Russia and the U.S. to withdraw remaining radioactive materials from its territory in exchange for financial support directed towards the goals of effective nuclear waste management and safe uranium production.
In February 1994, Kazakhstan became a new member of the IAEA and has since then been a source of multiple initiatives aimed at promoting non-proliferation goals and principles throughout Central Asia and beyond. One of the latest proposals made by the country’s leadership was the establishment of an International Nuclear Fuel Bank on Kazakhstan’s territory, whose principal objective would be to enforce the highest standards of nuclear safety used by the IAEA while allowing third parties to enrich their uranium for the purpose of peaceful power generation. While this proposal was already contained in Foreign Minister Saudabayev’s letter to the IAEA Director General in December 2009, the formal application was filed only in July 2011 and has obtained positive reactions from dozens of countries.
Kazakhstan has also supported the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed by its representative at the UN General Assembly of September 1996 and subsequently ratified in 2001. In 1999 and 2007, it acceded to two UN conventions banning the production, use and storage of both chemical and bacteriological weapons. Since Kazakhstan is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of uranium, its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, effective since 2002, provides it with another opportunity to demonstrate its strong and sincere commitment to the global fight against nuclear terrorism and proliferation. Finally, in 2006, the city of Semipalatinsk hosted the signing of an agreement declaring Central Asia an area free from nuclear weapons.
IMPLICATIONS: In recent years, Kazakhstan has been particularly active in promoting its non-proliferation agenda and highlighting the historic significance of President Nazarbayev’s decision to close down the Semipalatinsk test site. In this regard, Nazarbayev is frequently cited as a potential candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, while his achievements in this field are discussed by both Japanese parliamentarians and Canadian bikers collecting endorsements for his eventual nomination for the world’s most prestigious award. Moreover, Kazakhstan is often praised by its partners for conducting a proactive foreign policy based on its widespread perception as a country respectful of international law and supporting peace and cooperation among UN member states.
On December 1, 2010, when Astana was hosting an OSCE summit, Nazarbayev once again called on Iranian authorities to demonstrate their good will and prove to the whole world that their nuclear program was not directed towards military goals. Although Kazakhstan’s OSCE agenda was heavily centered on the resolution of long-standing disputes in Europe, for example between Armenia and Azerbaijan or between Moldova and the breakaway region of Transnistria, Nazarbayev’s reference to the Iranian nuclear program served as a clear indication of his country’s unending interest towards Middle Eastern affairs.
In March 2012, Nazarbayev authored an article in the New York Times where he urged Tehran to follow Kazakhstan’s example in developing a peaceful nuclear industry under the IAEA’s supervision. Two months later, his Minister for Foreign Affairs Erzhan Kazykhanov proposed Astana’s mediation between Iran and the West as regards the easing of international sanctions imposed on the Iranian economy in exchange for improved dialogue and increased transparency on the issue of uranium enrichment at Natanz and Fordu, Tehran’s two only nuclear facilities.
For today’s Kazakhstan, Iran still remains an important political and economic partner. Even though Kazakhstani-Iranian trade statistics are far below their potential level because of the international sanctions (the current trade turnover is slightly over US$ 1 billion), Kazakhstan considers Iran as a gateway to the Persian Gulf and a strategic diplomatic and security player in the Middle East. At the same time, despite Tehran’s closer ties with Tajikistan, where it has sponsored the construction of several factories and hydropower plants, it views Kazakhstan as Central Asia’s unrivaled leader and a promising outlet for its industrial goods.
Whereas Iran’s relations with the West were previously managed by Turkey acting as a middleman, Ankara is currently increasingly opposed to Tehran’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and concerned about the implications of the unending Syrian crisis for its own security. In this context, Kazakhstan may be regarded as the second best choice to mediate between Iranian authorities and Western governments, given its track record as a formerly nuclear country that unilaterally abandoned its weapons for the sake of world and regional peace. While Kazakhstan claims that nuclear production should be placed under the supervision of an international body, it implicitly recognizes Iran’s right to have its own nuclear industry and stands against the use of double standards, in line with Tehran’s own arguments.
Although Kazakhstan is vitally interested in maintaining peace and stability in Central Asia, notably through its peacemaking efforts on the Iranian nuclear issue, its margin for maneuver is anything but large enough to expect any rapid positive shift. Notwithstanding the re-launch of talks and the EU’s commitment to abstain from any new sanctions against Iran, authorities in Tehran are still keen to pursue uranium enrichment, which remains a matter of national pride and evidence of the country’s international standing. Therefore, the normalization of trade with Iran is likely to remain off the list of achievable goals, with Kazakhstan’s involvement being limited to the prevention of regional conflict and radicalism.
CONCLUSIONS: According to most analysts, the Almaty meeting of late February was mostly unproductive, as it did not resolve the main contradictions existing between Iran and the West with regard to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. However, it permitted an agreement on the schedule for the next meetings, one of which is expected to take place in Almaty in early April, after a technical meeting in Istanbul planned for March 18. The resumption of direct talks between Tehran and the Western capitals confers on Kazakhstan a new responsibility and additional international visibility that it frequently seeks in spite of its own limited resources and a short history of involvement as a mediator (unlike Switzerland or Turkey). At the same time, Kazakhstan’s authorities remain deeply interested in assisting a productive and fruitful outcome of negotiations around the Iranian nuclear issue via their good offices, as Kazakhstan’s security and prosperity largely depends on the state of regional affairs in Central Asia where Iran continues to play a strategic role.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Georgiy Voloshin is an independent analyst on Central Asian affairs and the author of a book on the New Great Game in Central Asia.