Meet the Central Asian Nation Trying to Benefit From the Iran Nuclear Deal
Kazakhstan's nuclear record allowed it to play an outsized role in Washington’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran.
Landlocked in Central Asia and born out of the ashes of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan has spent the last 25 years trying to build up an image as a player on the global stage. Unfortunately for the country's government in Astana, changing perceptions has been a slow process. Most people still only know Kazakhstan for its oil-wealth or the peculiarities of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first and only president.
Landlocked in Central Asia and born out of the ashes of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan has spent the last 25 years trying to build up an image as a player on the global stage. Unfortunately for the country’s government in Astana, changing perceptions has been a slow process. Most people still only know Kazakhstan for its oil-wealth or the peculiarities of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first and only president.
But on the sidelines of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week, Kazakhstan has its time to shine. While the country’s dismal human rights record and closed political system often draw international criticism, Astana is viewed much more positively when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation because it has surrendered its own nuclear weapons and pushed other countries to do the same.
Those policies helped the country play an outsized role in Washington’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran. In addition to hosting two sets of talks during the negotiations that led up to the pact, Kazakhstan also used its status as the world’s top uranium exporter to help seal the deal by supplying 60 tons of raw uranium to Iran in exchange for Tehran sending over 300 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to Russia to be converted into a fuel rods that would be more difficult to use as part of a weapon.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov said his government made the move with “time winding down” before the deal was to be implemented.
“Our government was asked to deliver the uranium, so we did. We will play any role necessary to make sure the Iran deal stays in place,” Idrissov said.
For Kazakhstan, the issue of nuclear weapons is entwined with its birth as an independent country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads, the world’s fourth largest stockpile at the time. Working with the United States and a newly independent Russia, Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up all of them.
Soviet authorities conducted 456 nuclear tests in Kazakhstan between 1949 and 1989, including the Soviet Union’s very first test on August 29, 1949, at Semipalatinsk, a testing site in northeastern Kazakhstan. As an act of symbolism, Nazarbayev closed down the area on August 29, 1991 — exactly 42 years later. Decades later, though, health issues continue to haunt millions of Kazakhs because of the radioactivity left behind by the extensive tests.
“They used the local population as guinea pigs,” said Idrissov. “We are still very angry at the military authorities that allowed this to happen and that we had to be a victim for the Soviet Union’s wider security.”
While Kazakhstan’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons and close its facilities was influenced by the country’s painful history as a test site, it was also a pragmatic decision on the part of Nazarbayev. According to the president’s official biography, Nazarbayev resisted calls from other world leaders, including former Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, to keep the warheads, but instead elected to give them up in exchange for “international recognition, respectability, investment and security.”
In a New York Times op-ed from 2012 entitled “What Iran Can Learn From Kazakhstan”, Nazarbayev outlined his government’s agenda against nuclear proliferation. He wrote that his country has “worked tirelessly to encourage other countries to follow our lead and build a world in which the threat of nuclear weapons belongs to history.”
“This issue is very dear to myself and dear to my president,” said Idrissov. “We have tried to use our model to show other countries how abandoning nuclear weapons can be good for their security.”
Togzhan Kassenova, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, said that Nazarbayev considers the decision to relinquish his country’s nuclear weapons to be a hallmark of his presidency and an important launching pad for the country’s early international ambitions.
“The government is not insincere about this issue, but it is certainly also used for public diplomacy issues,” Kassenova said. “The nuclear issue is the biggest and most unblemished issue related to Nazarbayev.”
Photo credit: Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan
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