Last summer, the United States, Iran and five other high-profile nations shared center stage in the international spotlight as they sealed a deal to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for easing of crippling sanctions that had wrecked the Middle Eastern power’s economy.
While the major players took credit for the agreement, one Central Asian nation’s contribution was largely overlooked by the international media. But nuclear policy experts and U.S. officials contend that Kazakhstan’s involvement – from its willingness to host two rounds of multi-lateral talks in 2013 to its decision to open a low enriched uranium bank that can be seen as creating the international environment for such deals to its general support of the compromise – should not be underestimated.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Kazakhstan’s role in the deal brokered in July 2015.
“Kazakhstan contributed significantly to this effort… providing some of the natural uranium material that Iran has received in exchange for its enriched material, and helping to facilitate the shipment,” Kerry said. “Kazakhstan’s contribution builds on its hosting of early rounds of the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the UK, the U.S. + Germany) talks that led to the successful conclusion of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).”
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who advocated publicly and behind-the-scenes in favor of the Iran deal, said a negotiated agreement was in the best interest of Iran and all parties involved, as well as the world at-large.
“A political and diplomatic solution is the only right way to resolve the situation around Iran’s nuclear program and considering historical significance of the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which will significantly strengthen regional and international security, as well as contribute to normalization of Iran’s relations with the international community, positively impact the economic and social development of all countries in the region and improve Kazakh-Iranian relations, Kazakhstan decided to satisfy the request of Joint Commission of “P5+1” and Iran,” Nazarbayev said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also lauded the role that Astana played in diplomatic resolution of disputes over Tehran’s peaceful nuclear program, according to the Tasnim New Agency in Tehran.
“We do not forget the role that Kazakhstan played in gaining diplomatic achievements of the (Iranian) peaceful nuclear case,” the Iranian top diplomat said, adding that Astana has always had a “constructive” role in resolving regional issues.
Zarif also noted Nazarbayev’s planned visit to Tehran, slated for April, and said the trip “would open a new chapter of relations between the two countries.”
In his own statement, Kerry referred to Iran’s willingness to rid itself of more than 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium by shipping it to Russia in December as part of the deal. Shipping low-enriched uranium out of the country to slash its stockpile to below 300 kilograms was one of several major prerequisites to sanctions relief for Iran. In return for relinquishing the enriched uranium, Kazakhstan agreed to provide Iran with natural uranium and helped arrange for shipment of the material. Norway paid for the natural uranium, and Iran agreed to pay for it over time.
The swap agreement came just two months before officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency traveled to Kazakhstan’s modern capital city of Astana to formalize an agreement on a new low enriched uranium bank, which is expected to open in the summer of 2017. Underlying the decision to open the LEU bank is the belief that providing a safe, secure stockpile of nuclear fuel made from that low enriched uranium will help deter nations who want nuclear power from developing the enrichment technology that can be diverted for producing highly enriched or even weapons-grade variety of uranium. Warren Buffett, a billionaire American investor, contributed $50 million to help make the LEU bank a reality, with several countries and organizations contributing the remaining $100 million needed to set up the bank.
The LEU bank is a physical reserve of up to 90 metric tons of low-enriched uranium — enough for one load of a typical light-water reactor, the most common type of nuclear reactor worldwide. These types of reactors can power a large city for three years.
Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Center for Arms Control in Washington, said Kazakhstan’s creation of a an IAEA LEU bank was important not only to brokering the Iran deal, but also to nuclear non-proliferation in general.
“I think that sends an important signal to the international community and countries that have nuclear power programs that they will not be subject to power politics with uranium fuel supplies,” Davenport told EdgeKz. “Ensuring there is a dependable supply of fuel if supply concerns arise is an important signal, certainly.”
“It’s not likely to have a specific (long-term) impact on the Iran deal because their reactor is fueled by Russia, and the future reactors that Russia is going to build in Iran will likely have lifetime fuel supply guarantees,” Davenport added. “But in general it is a positive step to provide that assurance that fuel supplies will be available.”
Karait Umarov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the U.S., told EdgeKz that his country has high hopes for the LEU bank’s success.
“The establishment of the LEU bank, we hope, will strengthen trust across the globe while helping countries deliver economic growth without raising emission levels,” Umarov said. “In the long run, this could be among Kazakhstan’s most important contributions to a more peaceful, prosperous and stable world.”
Kazakhstan, which voluntarily relinquished a stockpile of some 1,100 nuclear warheads when it declared independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, has long set a moral example on the issue of non-proliferation.
“For Kazakhstan, a nuclear weapons-free future is not just a slogan,” Umarov said. “It has always been at the core of our national identity building. For over four decades, Kazakhstan was used as a testing ground for Soviet nuclear weapons. Almost 500 explosions had the cumulative effect of more than 2,500 Hiroshima bombs.
“We closed the Semipalatinsk (nuclear) test site, renounced the world’s fourth largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and eliminated its infrastructure under the Nunn-Lugar program,” Umarov continued. “But our campaign did not stop there. With our partners in the region, Kazakhstan worked hard to establish the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. That is why Kazakhstan has always supported international negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program and wholeheartedly contributed to it.”
S. Frederick Starr, founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, a joint transatlantic research center located in Washington, said Kazakhstan played a “constructive role” in the Iran nuclear negotiations.
“Kazakhstan has been consistent and effective in advancing its post-nuclear program and played a constructive role in this instance,” Starr said of the recently-completed Iran deal. “It is worth stressing also that the agreement on a nuclear weapons free Central Asia, signed by all five of the former Soviet states [in the region], was signed in Kazakhstan. “It was first proposed at a meeting in Uzbekistan a decade earlier and took ten years to conclude, but is a signal step, involving the cooperation and collaboration of all. This, too, is essential background to Astana’s recent role. It did not appear out of thin air.”
Davenport, of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said Kazakhstan’s leadership in the nuclear realm in general is indisputable.
“In general, I think that Kazakhstan has played a proactive role regionally when it comes to nuclear issues,” she said. “Even if they were sort of less directly involved in the negotiations that ultimately led to a deal with Iran, in some ways they have led by example. They worked with the U.S. and Russia to secure the former Russian test site, which had residual weapons-grade material. They’ve taken some important steps promoting enforcement of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. There is really a record there.”