ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — The venue for talks on Iran’s nuclear program between world powers and Tehran carries a symbolism that Western negotiators will hope serves as a positive omen.
In the 1990s, Kazakhstan, a sprawling former Soviet republic, gave up a huge nuclear stockpile and now wants to capitalize on its nonproliferation track record by offering to host a bank of reactor fuel that would remove the need for countries, namely Iran, to enrich uranium for themselves.
That may be one proposal under consideration at this week’s talks in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, between Iran and six world powers — five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany — on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.
Iran insists it is not working on a nuclear weapons program, but rather is enriching uranium only to make reactor fuel and for scientific and medical purposes, as allowed by international law.
But many nations are suspicious because Iran went underground after failing to get international help for its uranium enrichment program in the 1980s, working secretly until its activities were revealed a decade ago. More recent proposals for international shipments of reactor fuel in exchange for Iranian enrichment concessions have foundered, with each side blaming the other.
Kazakhstan will not be involved in the talks that start Tuesday, and are expected to last for two days.
Kazakhstan’s willingness to dispense with its once formidable arsenal in large part was born out of its grim legacy as a nuclear weapon testing site in Soviet times. Some critics say, however, that Kazakhstan’s vocal trumpeting of its nonproliferation record is designed to act as a smoke screen for its lack of democratic freedoms.
Amid the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Central Asian nation unexpectedly found itself holding more than a thousand strategic nuclear warheads and 370 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, becoming the world’s first predominantly Muslim-populated nuclear power.
Within a day of Kazakhstan declaring independence in 1991, Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat flew into Almaty in a visit that alarmed Western diplomats. Weeks later, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Pakistan, but officials ruled out cooperation on nuclear technology.
A former foreign minister of Kazakhstan last year claimed that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was yet another hopeful buyer snubbed by Kazakhstan.
Instead of responding to the overtures of Muslim partners in its neighborhood, including Iran, Kazakhstan sought help to divest itself of its powerful inheritance.
Its warheads were transferred to Russia by 1995, and the removal of highly enriched uranium stocks from a secret Soviet-built facility was done with US assistance.
That process was inspired by Kazakhstan’s recent history.
From 1949 to 1989, the bare flatlands of northern Kazakhstan were the site for 456 nuclear tests — 116 of them above ground — that affected an area the size of Arizona and populated by some 1.5 million people.
“The damage on our environment has been so serious that scientists believe it will take centuries to restore to normality,” Nazarbayev said in a 2009 speech marking the 20th anniversary of the final test.
But even as Kazakhstan got rid of its nuclear arsenal, suspicions lingered.
US officials investigated claims that Iran had secured components for nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan but turned up no evidence. Kazakhstan said only that it had been approached by Iran in the early 1990s for the purchase of low-enriched uranium, but not for weapons-grade material.
Since 2009, Kazakhstan has been putting itself forward as the potential host for a nuclear fuel bank to be operated under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Nazarbayev appealed to Tehran in a New York Times op-ed piece in March 2012 to eschew its pursuit for nuclear power status.
“Kazakhstan’s experience shows that nations can reap huge benefits from turning their backs on nuclear weapons,” Nazarbayev wrote.
Iranian diplomats are on record as supporting the fuel bank initiative, but little concrete progress has been made, prompting many observers to cast doubt on Tehran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear technology for military ends.
The fuel bank “should be a complete answer to Iran’s concerns — the fact that it is not indicates that the Iranian interest is not fuel supply but something else,” said John Carlson, an adviser to the Washington DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.
The oil-rich nation’s strategic geographical position abutting Russia and China, while fostering warm ties with Europe and the United States, have necessitated a nuanced diplomatic approach.
Kazakhstan and its neighboring former Soviet Central Asian nations are ambivalent toward the West’s pressure on Iran, which make them useful intermediaries for Tehran. Speaking to Russian reporters in 2011, Nazarbayev insisted on pursuing diplomacy to solve questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.
“If we talk about the Iranian nuclear program, then why don’t we talk about the same program in Pakistan, and why not talk about Israel, which does in fact have nuclear weapons?” he said.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the government has said it will not renew the lease on a US air transit facility there used for military operations in Afghanistan when it expires in 2014 because, among other reasons, it fears that it could be subject to retaliation should Iran be attacked.
Countries in the region also have economic interests at stake. Turkmenistan, which shares a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) land border with Iran, was delivering an average 1 billion cubic feet (30 million cubic meters) of natural gas daily to Iran between July 2011 and June 2012, according to US Energy Information Administration figures.
Cultural ties and growing investment from Iran into Persian-speaking Tajikistan have also served well to secure Tehran another potential ally.
Central Asia expert Sebastien Peyrouse said in a paper published last year that countries in region feel in any event secure that they would not be target of Iranian nuclear attacks.
“They believe that if Iran got this capability, it would not use it against them. Iran as a state and a nation is highly respected in Central Asia, and there is no feeling of distrust towards a long-term partnership with it,” Peyrouse wrote.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.