Kazakhstan is opting for nuclear engagement, not deterrence

With North Korea wreaking havoc by testing nuclear weapons and missiles, and with Iranian nuclear program becoming once again the focus of U.S. foreign policy, Washington is searching for solutions to both crises. It is important to keep in mind that there are alternative, safer nuclear energy policies. Pyongyang and Tehran should take note and consider pursuing peaceful nuclear options.

It can be done For over two and a half decades, the president of a country in the direct neighborhood of Russia and China has been leading by example. President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan made the decision to renounce the nuclear weapons his country inherited from the Soviet Union after its collapse and has been sticking to that path — championing nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

This was not just a symbolic gesture. In 1991, Kazakhstan hosted one of the largest nuclear test sites of the Soviet empire, as well as the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world, larger than that of the United Kingdom, France, and China combined. Although wedged between two nuclear-armed giants, Kazakhstan chose to accede to START-I, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. Under these, Kazakhstan relinquished all nuclear warheads to Russia instead of maintaining and building up an independent deterrent it could ill afford. This was vastly consequential — and highly controversial.

As one study suggests, when full-fledged political and economic chaos immediately ensued after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s leadership not only lacked a clear vision of how to proceed with the massive nuclear arsenal but also the information and capacity to administer it. In that unprecedented and uncertain historic moment, Nazarbayev opted for strategic ambivalence to gain time:. But after weighing the decision for half a year and the political and economic costs of both keeping and getting rid of the nukes, the Kazakh leadership finally decided to take a chance and opt for a nuke-free future.

Nazarbayev not only embraced nuclear disarmament but made it a part of his country’s brand. The new international identity for Kazakhstan is widely associated with safe and responsible nuclear policy. For example, Kazakhstan brokered the Treaty of Semipalatinsk, which established the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone comprised of all five former Soviet republics of the region, and disposing of highly enriched uranium in cooperation with the U.S.

Nevertheless, as the largest producer of uranium ore in the world, Kazakhstan has not renounced civilian nuclear technology. The capital, Astana, recently hosted Expo 2017. The international exposition’s theme was “Future Energy”, featuring nuclear energy rather prominently. To combine its lucrative nuclear energy business and uniquely determined non-proliferation foreign policy, Nazarbayev’s government also came up with an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)-sponsored low enriched uranium (LEU) bank — the very first of its kind in the world. By creating this, Kazakhstan seeks to store low enriched uranium (the fuel for civilian nuclear reactors) in their country instead of in other countries under a guarantee of international supervision to assure the uranium hexafluoride is only processed for peaceful civilian purposes, and then shipped back to the customer. The LEU bank is operated by the IAEA in agreement with nuclear powers, including the United States, and neighboring Russia and China, who hold key strategic positions when it comes to transportation of the nuclear material.

Many hail the first LEU bank as a significant achievement for Kazakh foreign policy and for global non-proliferation efforts. Realization of the project enhances nuclear security and potentially exposes proliferators, such as North Korea. It can become an abiding example of international non-proliferation and cooperation. Some also suggest that initiatives like this could be the solution to nuclear proliferation crises such as the one in Iran: by ensuring that nuclear material can only be utilized for peaceful purposes, the LEU bank can eliminate a great deal of uncertainty regarding a country’s nuclear ambitions. No more cheating under the banner of civilian nuclear research and energy production — and developing nukes “under the table”.

However, proliferators still abound, especially in South Asia. While Kazakhstan is to be commended for its foreign policy and actions, Pakistan achieved its nuclear arsenal with China’s help, while India had Soviet nuclear technology support. Iran has pursued a nuclear program since the time of the Shah, and boosted it under the ayatollahs. President Trump’s de-certification of the of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and referring it to Congress focuses the world’s attention on Tehran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Roukhani would do well to pick up the phone to President Nazarbayev to get advice on how to modify their current nuclear stance and make it entirely peaceful for their people’s benefit.

In order to follow a more peaceful path away from deadly arsenals and potential nuclear conflict, the example of Kazakhstan’s non-proliferation policy should inform decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic.