Kazakhstan is trying to develop a diplomatic initiative that could both cement Astana's role as an important geopolitical player and defuse one of the world's most vexing dilemmas -- the matter of Iran's nuclear program. If successful, Kazakhstan would emerge as a global repository for nuclear fuel.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev unveiled his initiative during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Kazakhstan. Given the Central Asian nation's vast territory, as well as its relatively central location on the Eurasian landmass, Kazakhstan would make an ideal host for a global nuclear fuel bank, a concept that has been touted by Washington as a way to control the proliferation of nuclear materials.
"If a nuclear fuel bank is set up, we could examine the possibility of locating it here, as a country that is signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and that voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons," Nazarbayev said, according to a transcript of his April 6 comments as posted on his presidential website. The Kazakhstani leader was referring to a 1991 move that he made to voluntarily give up the nuclear arsenal inherited by the Central Asian state following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nazarbayev's initiative received lukewarm backing from Ahmadinejad, who described the idea as "a good one." The bank would offer nuclear fuel to countries that agree not to pursue enrichment on their own. In recent years, Iran has stoked suspicion about the motives of its nuclear program by continuing to enrich uranium, despite growing international pressure on Tehran to desist. The United States and European Union believe that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons, while Iranian officials insist that their program is designed for civilian applications only.
Media reports say Kazakhstani leaders have been promoting their plan behind closed doors in Washington in recent weeks, and that US officials are seriously mulling the possibility. To advance the process, Kazakhstani Senate Speaker Kasymzhomart Tokayev on April 7 invited US President Barack Obama to visit Astana. The two met briefly on the sidelines of the Alliance of Civilizations forum in Istanbul. "The speaker underlined that Kazakhstan remains committed to the policy of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and related material, as the results of recent talks in Astana with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad testify in particular," the Senate press service said.
Astana is set to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010. Developing the nuclear fuel bank initiative would reinforce Astana's aim to position itself as an honest broker that serves as a bridge between East and West. Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia, but has also forged warm relations with other major powers, including the United States, European Union and China.
After talks with Ahmadinejad, Nazarbayev welcomed recent statements by Obama that Washington is ready for dialogue with Iran and noted that Tehran has the same right as other states to pursue peaceful nuclear programs. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, took the opportunity to call for a shift in US foreign policy. "We hope [Obama's] will lies in reforming and changing policy, and we hope he will manage to do this -- to forge relations with other nations and countries on an equal basis," Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency quoted him as saying.
"Everyone knows that [former president George W.] Bush's policy ideas have not led anywhere and have become deadlocked, so we consider fundamental changes necessary: respect for nations and their rights and, of course, a rejection of expansion, and an adherence to justice," continued Ahmadinejad, who is facing a re-election challenge in June. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On a bilateral level, the Kazakhstani and Iranian leaders agreed to push ahead with a key regional transport project, a rail link between Uzen in western Kazakhstan and Gorgan in northern Iran, which is under construction and due to open in 2011. Ahmadinejad said Nazarbayev had backed his idea of building a highway alongside the railroad, though it was not immediately clear how feasible the project would be technically and financially.
Nazarbayev and Ahmadinejad also discussed trade, agriculture and investment. Astana seeking Iranian investment in engineering, infrastructure projects, transport and telecommunications, while Kazakhstan's Eurasian Natural Resources Corp. mining and metals giant is reportedly interested in taking part in the privatization of metallurgy and aluminum plants in Iran. The leaders also agreed to pursue an agreement among Caspian Sea littoral states that would ban sturgeon fishing for 10 years.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.