Kazakhstan as a model for nuclear-free Islam?

by Christopher Schwartz on 3/12/2012 · 17 comments

As matters between Israel and Iran continue to irradiate, I just want to throw this out there to see what readers think: if much of Iran’s drive to go nuclear is motivated by a desire to serve as a model of Islamic leadership, could Kazakhstan be utilized by diplomats and theorists as an alternative?

To review: at independence, Kazakhstan had 1400 nuclear weapons (warheads on SS-18 ICBMs) and 40 Tu-95M long range bombers equipped with 320 cruise missiles, all of which was out of the country or otherwise dismantled by the end of 1995, including a clandestine American operation. Since then, Kazakhstan has been a rather vocal supporter of nuclear arms control.

I should note that there have been two hiccups that, at the moment at least, seem more like Orientalism and rumor than anything else. The first, the FAS notes,

Although two other new states — Ukraine and Belarus — also possessed “stranded” nuclear weapons, the Kazakh weapons attracted particular international suspicion, and unsubstantiated rumors reported the sale of warheads to Iran. Subsequent negotiations demonstrated convincingly, however, that operational control of these weapons always had remained with Russian strategic rocket forces.

The second, the Associated Press reported in late 2009 that an unnamed member state of the IAEA claimed Iran had struck a clandestine deal to import 1350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan, a claim which the latter denied. As far as I know, nothing more has come from this report, at least not publicly.

Overall, the case of making Kazakhstan an alternative model is looking solid. Here we have a predominantly Muslim country (no less multiethnic-multireligious than Iran, indeed, more so) that arises from the dominant Sunni-Sufi wing of Islam; that is a regional leader and has been materially developing well (relative to its southern neighbors and bracketing issues of corruption or the recent troubles with the oil workers); and most of all, is not in a pissing match with any superpowers — in fact, is getting along rather well with all of them, even to the point that it was given the chair of the OSCE (again, certain issues notwithstanding). Most of all, at one point Kazakhstan had the bomb and willingly gave it up (for the purposes of advocacy, diplomats and theorists can conveniently overlook issues of Russian property claims and such). In fact, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Kazakhstan is basically being allowed by the international community (read: the West) to pursue a program of peaceful nuclear energy develop, including the ambition to develop nuclear reactors for export, despite all its many social, environmental, and political problems, most notably corruption.

I’m painting very broad strokes, of course, but you get my point and can fill in the details for yourself. Seems to me like there’s a useful opportunity here that isn’t being tapped into. What do you think?

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This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Christopher Schwartz is a graduate student at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He has two MA's in Islamic history and philosophy and is currently in a pre-doctoral program focusing on liberal and democratic theory with a focus on the post-Soviet sphere. He is also the editor-in-chief of neweurasia.net, Central Asia's first and largest citizen-journalism network, and editor of the book CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia, a crowdsourced contemporary history of the region.

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jedwardconway March 13, 2012 at 2:38 am

This post seems wholly under-researched — surprised to see it on Registan. See, for instance, the CNN Security Clearance blog post titled “Kazakhstan a model for Iran?” (http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/02/kazakhstan-no-regrets-over-nukes/) published over a month ago, which makes the exact same argument, as the title implies, and misses the exact same big points.

This Registan post shows not only a misunderstanding of the nuclear situation in Kazakhstan over the last 60+ years but also a clear misunderstanding of the nuclear situation in Iran, which arguably stems from late 19th/early 20th century nationalist movements in the country closely aligned with scientific progress.

In the spirit of cyber-recycling, here is what I had to say about the CNN posting (which neatly applies to this posting):

“Comparative exercises have their place but I think in this situation there are too many differences. The article fails to mention that Kazakhstan was ground zero for nuclear testing during the Soviet era, with around 470 above ground nuclear explosions occurring in the country from 1949-89, the side effects of which are still felt throughout the regions. The people of Kazakhstan, with Nazarbayev at the head, had a very different perspective on nuclear weapons with independence in 1991 – for many it was an issue that touched them personally (such as Nazarbayev, who had a close friend with siblings born physically deformed because of their proximity to the test sites). While it is true that Nazarbayev was very smart about trading in the nukes for significant international political capital, in Iran the case is much different – a national issue too, but in the opposite direction. Instead of seeing nukes as a sign of social and environmental destruction, nukes in Iran are a sign of scientific progress and defense from threatening neighbors. The nationalist impulse behind the Iranian nuclear program cannot be understated…attacking the nukes is an attack on the country’s ability to progress (as they see it). Any peaceful solution to Iranian disarmament will need to somehow satisfy the nation’s pride and ambition.”

Let me also add in a final point on private sector nuclear activity in Kazakhstan: companies like Cameco, arguably the most widely respected publicly traded uranium mining company (Canadian, trades on the TSX and NYSE), have been operating in Kazakhstan in some capacity since the early 1990s. Unlike Iran’s hyperfocus on pride issues, the Kazakhs welcomed Cameco in the early 1990s with open arms. The reference in this post to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is misleading — it makes the posting read like civilian nuclear activity in Kazakhstan is something mysterious and strange, like the bulletin uncovered a secret, when in fact Kazakh partnerships with foreign investors over the years have allowed the country to be the #1 producer of uranium in the world since 2009.

Christopher Schwartz March 13, 2012 at 4:34 am

Hey jedwardconway, thanks for hyperlink to the CNN post (good stuff in your comment to it) as well as your remarks on private sector involvement. As for the citation of the Bulletin, perhaps I was indeed too sloppy with my citation.

That said, I feel that I should try to clarify what I was attempting in this post: not an accurate portrayal of Kazakhstan’s nuclear history, but rather, how Kazakhstan’s experience in this regard could be re-construed and idealized into a counter-model by diplomats and theorists. But, as your comment points out, this may simply be the wrong exercise — and in this regard, since I was asking for feedback, in all sincerity: thanks!

Christopher Schwartz March 13, 2012 at 4:36 am

PS — It’s also interesting that the CNN blogger had the same idea as I, suggesting that, in fact, Kazakhstan as an alternative model is not such an ignored notion as I may have thought.

jedwardconway March 13, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Christopher — thanks for your re-reply. Your responses (and the thread that has followed) have been a good read…I think you’re right (as is Joshua) that there is something to learn from the Kazakh experience, but I still don’t think we’ve figured out exactly what that is (we = the people in this thread). Maybe as a third party broker between the US (and friends) and Iran — not sure. Need to think on this more.

On the Iranian side of the equation, required reading (in my opinion) is An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (by Nikki Keddie). If you’re serious about exploring the parallels (and the relationship between technology and nationalism), give it read.

More later. Thanks again, -Ned

Christopher Schwartz March 14, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Indeed, lots to think over! And perhaps it’s time for me to re-read al-Afghani in light of this conversation (although I always find him a tricky fellow, since in my impression of him, he seems to change his arguments depending on his audience a little too much).

Michael Hancock-Parmer March 13, 2012 at 3:39 am

Not to add insult to injury, but I am also surprised to see this article – were you aware of the CNN piece last month? The significant difference you seem to suggest is that Kazakhstan is a model for non-nuclear Islam; but aren’t there many, many “Islamic” countries (either governed by Muslims or based on Islamic law) without nuclear weapons, with and without nuclear power?

And not mentioning Kazakhstan’s long (painful) history with nuclear weapons is kind of odd. Also, perhaps mentioning Kazakhstan’s very, very complicated relationship with Islam inside and outside of its borders could complicate (and improve) stories like this one.

Christopher Schwartz March 13, 2012 at 5:04 am

Hey Michael, yeah, point taken (again). To (re-)clarify what I was attempting in this post: not an accurate portrayal of Kazakhstan’s nuclear history, but rather, how Kazakhstan’s experience in this regard could be re-construed and idealized into a counter-model by diplomats and theorists. Looks like this may simply be the wrong exercise (but hey, such feedback is why I posted it here to begin with).

However, your other points bring up more of why I wrote this post: I’m thinking specifically to counter the particular revolutionary logic of the Iranian regime with respect to nuclear power. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Islamic countries (however defined) don’t have nuclear weapons, but they also don’t have nuclear power, either: Indonesia and Turkey have plans to build some reactors, and that’s it (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html). That’s not a model for peaceful nuclearization; that’s a status quo, one which Iran is able to manipulate and exploit to its public relations advantage: why can “atheist” countries like China or Belgium (who also “oppress Islam”, by the way) have nuclear power but not “real” Muslim countries, indeed, not even “puppet” Muslim countries?

As for Kazakhstan’s complex relation to Islam, of course, which Islamic country doesn’t have that complex relationship? Indeed, Iran is also extremely multiethnic and multireligious (even within the Islamic spectrum), which is a very real constraint on the Revolution, but you won’t see that often admitted by official ideology. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, often highlights its complexities as a positive thing (yeah, I know, underneath the surface it’s a mess, but again, my point is on selling an image — for better or for worse).

Joshua Foust March 13, 2012 at 7:34 am

While we’re piling on, I also wrote last month (same day as that CNN piece, weirdly) about taking lessons from Kazakhstan.

A Nunn-Lugar Act for Iran would involve some politically sensitive compromises: it would involve the U.S. government recognizing the current regime in Tehran as legitimate and establish formal diplomatic relations. It would also provide a large assistance package to fund the dismantling of the weapons program, along with other alternative programs for power generation and national defense (to include reciprocal training of military officers). And it could even establish a formal non-aggression pact between Washington and Tehran, to ameliorate Iranian fears of U.S. aggression. Each one of these pillars faces steep resistance in the U.S., but they also represent a win-win way to help defuse tensions in the Persian Gulf.

Obviously, the Iranians would have to agree to such an arrangement. It’s possible there is too much mistrust for such an idea to have any real chance of working. But it’s also never been tried. Rather than trying to replicate the successful denuclearization of the former Soviet states, the international community has instead tried isolation and threats. It’s time for a new way forward.

The analogy, as you all state, is not perfect by any means. But to pretend Kazakhstan offers no lessons for Iran is, I think, overly narrow.

Don Bacon March 13, 2012 at 10:54 am

The basic premise is wrong. There is no “Iran drive to go nuclear. ” Claiming that there is such a desire is contributing to warmongering, so why do it when it’s not really essential in any discussion about Kazakhstan.

John Terrence March 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Don – have to issue a “huh” on your Iran comment. As to warmongering, please just seen any recent statements by Iranian political and/or clerical leadership, specifically regarding Israel –

Xenophon March 14, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I agree with Don Bacon. The premise is incomprehensible. There’s no conclusive proof that there IS an Iranian “drive to go nuclear” if, by that, we mean the acquisition of nuclear weapons. And how does the author conclude that the Iranian nuclear program is primarily “motivated by a desire to serve as a model of Islamic leadership”?

In any case, the nature of this “alternative model” is left unclear. The author seems to view it as the renunciation of all nuclear sovereignty by all Muslim countries simply on the basis of Kazakhstan’s having in the past surrendered the Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory. Does he advocate this “model” for Pakistan also?

Moreover, the article title is annoyingly patronizing. Why should there be “a model for nuclear-free Islam” when there is no such equivalent for nuclear-free Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism? I must say I find the credential of “not being in a pissing match with any superpowers”–to which, I guess, the author attaches some moral significance–laughable.

Christopher Schwartz March 14, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Hi Xenophon (intriguing choice for a pseudonym in many respects),

The title was simply meant to be provocative, apologies if it was at all misleading. For the record, I also believe in a “nuclear-free Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism”, and in several senses. Nor do I advocate the renunciation of all nuclear power by all Islamic societies — if I’m reading you correctly, I’m not sure from where you’re getting that impression in my post. To the contrary, I believe in peaceful nuclear power (ecological concerns about waste notwithstanding, but that’s a universal problem, not an Islamic one). The alternative model represented by Kazakhstan is that one can be Islamic and nuclear and *not* aggressive toward one’s neighbors or the superpowers. In this respect, Pakistan also misses the mark, since its bomb is clearly targeted at India (both ideologically and literally).

As for whether Iran is seeking the bomb, I’d say the international community is pretty certain about this based upon reliable intelligence and the nature of the regime itself. The whole strategy appears to be one that plays upon the ambiguity between nuclear power and nuclear weaponization, on the one hand attempting to shift the burden of proof onto the international community (fair enough), and on the other hand setting up a logic whereby they blame the West for being “compelled” to weaponize when they are finally capable of doing so.

Of course, the question naturally arises: why is Iran singled out? Again, I’d say it’s chiefly because of the revolutionary nature of the regime. This is not to debate the merits or demerits of either the Revolution or the nature of the regime in terms of justice vis-a-vis historical wrongs, since I think most fair-minded people will recognize the complexity of that. Rather, the concern is on the aggressive expression of revolutionary ideology, again, informed by history, but nonetheless a threat.

Don Bacon March 15, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Again, you’re wrong. Most countries in the world do not support sanctions against Iran. That includes all the countries east and north of Iran in Asia. Also the majority of people in the Middle East, Arabs, fear Israel (which has nukes) and not Iran (which hasn’t).

The US intelligence reports all say that Iran does not have a nuclear program. Why do you persist in prattling a falsehood?

Doing so about Iran at this precarious time is warmongering, no doubt about that. Some ignorant person may quote you as an authority, for one thing. Please stop it.

Xenophon March 15, 2012 at 9:47 am

“I’d say the international community is pretty certain about this based upon reliable intelligence and the nature of the regime itself.”


Well, the US intelligence community is not only not certain but has–since the 2007 NIE–contradicted such a view. What reliable intelligence are you referring to?

If by “revolutionary nature of the regime” you are referring to the fact that it was born in a revolution, then you might want to keep in mind 1649, 1776, 1789 and 1949 with respect to four of the current nuclear powers. As far as any contemporary “revolutionary” behavior on the part of Iran goes, it pales next to the revolutionary attempt by the US to perpetuate its global hegemonic dominance.

Christopher Schwartz March 15, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Hi Xenophon,

First, thank you for these provocative questions. It’s good to have this kind of rigorous discussion in a public arena, especially given what’s at stake. I’d also like to add that for the record I *don’t* want war with Iran in any shape or form; I hope that’s clear in terms of my ultimate reasons for writing this post.

Okay, back to business. The 2007 NIE report actually does not contradict the overall USIC opinion that Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapon; what they question is the timeline. So, I’m sure you have a copy at your own disposal, but for our readers who don’t, they can download it courtesy of the CFR @ http://www.cfr.org/iran/national-intelligence-estimate-iran—nuclear-intentions-capabilities/p14937

The 2007 NIE report judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” but “we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is
keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons” (p. 6). They also add, “We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so” (p. 6), and “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so” (p. 7). This backgrounds my earlier remark concerning the ambiguity between nuclear power and nuclear weaponization that the Iranian regime is/may be relying upon.

As for whether the NIE believes a nuclear weapons program exists, note the phraseology here: “We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program” (p. 7); “We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment [sic], only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons — and such a decision is inherently reversible” (p. 7); and “”We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites — for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon” (p. 8). It seems to me that the NIE is presuming the existence, and indeed, the political drive toward nuclear weaponization. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this passage, but that’s how it looks to me.

The kinds of remarks in the 2007 NIE report that drew so much attention were remarks such as these: “we do not know whether [the Iranian regime] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons” and that “it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005”, adding that the regime at that time (keep in mind this is before the instability of 2009) is susceptible to external pressure (p. 6), and so forth. But these remarks have to be understood within the presupposition that there is a nuclear weapons program, and indeed, a drive toward nuclear weaponization. There was also a lot of media attention given to the future timeline of nuclearization (for power or weaponry), which is much slower than other USIC estimates, but again, that timeline is working within the same presupposition.

As for whether there is something inherently aggressive (or, in the least, prosletyzing) about revolutionary states, including the United States, that’s a great political theoretical question, to which I would be strongly inclined to say yes, pointing to 1776, 1789, and 1917 as my case studies (and for what it’s worth, the societies associated with those dates all have nuclear weapons, and two of them dangerously faced off for the better part of a century often because of their competing worldviews). Intuitively, I feel this would only further buttress my point of using Kazakhstan as an alternative model, since it is very much *not* a revolutionary state, and thus isn’t looking to export its grand narrative or utopian vision anywhere.

Don Bacon March 15, 2012 at 11:45 pm

2007? How about 2012??

February 23, 2012
U.S. does not believe Iran is trying to build nuclear bomb
The latest U.S. intelligence report indicates Iran is pursuing research that could enable it to build a nuclear weapon, but that it has not sought to do so.

The most recent report, which represents the consensus of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, indicates that Iran is pursuing research that could put it in a position to build a weapon, but that it has not sought to do so.

Although Iran continues to enrich uranium at low levels, U.S. officials say they have not seen evidence that has caused them to significantly revise that judgment. Senior U.S. officials say Israel does not dispute the basic intelligence or analysis.


So please knock it off with the war talk.

Christopher Schwartz March 16, 2012 at 5:27 am

Hi Don,

I’ll answer both your comments here.

“Again, you’re wrong. Most countries in the world do not support sanctions against Iran. That includes all the countries east and north of Iran in Asia. Also the majority of people in the Middle East, Arabs, fear Israel (which has nukes) and not Iran (which hasn’t).” There are several things going on in your statement.

Regarding global dislike for sanctions, is Yang Jiechi your source on this? http://www.presstv.ir/detail/230226.html With all due respect to the Chinese Foreign Minister, let’s hear from the world. I can think of one leader you could have mentioned but for some reason didn’t: Kyrgyzstan’s Atambayev is very vocal about his concerns over his nation being embroiled in an “apocalyptic war” between Iran and the US, but keep in mind a lot of that is tailored for a domestic audience for reasons specific to Kyrgyzstani politics. The Manas airbase/transit center has long been a bone of contention for reasons ranging from national identity to rents to Russian geopoliticking. The fact of the matter is that the facility (when the Americans are paying their bills as they should) is an important source of cash for Kyrgyzstan (I expect you’ll appreciate the Eisenhowerian irony about that). The debacle with Iran is thus a very useful excuse to get out of that situation, or spin it to his nation’s advantage, we’ll see. But also read Atambayev very closely: he talks about not renewing the base’s lease in 2014. If he was so terrified of an imminent war, why wouldn’t he be citing his authority as president of a sovereign nation to boot out the Americans immediately?

In the Middle East, I think you’re referring to the divide between the governments and their people, because with respect to the former, WikiLeaks revealed their fear of Iranian nuclear weaponization. As for the people, it’s natural they would be more concerned about a country with bombs (Israel) than one without bombs just yet, but don’t forget that Iran has an effective populistic public relations campaign in this respect that promotes it as an underdog fighting for Muslims — in other words, American public opinion may be deeply influenced by AIPAC and the like against our government’s wishes, but so is Middle Eastern public opinion with respect to Iran. Nevertheless, I agree with many experts that de-nuclearizing Israel must also be as important as preventing nuclearization in Iran, but that would require an official state of peace between Tel Aviv and its neighbors, and, well, we have disastrous strategic choices on the part of Kadima and Likud to thank for the continued turgid state of affairs in that respect.

That said, I also want to make sure that you aren’t operating under the faulty assumption that Iran is popular among its neighbors. To the contrary, they are very ambivalent. Azerbaijan is arresting people it alleges are Iranian spies; the Caspian states are bitter about Tehran’s games with the sea border; the Central Asian states are all very, very careful about letting in Iranian cultural and educational programs because they are fearful of it trying to export its ideology; and Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan were once ruled by Iran and aren’t hurrying to go back to that former state of affairs.

But more importantly, no one, including myself, “supports” sanctions, and for two good reasons: it hurts the Iranian people and it’s highly disruptive to developing trade, to say nothing of other kinds of international relations, including educational exchanges (e.g., I would love to go to Iran, but as an American citizen, I’m pretty much banned by my country from doing so). This is the nature of what it means to be a “necessary evil”, to say nothing of global leadership. (It was remarkable to read in the WikiLeaks cables just how much Iran’s nuclear issues consume the attention of American diplomats — I read an analysis saying 40% of their time goes to it!)

Okay, next: “The US intelligence reports all say that Iran does not have a nuclear program. Why do you persist in prattling a falsehood?” That’s false. For one thing, clearly Iran has a “nuclear program”, the question is in which direction: power and/or weaponry? For another, if anything, the operational assumption is that Iran *does* have a nuclear weaponization *intention* or *desire*. I’m surprised you’re not making the better argument: what if the USIC did a thought experiment: let’s look at the available data *without* that assumption and see how we interpret it then?

Which leads me to the LA Times piece. First, I responding to Xenophon, who focused on the 2007 NIE report. Second, besides the fact that the public hasn’t yet seen the 2012 NIE report (and I don’t have security clearance, so that includes me), I would be surprised if it’s any substantially different than its 2007 predecessor — in fact, from the sound of the article, it sounds like more of the same. And speaking of which, with all due respect, have you actually read the LA Times piece closely? It’s a review of the debate as it currently stands, not a conclusive demonstration that Iran doesn’t want the bomb.

Which leads me to the IAEA. In their latest report (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2012/gov2012-9.pdf) they confirm that there has been no diversion of nuclear material from Iran’s nuclear facilities (the ones that we know about al which are under IAEA monitoring), and moreover, that they are being “operated as declared by Iran”. However, they also “continue to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program”. They have an entire section devoted just to this topic, in which they say:

“The Annex to the Director General’s November 2011 report (GOV/2011/65) provided a detailed analysis of the information available to the Agency indicating that Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This information, which comes from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself, is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that: prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured programme; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing” (p. 8).

You are rightfully and naturally concerned about what could go wrong in this debacle with Iran — so am I, and so is any responsible person. But if I may say so, please get to know the material that’s out there.

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