The news last week from Switzerland of a political framework agreement reached at the talks over Iran’s nuclear programme is a major step forward. No one should underestimate the complexity of the problems still on the table or the difficulties which will have to be overcome to reach a final agreement by the summer deadline. All sides will need to compromise and show trust. But the willingness to keep talking in good faith and go to major compromises gives us all hope that a major source of tension and potential conflict can be removed from the international stage.
Although Kazakh diplomacy is not a direct participant in the talks, Astana, of course, has had both a major stake and interest in their success. As a country which has warm relations with all the P5+1 participants and Iran, President Nursultan Nazarbayev offered Almaty as a venue for the discussions two years ago. The two rounds of talks held in the city did not deliver the hoped-for breakthrough but they did create an important momentum and Kazakhstan earned the gratitude of all parties for hosting the negotiations and keeping everyone at the table.
There was no surprise, of course, that Kazakhstan should be so determined to do all it could to help ease international tensions and advance the cause of nuclear security, and, ultimately, a nuclear weapons-free world. Working for peace through multi-lateral dialogue and an awareness of the terrible threat of nuclear weapons have defined this country’s international relations since our earliest days as an independent nation.
The first major decision Kazakhstan took – even before we had formally become independent – was to close the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. This was closely followed by the voluntary renunciation of the world’s fourth biggest nuclear arsenal. Kazakhstan’s work with both Russia and the United States to ensure both goals were achieved safely remains a model of international co-operation.
Over the last 23 years, our country has continued to take the lead in trying to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, and have championed the end of nuclear testing. The establishment of Central Asia as a nuclear weapons-free zone in 2006 has since been supported by all the permanent members of the Security Council, an important step towards the formal establishment of the zone under international law. The ATOM Project, another initiative coming out of Kazakhstan, continues to raise awareness internationally of the terrible risks the world is running in keeping open the possibility for nuclear weapons testing.
These steps, along with the lasting human and environmental damage from the hundreds of nuclear explosions within our borders, has given Kazakhstan the moral authority to speak out on the threat these weapons pose to humanity and planet. They have also provided a real example of a country which has not lost global influence or international stature by the bold decisions we have taken. The evidence shows, in contrast, that our position in the world has been strengthened because we have turned our back on nuclear weapons.
But while Kazakhstan has taken every opportunity to demand the end to nuclear testing, to oppose nuclear proliferation and to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, our country absolutely recognises the right of countries to have their own civilian nuclear programme. As economies move towards a carbon-free future, it seems certain that nuclear power, which is both safe and clean, will play an important part in the energy mix of many countries. It is how to strike the right balance between these two goals which is at the heart of the negotiations between Iran and the international community.
According to government sources, Astana and the International Atomic Energy Agency work to set up a bank of low-enriched uranium fuel under the IAEA auspices, which is going to be an important element of ensuring the security of the nuclear fuel cycle internationally. Astana’s offer to host the international fuel bank received a warm response from the IAEA and negotiations are said to be on the right track although it seems that there is some way to go on agreeing technical details. As the world’s largest producer of natural uranium with its own established processing industry, Kazakhstan’s experience of nuclear security and leading role in the international community make it a proper candidate.
The importance of an agreement between Iran and the international community on its nuclear programme goes wider than the issue itself, vital as that is to peace and stability. A reduction in tension and an increase in trust are also key to finding solutions to many other problems.
Iran is a major regional power. Progress on a wide range of issues will not be possible without its full involvement. We are already seeing in the crucial battle against violent extremists in Iraq what can be achieved through better co-operation. Iran also contributes to regional stability by playing an observer role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as working with Kazakhstan and other littoral states to produce a solution acceptable to all on the Caspian Sea delimitation.
The continuing tensions and instability in the Middle East are a major risk to the entire region and wider world. The international community needs to find mechanisms to bring countries together rather than isolate them. It is significant in this regard that the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA), initiated by President Nazarbayev, remains one of the few regional organisations to number both Israel and Iran as members.
Nor does Astana believe that economic sanctions are the best way to bring about change. They are a blunt instrument which, as our country knows to its cost, can have a damaging impact well beyond the borders of the supposed target. Iran is an important part of the wider regional economy and the effects of sanctions are felt not just by its leadership but the population as a whole and by surrounding countries. But freed from these shackles, its large population and developed economy can help drive growth and prosperity across the Middle East and Central Asia.
Iran is, as a close neighbour of Kazakhstan, an increasingly important trade partner. President Hassan Rouhani’s successful visit to Kazakhstan in September 2014 and the visit of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif this month are signs of the determination of both countries to increase co-operation with infrastructure, agriculture and tourism among those areas singled out for new partnerships.
Iran is already, for example, Kazakhstan’s largest market for grain with exports of wheat and barley increasing three-fold last year alone. The rapid growth in agricultural exports products has already been helped by the new Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan – Iran railway, which was finally completed in December. The new line is expected to boost rail traffic between the three countries from three million to ten million tonnes a year – a figure forecast to double again by 2020.
But the benefits of a new rail route linking Central Asia and beyond to the Persian Gulf will go much further than the immediate three countries. Opening the final stage of the railway between Uzen and Gorgan in Iran, President Nazarbayev hailed the creation of a new Silk Road, which would boost the entire regional economy and give a boost to jobs and prosperity.
Kazakhstan and Iran must continue, as close neighbours and good friends, building trade links. But a lasting solution to the problems surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme would see the country again fully integrated into the regional and global economy. Coupled with the removal of a flashpoint which had the potential to threaten wider peace and stability, this is the prize now within our grasp.