Last week’s Almaty-based round of negotiations between the P5 +1 and Iran over the continuation of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear enrichment programme came to naught. The relative failure to reach any consensus was followed by the familiar reels of exasperated bellicosity employed by Israeli ministers for increasingly stringent sanctions and the possibility of military strikes. Iran’s ambassador to the UN was equally scathing of the talks, citing US hypocrisy at appearing open to talks whilst continuing the economic sanctions that have boosted inflation in Iran up to 30 per cent.

Image courtesy of the European External Action Service, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the European External Action Service, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Nuclear Security

At the simple level of security theory, will the continuation of the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme destabilise the Middle East, or will it lead to a relative strengthening of regional cooperation based on a mutual theory of deterrence provided by the existing Israeli nuclear capability? Neo-realist IR theory would suggest that the world has little to fear from a nuclear Iran; the caution and desire for self preservation generated by the ownership of such cataclysmic power should act as a check for militancy. Iran has previously demonstrated its prudence around weapons of mass destruction when it developed chemical weapons as a response to Iraqi use of mustard gas and nerve agents during the first Gulf War. This capability was used as deterrence only and not in retaliatory strikes against Iraq.

Can the question of denuclearisation be moved beyond military security and the logic of deterrence? If Iran is feeling vulnerable is it not understandable that its leaders would attempt to find some form of insurance against the threat? But perhaps this insurance does not have to come from the acquisition of a nuclear armoury. There is a very definite and symbolic reason why the latest round of negotiations were held in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, along with other former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Belarus, provides a contemporary example of the benefits that can be attained through the decision to abrogate a nuclear capability.

Atoms for Peace?

When it became independent from the USSR in December 1991, Kazakhstan inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads and the vast irradiated wasteland of the Semipalatinsk test site. The Kazakh state was ‘born nuclear’ and had overnight become the world’s fourth largest nuclear power. What followed was a power struggle between the rival political and security establishments of the inchoate Kazakh polity; the anti-nuclear and pro-western investment faction was supported by President Nazarbaev, whilst the conservative military factions were concerned that the willing removal of such strategic strength would relegate Kazakhstan to diplomatic irrelevance.

The Cold War may have ended for Kazakhstan but in 1991 its security was far from ensured. In Russia and China it was bordered by two nuclear members of the Security Council, both with territorial disputes against Kazakhstan. Ethnic Russians composed 37% of the Kazakh population and all of Kazakhstan’s oil pipelines ran through their northern neighbour. Many within the Kazakh establishment saw giving up nuclear weapons as inviting foreign interference in domestic affairs.

Ultimately the anti-nuclear faction prevailed, due in part to the intense levels of popular revulsion at the damage caused to the Kazakh population and environment from 40 years of nuclear testing. An agreement was reached to repatriate the nuclear warheads to Russia, a process completed in 1995, and by September 1999 all missile silos structures had been destroyed under the US Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction programme. This process would have been impossible had it not been for the economic incentives provided to Kazakhstan by the US and outside investors; 85 million dollars was provided to assist in dismantlement with a further 200 million guaranteed economic investment from 1993 to 1996. USAID was tripled in return for the ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Nazarbaev bet on a new model of security, a post-nuclear security based on initiation into the global polity and liberal economic development. With an economy that now represents two-thirds of the entire Central Asian GDP it would appear to be a bet that paid off.

But what model does this provide for Iran? The difference between the two is clear; Kazakhstan willingly cast aside its nuclear arsenal whilst Iran is apparently seeking to develop one. But would the decision have been as easy had Kazakhstan received little in the way of reward? Kazakhstan was offered an overwhelming economic incentive to modernise it’s ageing industrial capacity and capitalise on its extensive oil reserves, simultaneously bolstering the regime and incorporating Kazakhstan into the global economy. Perhaps it is time to accept that Iran should be offered incentives rather than threats to halt the pursuit of nuclear weapons, as the slow degradation of Iranian pride will only serve to narrow the options of resistance left to the Islamic republic.