Kazakhstan's lesson for Iran

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2013 - 5:07 PM

Relinquishing a nuclear-weapons program can enhance a nation’s security.

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Promise and peril: In Kazakhstan, a Soviet-era mural extols the promise of nuclear power. But the peril of nuclear weapons is apparent at the toxic Semipalatinsk Test Site.

Photo: Photos by John Rash • Star Tribune,

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Due to the diplomatic deal reached in Geneva, the theocracy running Iran has half a year to decide if its potential nuclear-weapons program would make the regime more, or less, secure.

Sure, if the country keeps its capability to weaponize, it may be harder for regional rivals or Western powers to push for regime change. But internal collapse as a result of strict sanctions and international isolation may be more dangerous.

At least that’s the lesson from leaders in Kazakhstan, which relinquished what was then the world’s fourth-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons when it split from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Failure to do so would have made Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet economic rise impossible because the Central Asian nation would have been “blacklisted,” Sergei Berezin, the deputy director general of Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center told me and nine other journalists in August on a trip organized by the International Reporting Project.

Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, agreed. “Kazakhstan has a right to present itself as a model for dealing with nuclear issues,” he said. Reconfirming his nation’s support for nuclear power, but not weapons, Idrissov added that “we do not believe the possession of nuclear weapons is a guarantee for your own security. On the contrary, the best security on the long-term basis is sustainable and well-thought social and economic development.”

Kazakhstan may model the benefits of being nuclear-free. But even more motivating for Iran may be the example the country established as a victim of the nuclear age.

Soviet leaders, who used Kazakhstan for their own nefarious needs (its gulags held Alexander Solzhenitsyn), conducted 456 nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk Test Site in northeastern Kazakhstan. The journalists who visited the desolate, toxic test site could see and feel the impact of senseless proliferation.

The site is vast — about the size of Belgium — and deceiving. Wildflowers and grasses grow, and birds flit about the windswept steppes.

But a different kind of bird — called “geese” by researchers — belies the tranquility. The “geese” are four-story concrete structures that housed instruments and animals used to measure the effects of radiation.

The scarred shells stand like a nuclear-aged Soviet Stonehenge, haunting reminders of weapons testing that killed or sickened many local residents.

Several survivors who gathered to honor Hiroshima Day shared their stories. Anastacia Kyseleva, wearing two Soviet-era medals, said that during one test villagers were ordered to divide on opposite sides of a river.

“On our side, people didn’t follow,” Kyseleva, 86, said. “But on the other side, people started running after it [the mushroom cloud], and those people who followed it either died or couldn’t walk afterward.”

Mutigen Oshybayev, 83, pointed to his tie clip, made to commemorate the atomic bombings. “It is very small, but its meaning is profound. It is our duty, as the generation of nuclear testing, to preserve this memory.”

The memory isn’t lost on Idrissov. He said he was “devastated” by what he learned in his visits with victims and his trips to the test site. “Kazakhstan has a moral core to go non-nuclear,” he said. Then, in a nod to the American journalists, Idrissov called on the United States to swiftly ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty “without political gaming.”

The United States has criticized Kazakhstan for political gaming, too, and for good reason. The country has a poor human-rights record, and a political process that saw Nursultan Nazarbayev, president since Soviet days in 1990, re-elected to a third term in 2011 with 95 percent of the vote.

In Kazakhstan, during a meeting of prominent human-rights activists, some said that the close Kazakhstan-U.S. relationship shows how America acts on interests instead of values.

“The American policy is made in the national interest of the United States, but is it also not about the principles of international law and human rights and democracy?” asked Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.

Zhovtis was critical of the “soft authoritarianism” practiced by his country’s government, but with a caveat. “It’s not North Korea. It is not Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan,” he said.

Kazakhstan, like Iran, is resource-rich. And while income distribution in the former Communist country has a decidedly capitalist inequality, most have benefited from the extraction economy.

Iran has oil wealth, too — but the country is squandering its opportunity to help its people because of the nuclear standoff.

Back at the National Nuclear Center, Berezin was asked about Iran. He paused before saying, “I can only comment as a citizen [of Kazakhstan]. I would say do not torture yourself and your own economy, because it is extremely expensive, and the consequences are impossible to predict.”

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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