How can Iran be disarmed amid its civil unrest? - opinion

Negotiations for the return to the Iran deal have been stalled and aren't likely to continue amid the nation's civil unrest.

An explosion is seen behind a soldier during a joint exercise called the 'Great Prophet 17',in the southwest of Iran, in this picture obtained on December 22, 2021.  (photo credit: IRGC/WANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
An explosion is seen behind a soldier during a joint exercise called the 'Great Prophet 17',in the southwest of Iran, in this picture obtained on December 22, 2021.
(photo credit: IRGC/WANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The negotiations between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program have stalled again, and it is unlikely to be revived soon in light of ongoing protests and Tehran’s continued uranium enrichment.

How can Iran’s nuclear program be brought to a stop?

In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to 60% purity at its Fordow nuclear plant and intends to continue expanding its program.

Enrichment of approximately 90% results in weapons-grade fissile material. Civilian nuclear power requires 5% enrichment. Uranium, between 5% and 90%, has a military objective primarily. The advancement of the nuclear program, along with Iran’s bloody crackdown on protesters and its sales of missiles and drones to Russia, has cooled the atmosphere for talks.

With Republican control of the US House of Representatives following the midterm elections, US policy over Iran’s nuclear program may become more rigid. This comes after President Biden expressed his frustrations in September over the stalled talks and sought other “options” to block Iran’s nuclear program. Prime Minister Netanyahu is bound to push for a more aggressive stance on Iran.

Iran’s choice

With the Iranian regime facing months of domestic unrest and violence, questions continue to be raised about the stability of the government. The question is whether Iran will seek economic relief and a deal as it tries to end the ongoing protests, or alternatively, if it views nuclear weaponry as the ultimate guarantor of regime survival.

 Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. expulsion from Iran, in Tehran, Iran November 4, 2022 (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. expulsion from Iran, in Tehran, Iran November 4, 2022 (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

The international community should be aiding the Iranian people in their unprecedented uprising against this state sponsor of terror. Iran and Russia have increased their ties to offset international sanctions and isolation. Reports indicate that Iran has supplied Russia with drones and missiles to aid its war against Ukraine.

Kazakhstan, which has tried to maintain a neutral, multi-vector foreign policy, is seeking cargo transit through its country, including between Russia and Iran, a senior Kazakh official said last month. “During the first nine months of this year, 80,000 tons of cargo have been shipped along this [eastern] route, which is an eightfold increase from last year, although the corridor’s capacity allows 6 million tons of shipments [annually],” said Deputy Prime Minister Serik Zhumangarin last month.

While Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, has officially distanced itself from Moscow, Astana is still eager to increase its transit role in the so-called North-South corridor between Russia and Iran, according to Zhumangarin.

The Central Asian role

Kazakhstan is negotiating with the EU to increase its transit capacity as part of a scheme to redirect European energy imports and China-Europe overland trade from Russia to the Caspian and Caucasus.

The Central Asian country is also not a novice to nuclear diplomacy. Kazakhstan, under its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev (who ruled the country from 1990 until 2019), has been intimately involved with international denuclearization efforts and hosted the early stages of the Iran nuclear talks.

Kazakhstan is the perfect example of how Iran and North Korea should eliminate nuclear weapons. Its successes in dismantling the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal and nuclear cleanup have made it a widely studied case. Nazarbayev also ordered the Semipalatinsk nuclear test range to shut down while the Soviet Union was still standing.

Nazarbayev managed to expand the nation’s economy after it had to find a path to development after breaking off from the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, successful examples of denuclearization, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and South Africa, suggest why the mullahs in Iran are unlikely to follow in their footsteps unless the regime is toppled. Tehran is only likely to follow this model after the fall of the Islamic Republic.

Kazakhstan’s anti-proliferation model

Amid the important visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Kazakhstan in September, there were also critical visits by US nuclear officials aimed at continuing US-Kazakhstan cooperation in nuclear non-proliferation.

US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) personnel visited Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center in late September, which included the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS). Jill Hruby, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and Frank Rose, principal deputy administrator of the NNSA, followed with their visits to Kazakhstan on October 5.

This visit helped facilitate US-Kazakhstan cooperation. It prompted Hruby to note, “Kazakhstan has been an outstanding partner of the United States on nuclear security and nonproliferation for over 30 years.”

This process required extraordinary trilateral collaboration between the United States, Kazakhstan, and Russia to transfer nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons from Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation and clean up the test sites and other facilities. As a result, 1,040 nuclear warheads were removed from 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 370 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Kazakhstan’s decision was followed by creating the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) Agreement, which was signed in 2006 at the Semipalatinsk test site. Denuclearization in Kazakhstan was informed by South Africa’s nuclear experience while also helping to refine nuclear inspection and uranium control processes.

These achievements are why so many regard Kazakhstan as a model for denuclearization for Iran and North Korea.

Future Iranian disarmament

Unfortunately, Tehran and Pyongyang are unlikely to follow in Kazakhstan’s footsteps today. Not only has Russia transitioned from partner to pariah, but Iran is entirely intransigent on the issue of denuclearization.

The window for negotiation has slammed shut. The US can only hope for a denuclearized Iran by supporting the Iranian people vocally and covertly.

The focus of US and Israeli policy on Iran must be to support the people fighting to remove the violent theocracy, bolster internal opposition, and avoid pursuing a deal with the current murderous regime. This should also be the policy of the Biden administration, which has remained relatively silent over the protests and crackdown.

The Kazakhstan model of post-Soviet denuclearization still has many lessons for today and the future. Nazarbayev’s leadership exemplified what can be accomplished, a model of what is required for denuclearization to succeed.

The lessons of Kazakhstan and other examples of successful denuclearization are not “negotiation at any cost” but rather the requirement of sincere mutual cooperation. The regime in Iran lacks the desire, standing, and sincerity required to succeed in nuclear negotiations.

The author is a writer on Middle East affairs. He covered the region for The Jerusalem Post and is now writing a PhD dissertation at Bar-Ilan University on the Islamic Movement in Israel. Twitter: @Arielbensolomon