On My Mind: Nuclear crossroads

The former Soviet republic voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal 20 years ago, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.

World powers and Iran at nuclear talks in Almaty 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ilyas Omarov)
World powers and Iran at nuclear talks in Almaty 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ilyas Omarov)
Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, was an ideal setting for dialogue on an evolving international crisis – Iran’s quest for nuclear-weapons capability. The former Soviet republic voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal 20 years ago, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.
At the time, president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s decision was practical. With abundant oil and gas resources, Kazakhstan chose to invest in economic development, trade and cooperative relations with countries near and far. This Muslim nation maintains good ties with the US and Israel, as well as with Russia and many Islamic states. Though Kazakhstan is the world’s top producer of uranium, it has no nuclear power plants.
Iran, Kazakhstan’s neighbor, has a completely different and alarming approach.
Indeed, only three days after Iranian representatives met in Almaty with the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany – the P5+1 group – Tehran announced a new project to mine uranium and process it into yellowcake. April 9, the date of the announcement, was National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran, an occasion President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seized to declare: “Iran has gone nuclear.”
Though the Iranian leader has not yet admitted to nuclear-weapons development, suspicions run deep as Iran has continued to ignore UN and International Atomic Energy Agency requests and warnings.
As a result, Iran has been subjected to a series of economic and financial sanctions, with other, more stringent options under consideration.
Seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis, the P5+1 has been negotiating with Iran since 2006. After each encounter pleasantries are exchanged and each side claims progress has been made, though details on the actual discussions are scant. And soon thereafter, another pronouncement from Tehran signals an advance in its nuclear program.
The prospect of the Almaty talks, on April 5 and 6 – the third meeting in three months, the fifth in the past year – raised some expectations that this time it would be different and that there might be a breakthrough.
But, once again, the gathering ended with no progress. The sides “remain far apart on the substance,” said Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who has led the negotiations with Tehran.
Stalemate was predictable, the usual inconclusive outcome known all too well by IAEA Director Yukiya Amano. The UN nuclear watchdog’s regular reports have questioned Iran’s intentions and its persistent failure to comply with IAEA requests.
“We have information indicating that Iran is engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices, and continues to deal with that,” Amano told the Associated Press a couple of days before the gathering in Almaty. It is a good sign that Amano was recently reelected IAEA director. But more concerted action will be required if there is to be any chance of convincing Iran’s leaders to alter their nuclear course.
The Almaty meeting came three weeks after President Barack Obama, standing in Jerusalem, reaffirmed that US policy is “to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and declared again that “all options are on the table.” Reinforcing the administration’s posture, Secretary of State John Kerry warned during his own diplomatic tour of the region that world powers will not pursue talks indefinitely with Iran over its nuclear program.
Iran, however, may well not take these statements seriously. Soon will come the seventh anniversary of the on-again-offagain P5+1 negotiations with Iran. When the next meeting will take place remains uncertain. There will be some temptation to wait until after Iran’s presidential election in June. But Iran is not taking a time out, and in any event whoever is elected Iran’s next president is unlikely to alter in the slightest Ayatollah Khamenei’s commitment to completing the project.
Moreover, Tehran can conclude from US and European responses to other crises in the region that its current strategy is working just fine. On Syria, Obama said in August 2011 that Bashar Assad must go, and this month declared that any use of chemical weapons would constitute crossing a red line. But Assad, heavily supported by Iran, is still in power, and his regime has probably already used chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
Iran sees the European Union dithering on designating Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based global terrorist organization created and supported by Iran, a terrorist entity, even though both Bulgaria and Cyprus have implicated it in terrorist activities on European soil.
Also, two of the UN Security Council permanent members, China and Russia, do not fully agree with the US on how to stop Iran’s nuclear quest. China is still a major trading partner for Iran, importing oil that is boycotted by the EU. Russia erected the first and only Iranian nuclear plant, in Bushehr. For these two world powers, continuing to talk with Iran is the only option.
Iran derives no inspiration from Kazakhstan’s example. On the contrary, it remains committed to defiance, finding loopholes in the sanctions, exploiting divisions in the international community, capitalizing on its current position as chair of the 120-member-state Non-Aligned Movement, and progressing steadily on a nuclear program that one day may well produce an explosive device that threatens the world.
Tshe writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.