By Elise Labott
Kazakhstan, the venue for the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, offers the kind of symbolism the United States hopes will serve as a model for Iran.
The former Soviet Republic gave up a formidable nuclear stockpile after achieving independence in the 1990s and now is in negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to host a bank of nuclear fuel that would eliminate the need for a county like Iran to enrich uranium for themselves.
"Kazakhstan made very, very fundamental decisions to give up their nuclear weapons, to have a peaceful civil nuclear program," a senior U.S. official told reporters in Almaty, the nation's former capital. "In many ways, they are a model of what is possible."
From 1949 through 1989, the Soviet Union conducted hundreds of nuclear tests and experiments, both underground and above ground, at Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk test site.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989, an independent Kazakhstan joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state, transferred its weapons stockpile to Russia for dismantling and closed its test site at Semipalatinsk.
To rid itself of its nuclear legacy, Kazakhstan partnered with the United States to eliminate its huge arsenal of about a thousand strategic nuclear warheads and 370 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperation Threat Reduction Program, established in 1992, the United States cooperated with Kazakhstan on a variety of projects, ranging from securing and disposing of excess nuclear and radiological material and decommissioning of nuclear reactors to retraining former weapons scientists.
Working along with the Russia, American and Kazak scientists worked to decontaminate the Semipalatinsk site, where several hundred kilograms of potentially vulnerable nuclear material remained. In 2000, a joint project to seal 181 test tunnels and 13 test shafts at the test site was completed.
The government is now trying to use its nonproliferation track record to become a leader in peaceful nuclear energy.
Kazakhstan is estimated to hold at least 15% of the world's uranium reserves, and since 2009 has been the world's leading producer of uranium. Last year it reduced 20,900 metric tons of uranium, 37% of the world output. The nation manufactures fuel for nuclear plants on its own soil and is currently engaged in a joint venture with Russia to enrich uranium for their peaceful use.
Since 2009 it has offered to host a host a low enriched uranium fuel bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and has been in negotiations on the plan for the past two years.
Over the years Kazakhstan has signed several conventions and protocols governing its peaceful use of nuclear energy. U.S. officials investigated and dismissed claims that Iran had secured nuclear material for its program from Kazakhstan. At last year's Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, Kazakhstan was hailed for its nonproliferation efforts.
Last March in a New York Times op-ed piece, the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, urged Iran to abandon any plans to build a nuclear weapon.
"Kazakhstan's experience shows that nations can reap huge benefits from turning their backs on nuclear weapons," Nazarbayev wrote.
Now, the Obama administration hopes Iran will come to the same choice its Kazakh hosts made years ago, and recognize a nuclear weapon will not increase its security or economic prospects. U.S. officials have told CNN that a package of incentives to be presented to Iran in Almaty includes easing of sanctions banning the trade in gold and precious metals, as well as cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy.
"Kazakhstan has a very growing and vibrant economy. They've been able to use their resources, including their oil resources, to build a society that I think has a very positive future," the senior U.S. official said. "I think they believe they are more secure, not less secure, without their nuclear weapons."