In 1992, a couple of months after formally leaving the Soviet Union, the government of Kazakhstan received a remarkable offer from Muammar Qaddafi. The Libyan dictator proposed that he "keep the country's nuclear arsenal in the capacity of, as he wrote, the first Muslim atomic bombs."
At least, that is the story as told late last year by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan's former foreign minister and current director-general of the United Nations Office in Geneva, during a conference in Kazakhstan's capital Astana. Qaddafi supposedly offered "many billions" in exchange for the weapons, an offer Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev rejected in the name of "global strategic order" and his own "political and moral right to head a global anti-nuclear movement."
The story is probably apocryphal: No one has publicly verified it, and Tokayev's word is the only evidence that it happened. But it does demonstrate a particular point of pride for Kazakhstan's government: its successful disposal of the enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons it inherited at the end of the Cold War -- and Nazarbayev's desire to capitalize on that decision politically.
That pride perhaps explains why Kazakhstan has inserted itself into the nuclear negotiations with Iran. So far, two rounds of talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- have taken place in the former capital of Almaty, the most recent ending just this past week. But pride does not explain why the West has bought Kazakhstan's attempt to brand itself a nuclear mediator. Despite the glamor of Almaty and the grandiosity of Astana, Kazakhstan is not exactly Switzerland -- it is a dictatorship whose glitzy new streets are a thin cover for brutal repression.
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Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan as president since 1990, after advancing through the ranks of the Kazakh Communist Party. When his country became independent, it was saddled with a very big opportunity and a very big challenge. The opportunity was Kazakhstan's vast energy wealth, which continues to enrich the government. The challenge was the vast stockpile of Soviet nuclear material (including about 1,400 warheads), an arsenal that made it the fourth-largest nuclear power in the world.
Those nuclear weapons were a headache for everyone: Post-independence Kazakhstan simply did not have the means to safeguard them responsibly, and there was a pervasive worry in the West that Kazakh nukes could leak onto the black market and sow global chaos. In 1992, Senators Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar coauthored an eponymous bill, which funded a global program to secure so-called loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was one of the first beneficiaries of the Nunn-Lugar initiative, and by 1995 it had transferred all of its weapons back to Russia.
For Kazakhstan, this was more than just a sensible precaution; it was the beginning of a strategic shift geared toward producing tremendous wealth and, just as importantly, positioning itself as a respectable member of the international community -- trends that would reinforce each other. The decision to renounce nuclear weapons was the origin story of the new Kazahkstan.
In many ways that vision has come to pass. Certainly the money has flowed -- almost $10 billion dollars in 2011 alone -- in no small part because of the country's oil production. International companies like Exxon plan to invest more than $154 billion in petroleum development along Kazakhstan's Caspian coast. In 2009, China also brought online a huge oil pipeline from the Caspian to feed its endless appetite for petroleum.
Kazakhstan has also marketed itself as a global powerhouse for nuclear energy. It has spent many years developing its vast uranium reserves and has tried to become a "fuel bank" for supplying uranium to civilian nuclear power stations (the proposal took form when Russia convinced the IAEA to support it). India, China, and Japan have all purchased uranium from Kazakhstan. In 2007, KazAtomProm bought a share in Westinghouse. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton even negotiated a uranium deal for Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra (who later donated $31 million to the Clinton Global Initiative).