Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 117

During his June 6 visit to Tehran Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev extended a message of friendship from President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the letter the Kazakh leader emphasized that the Iranian nuclear crisis goes beyond Tehran’s long-standing confrontation with Washington and affects the security of the entire global community. He stressed that Kazakhstan, a country that eliminated its nuclear arsenal of its own free will, opposes the use of nuclear energy for military purposes.

Symbolically, Tokayev’s trip to Iran was synchronized with Commissioner of the European Union Javier Solana’s visit to Tehran. The European diplomat presented a package of proposals to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis. As part of diplomatic efforts to mediate between Iran and Western leaders, the Kazakh foreign minister also made a trip to Germany on May 18 to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. At a subsequent press conference in Tehran, Tokayev expressed hope that the Iranian crisis would be solved peacefully, and he brushed off rumors that Kazakhstan was conducting talks with the United States regarding the deployment of a U.S. military base (Yegemen Qazaqstan, June 9).

Kazakhstan has approached the U.S.-Iranian confrontation by backing Iran’s “undeniable right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.” Tokayev has often lamented, “Many double standards are at work in the application of nuclear energy” (Tehran Times, June 8). This perspective resonates with official Tehran, which fears international isolation in the wake of the standoff with Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motaki used Tokayev’s visit as an opportunity to send an ambivalent message to the West, saying that Iran prefers cooperation to confrontation, but if Americans opt for confrontation they will face serious consequences.

Kazakhstan finds it increasingly difficult to distance itself from the U.S.-Iranian conflict and has to maneuver according to the changing political climate. Astana attaches great importance to Iran’s potential as a convenient export route for moving its oil and gas toward East Asian markets, thus Nazarbayev announced his intention to meet President Ahmadinejad at today’s [June 16] Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, and earlier the two sides agreed to open an Iranian consulate in the Kazakh seaport town of Aktau.

Currently Kazakhstan supplies some 1.5 billion tons of oil annually to Iran on a swap basis. Iran seeks to increase the capacity of the Neka seaport in northern Iran in order to triple the oil swap volume this year. Tokayev said that the Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Relations and Trade would discuss the delivery of Kazakh grain to Iran in August and September. At the same time, during his recent visit to Beijing, the Kazakh foreign minister opposed admitting Iran and Afghanistan into the SCO, arguing that these countries are not ready for membership. Astana cannot fail to see that Washington and Europe are alarmed at the prospect of extending the China- and Russia-dominated SCO into Asia. Many Western analysts think the SCO is increasingly turning into an anti-U.S. alliance. Should Iran gain membership in the SCO, Kazakhstan may find itself drawn into the quagmire of global confrontation against its will (Express-K, June 14). However, during his talks with Manuchehr, the Kazakh foreign minister said Iran might be given full membership status in the SCO.

Another stumbling block in Kazakh-Iranian relations stems from divergences over the drawn-out discussions around the planned construction of the Trans-Caspian seabed pipeline, a very attractive project for Kazakhstan in economic terms. But construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline requires at least two preconditions: agreement among all littoral states and a consensus on the legal status of the Caspian Sea among five countries. The latter is the more difficult task. Speaking in Almaty on May 22 the Iranian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Remin Mehmanprasat, expressed skepticism about the prospect of the Caspian seabed pipeline, saying that the implementation of the project may result in “colossal damage to the environment and water reservoir” of the region. Nevertheless, the Iranian Ambassador believes that a comprehensive agreement on the legal status of the Caspian Sea will be reached at the upcoming summit of the heads of littoral states scheduled for October in Tehran (Interfax-Kazakhstan, May 22). The Caspian issue was also raised in talks between the Kazakh Ambassador to Iran, Yerik Utembayev, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari on May 24. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry press office said that Kazakhstan and Iran might reach a bilateral consensus on the Caspian Sea in the near future (Interfax-Kazakhstan, May 24).

For Kazakhstan, which needs safe energy transportation routes to East Asia, current economic realities necessitate a normalization of relations between Washington and Tehran. Although Astana declared its readiness to join the American-favored Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, its construction can be justified only if the price of crude oil remains high. Iran offers Astana access to East Asian markets at relatively low cost. Kazakhstan’s current complex relationships with Iran and Western states are fraught with many political dilemmas. Kazakhstan needs military cooperation with Iran to maintain security in the Caspian region, and that is yet another source of irritation for the West.