Kazakhstan, Iran ready to improve ties

January 19. Central Asia Newswire

By Martin Sieff

Kazakhstan, Iran ready to improve tiesKazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev is flying to Iran on a state visit timed to celebrate the Persian New Year. His visit looks likely to launch a process of warming in Kazakh-Iranian relations.

In recent years, Kazakh-Iranian ties have not been as close as those Tehran has enjoyed with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Relations have always been friendly. The Kazakhs have recognized their need to stay on good terms with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Islamic republic. At the same time, they have remained alert to control and, if necessary, repress any hint of Islamist extremism in their own country.

Kazakhstan’s open society and good relations with the United States – including membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace military cooperation program since 1998 – have also always stuck in Iran’s throat. But the Iranians have never dared raise a finger about it because of Nazarbayev’s excellent relations with Russia and membership in the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) , also known as the Shanghai Pact.

However, over the past year, Kazakhstan’s ties with the United States have been quietly but steadily cooling. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruffled Kazakh feathers on her brief visit at the end of November and the beginning of December when she held a reception for Kazakh non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human right groups that appeared to be a snub to the government.

Clinton also effectively vetoed far-reaching proposed reform plans backed by the Kazakhs to make the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) more effective in fighting Islamist extremism, organized crime, the drug trade and human trafficking.

Kazakh leaders and diplomats were also disappointed that U.S. President Barack Obama passively sat back and made no move to improve bilateral cooperation following the Washington nuclear control summit last April.

By contrast, Kazakhstan is planning to strengthen ties to the Islamic world this year when it takes over the annual rotating chairmanship of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The support of Iran will be essential for any diplomatic initiatives the Kazakhs want to launch during its chairmanship.

Also in 2011, Kazakhstan is expected to launch its first sukuk, or Islamic bond offering. The sukuk market has remained flat in recent years. Iran wants to see it expand, so the two countries have reason to improve ties on that level alone.

For his part, Iranian President Ahmadinejad has proclaimed that improving his country’s ties with Central Asia is an important diplomatic priority. He has made major gains in recent months boosting ties with both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But Kazakhstan, the financial and energy giant of the region, is even more important.

Improving ties will not all be smooth sailing, however. Iran’s fuel blockade of Afghanistan poses a dilemma for Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs want to prop up the U.S.- and NATO-supported government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and have said they will step in to help assure its fuel supplies. But Kazakhstan doesn’t want to anger Iran either. Nazarbayev may seek to broker a compromise solution to that issue on his trip to Tehran. But he will not sacrifice improving relations with Tehran to do so.

Nazarbayev could also gain favor with the Iranians during his trip by endorsing Iran’s new travel corridor from Turkmenistan and by joining Russia and Iran in opposition to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.

President Nazarbayev could also offer his services as a broker to help defuse tensions with the United States and Israel over Iran’s continuing nuclear program. Kazakhstan is now the world’s leading annual producer and supplier of uranium and supports the peaceful civilian use of nuclear energy to generate power, while opposing the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Not all the outstanding issues between Kazakhstan and Iran will be resolved on Nazarbayev’s visit. But it looks likely to launch a new, accelerated process of warming relations between two of the rising Islamic nations of western Asia.