BACKGROUND: Kazakhstan’s mediation roles became especially prominent earlier this year when Almaty hosted two rounds of the negotiations involving Iran and the P5+1 group (all five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany). The first round, which occurred from February 26-27, represented the first high-level meeting between the parties in months. They discussed their differences in greater detail than at any previous talks as well as some confidence-building measures to narrow their trust gap. But then the Iranian position hardened and the April 5-6 round saw no appreciable progress, ending hopes that the parties would soon adopt a sequence of reciprocal concessions leading to a comprehensive settlement.
Kazakhstan has also sought to reduce water disputes in Central Asia. Tajikistan’s efforts to complete Soviet-era plans to construct a massive dam at Rogun has worsened these perennial tensions over water issues. The project could result in even less water flowing to downstream countries. It has evinced strong warnings from Tashkent, exacerbating long-standing differences between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over other issues. The World Bank has commissioned expert feasibility studies in a hitherto unsuccessful effort to depoliticize the Rogun conflict by making it a technical and economic issue subject to rational cost-benefit analysis. The problem is that the confrontation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the dam has become so intense that the technical issues have become less important than questions of national pride, independence, and security.
UN officials told Kazakhstan they would welcome a diplomatic initiative to dampen tensions. At their last bilateral summit last September, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov argued that Central Asian countries should have the right to veto the construction of dams or other hydropower facilities on transnational rivers. They also advocated creating an expert group to study the water resource issue and recommend a solution to the problem. Nazarbayev has earlier called for establishing a water energy consortium in Central Asia to help manage such problems. Then, this March, Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov visited Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to help settle their differences over Rogun. In addition to holding various bilateral meetings with Tajikistani officials, Idrissov attended a meeting of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue foreign ministers in Dushanbe. Idrissov urged both countries to respect the international norm that upstream and downstream countries should have equal management rights for shared bodies of water.
Kazakhstanis are increasingly eager to end the war in nearby Afghanistan, which constantly threatens to bring civil strife, organized crime, and other problems to Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan provides a variety of economic and other assistance to Afghanistan, through several bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, including regional and global institutions. Some of them aim to improve Afghanistan’s transportation, communication, and other networks to better integrate that country into regional economic processes. For example, Kazakhstan has been promoting Afghanistan’s inclusion in regional trade, investment, and infrastructure projects, such as those within the New Silk Road framework. Afghanistan is well-situated to benefit from increased commerce between Europe and Asia, but only if rail, road, and pipeline construction extends throughout its territory as well as those of its neighbors.
IMPLICATIONS: In his October 2000 state of the nation address, President Nazarbayev concluded that outsiders could not bring peace to Afghanistan without “national dialogue of the Afghans themselves, and the role of all neighbors and international organizations should be to seek ways for the dialogue.” Toward this end, Kazakhstan has led the “Istanbul Process,” a series of high-level meetings launched in November 2011 in Istanbul to promote cooperation in the “Heart of Asia” region, especially between Afghanistan and its neighbors. To promote trust between these countries, the Istanbul Process includes six packages of interrelated confidence-building measures in the areas of education, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, disaster management, infrastructure, and commercial and trade engagement. Earlier ministerial meetings occurred in Istanbul (November 2, 2011) and Kabul (June 14, 2012). The most recent ministerial of the Istanbul Process took place on April 26, when some 50 governments adopted specific implementation plans for each of the six confidence-building measures clusters.
Kazakhstan’s official role in the recent Iranian nuclear talks was simply that of providing a venue for dialogue. Kazakhstan assumed essentially administrative functions to make all required logistical arrangements and otherwise try to establish a benign environment conducive for an agreement. Yet, not many countries can fulfill this function. Iran had previously rejected proposals to hold such talks in Istanbul, while Western governments resisted Iranian suggestions to conduct negotiations in Egypt, Turkmenistan, and some other countries. Furthermore, Kazakhstan was a logical venue for such talks given its good ties with Iran and its negotiating partners. Before the first round, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia and Oceania said that his government considered Kazakhstan benign and impartial regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. For example, he noted that Kazakhstan had not adopted the additional unilateral sanctions that many Western governments were imposing in addition to the mandatory sanctions adopted by the UN.
At times, President Nazarbayev and other Kazakhstani officials went beyond their purely administrative functions and engaged the parties to encourage them to show flexibility in the talks. Nazarbayev had earlier told Western leaders that he considered their tensions with Tehran manageable and that, in some ways, Iran and the West were natural partners. Meanwhile, Kazakhstani leaders urged the Iranians to follow their example and renounce any nuclear weapons aspirations and focus on improving economic and diplomatic ties with other countries.
In some respects, Kazakhstan is well-positioned to help resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute. Iranian leaders are eager to maintain decent relations with Kazakhstan given their strained ties with their other neighbors. They particularly want to keep Astana out of the Western camp on this issue. Kazakhstanis also seek to avoid a war involving Iran, a development that could have an extremely negative impact on regional stability and Central Asia’s economy. Like other Central Asian countries, many Kazakhstanis see Iran less as an emerging military threat than as a potentially valuable economic partner. In particular, they would like to export oil and other goods through Iranian territory as well as import items by transporting them from Iran’s Persian Gulf ports. In time, Iran could even become a major consumer of Kazakhstan’s natural uranium and other nuclear supply services. Through engagement, the Kazakhstanis also strive to manage their bilateral tensions with Iran over the Caspian Sea and other issues.
CONCLUSIONS: Kazakhstan’s foreign policy has prioritized several key goals. These include promoting regional integration, ending nuclear weapons testing, and reducing intrastate tensions in and around Central Asia that also threaten Kazakhstan’s vital national interests. Kazakhstan’s main challenge is that its ability to promote its foreign policy preferences is constrained, often severely. The European Union, Russia, Turkey, and other countries more powerful than Kazakhstan have tried but failed to mediate Iran’s dispute with the West. Several more powerful countries have also proved unable to deepen Afghanistan’s integration into Central and South Asia. Given Kazakhstan’s weaker power resources, Astana’s limited success in these endeavors is unsurprising. But Kazakhstan can plausibly aspire to reduce tensions over water use in Central Asia given its clear national interest on the issue, its good ties with the main disputants, and its relatively rich economic assets, which would allow Astana to share the burdens of any settlement whose costs might otherwise fall mostly on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.