Iran isolated itself from US allies in Central Asia at a summit in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on April 23 when it pressed for a 20 percent share in Caspian natural resources. The next day, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami began working to cement ties to these allies, starting a Central Asian tour in Kazakhstan. He kicked off his tour with provocative words about the United States.
Khatami voiced sympathy for victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon only to see US President George W. Bush brand his nation part of an "axis of evil" in January. He used his most recent visit to Kazakhstan to criticize the presence of American troops in Central Asia. "The presence of armed forces of large non-local states in Central Asia prompts Iran's concern," he said at an Almaty press conference on April 24.
This declaration came just a few days before American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to the region. Some experts tie Rumsfeld's somewhat hastily announced trip to Khatami's remarks and expect him to try to hammer out an agreement by which Kazakhstan will station some US forces. "Rumsfeld decided, not randomly, to visit Kazakhstan while Khatami stayed in Almaty. This shows that the US is worried about Kazakhstan and Iran growing closer together," said a source at Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry who asked for anonymity. "That cannot be tolerated by America."
According to this person, American officials had advised the Kazakhstani government to decline Khatami's offer to visit. Recent warming in relations between Moscow and Tehran may have the United States particularly nervous. "Despite some disputes related to the Caspian, Iran and Russia have many common interests in the region," said the source. "They may even start a geopolitical union in the region in opposition to the USA," said the source at the foreign ministry. [For further information, see the Eurasia Insight archives.] The AP quoted Khatami as calling the American troop presence a "humiliation."
Kazakhstan, which has vocally supported the American war on terrorism and pursued intricate relationships with American oil companies, nonetheless seized the opportunity to develop pacts with Iran. On April 24, the two countries signed a Protocol of Commission for Commercial and Technical and Cultural Cooperation and declaration of friendly relations.
Nazarbayev and his lieutenants have invoked the possibility of building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Iran through the territory of Turkmenistan. Nazarbayev also talked up the value of Kazakhstani grain to Iranian consumers and praised an Iran-Kazakhstan railway that has been in service since March. Since Iran wants to derive economic gains as a transportation hub for the region, this kind of talk should help Nazarbayev's standing in Khatami's government.
That gain may pose problems for Nazarbayev, who has to maintain good relations with Washington even as he seeks revenue and support in Tehran. It also may affect Kazakhstan's relations with China, its much larger neighbor. An analyst in Kazakhstan's government suspects that Iran is trying to become a permanent influence, equal in weight to Russia and China, in Central Asian affairs. Indeed, Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin visited Iran on April 20 and discussed reviving "Silk Road ties," according to a Chinese spokesperson. That phrase - evoking an ancient trade route from China across Central Asia - may indicate a shared Sino-Iranian anxiety about potential US efforts to make Kazakhstan and its neighbors into strategic allies.
Kazakhstan's ability to forge commercial ties with Iran and China depends on many variables. It is clear, though, that the Nazarbayev government will have to look toward Tehran, toward Beijing, toward Moscow and toward Washington when crafting foreign policy.
Ibraghim Alibekov is a pseudonym for a Central Asia-based analyst of regional political affairs.