Kazakhstan’s foreign policy balancing act: Israel and Iran

This Jan. 1 Kazakhstan took its seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The U.S. will do well to pay attention to Kazakhstan’s impressive diplomacy, as Astana is scheduled to host talks between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime later this month.

Its successful multi-vector foreign policy with China, Russia, the United States, and the European Union is well known.  But Astana’s emergence as “balancer” between adversaries is even more impressive.  Astana’s ability to maintain friendly and constructive relationships with two sworn enemies, Israel and Iran, is a diplomatic asset the U.S. should be aware of.


Kazakhstan has developed ties with Israel ever since its independence.  When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Central Asian state last month, he highlighted intensive ties between the Jewish and this secular Muslim-majority state.

Netanyahu signaled the value of an interfaith diplomatic relationship:  “In Central Asia, in an Islamic country that respects Israel, that honors coexistence and tolerance, and constitutes a model of what needs to happen—and can happen—in our region as well.” The Jewish state has good relations with majority-Muslim states including Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan. Israel is also developing its relations with the Arab Gulf states.

Kazakhstan is a vital oil supplier to Israel and Israel has contributed greatly to Kazakhstan’s economic diversification efforts. Israel’s provisions of military technology and counterterrorism assistance to Kazakhstan is resulting in Astana becoming one of Israel’s closest security partners in the Muslim world, including joint drone production and operations.

While in Kazakhstan, Netanyahu asked Nazarbayev to help Israel to join the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as the Central Asian country begins a two-year stint as a non-permanent member.The Israeli Prime Minister also asked the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev to pass a message to the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: “Ask him why Iran continues to threaten us with annihilation…Don’t you understand? We’re not a rabbit. We’re a tiger…if Iran attacks Israel, it will put itself at risk.” The Prime Minister’s message signals that Israel seeks Astana as an intermediary with Iran. 

Netanyahu also focused on Kazakhstan’s 50,000 strong Jewish community, which plays an important part of the bilateral relationship. Nazarbayev noted that “Kazakhstan is willing to bridge between Jewish and Islamic countries, and Astana has hosted a number of conferences and meetings on how to promote Muslim-Jewish dialogue.” Anti-Semitism in Kazakhstan is absent, according to Kairat Umarov, until this month, the Kazakh Ambassador to the United States and now the country’s ambassador to the United Nations.

However, Kazakhstan develops its ties not just with Israel. Astana’s relationship with Iran is both strategic and economic. 

Kazakhstan sees the end of Iran’s international diplomatic isolation through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a sign to further engage Tehran. Kazakhstan has made nonproliferation one of its signature foreign policies. Astana is astutely aware of the ongoing debate in the United States regarding the JCPOA’s future under the Trump Administration.

For Kazakh-Iranian relations, there is another important non-proliferation JCPOA angle:  The construction of the Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank.  The LEU Bank strives to ensure a safe uranium supply to developing countries for peaceful purposes with oversight from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The LEU Bank is instrumental for maintaining the integrity of international efforts to prevent proliferation of sensitive nuclear technologies, and the IAEA and the U.S. should push for its successful implementation.

Not only was JCPOA a triumph for the country’s nonproliferation position, but a potential source of income. Kazakh-Iranian trade is expanding. Bilateral trade stood at $635 million in 2015, a number that both Kazakhstan and Iran hope to boost to $3-4 billion in the coming years.

Last month, on the heels of Netanyahu’s visit to Astana, Iranian President Rouhani went to Kazakhstan to sign five agreements strengthening the mutually beneficial economic relationship. The two leaders discussed the relationship between their central banks, as well as transportation and agricultural cooperation.

The Kazakh-Iranian trade is boosted by the International North–South Transport Corridor and the Iran-Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan railway.  In February 2016, the first cargo train carried goods from China to Iran and completed its 6,462-mile journey in approximately 14 days instead of the 30 days or more its takes a ship. 

Overall, Kazakhstan manages the rift between Israel and Iran well.  Nazarbayev seeks to strengthen relations with Israel and Iran in a number of sectors that are beneficial to his country – and to achieving a regional equilibrium. While Astana sees ties with Israel as a hub of technology innovation and business development, it views Iran as a centerpiece of his country’s non-proliferation policy, and supply chain transit.

As Kazakhstan matures diplomatically and enters the UNSC arena, it is in the US interests to further expand its cooperation with this emerging player on the global arena. To paraphrase Gen. James Mattis, countries get stronger with good allies.

Theodore Karasik, Ph.D. is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute, a national security think tank. He studies global security and ethnic conflicts world-wide.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.