Iran-Kazakhstan relations: how to reach the level of a strategic partnership?
Strategic partnership is an upgraded level of relations between countries. This partnership has some strategic features, but its level of commitments is lower. Economy has a very decisive role in this model of relations, including in the relations between Tehran and Astana. Iran-Kazakhstan relations can go beyond mere economics, and develop around geo-economic interdependence centered on energy and transit.
By: Omid Rahimi
Kazakhstan is one of the most important countries in Central Asia. Among the reasons for the importance of Kazakhstan are: its prominent international role with a history of non-permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, its multilateral and active diplomatic approaches, its geographical size and its important geo-economic position in connecting East to West and North to South, its strategic power at the economic level (especially in the field of energy, grain and mining industries), and its ability to influence regional trends. Therefore, this country - along with Uzbekistan - is one of the key priorities of all regional and international actors for the development of relations with Central Asia.
Regarding the Tehran-Astana relationship, the neighboring location, common water borders in the Caspian Sea, geo-economic interdependencies, and deep historical and cultural ties with Kazakhstan, among other features, can clearly create strategic features in the relations between the two countries. However, how to attach this strategic feature to the bilateral relations between Tehran and Astana is a matter that is determined based on the time conditions, international developments, and the patterns and discourses governing the foreign policy of the two countries, and will be established over time. In this report, we first review the recent interactions between the two countries, and then evaluate the most important platforms for upgrading this relationship to the level of a strategic partnership.
Last spring, Kazakhstan President Kazakhstan Kassym- Jomart Tokayev visited Tehran, at the invitation of his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi. A high-ranking delegation of 40 people accompanied Tokayev in his visit to Tehran. At the end of that meeting, 9 bilateral cooperation documents were signed between the two countries in various fields including transportation, economy, agriculture, culture and energy. It was after this visit that the cancellation of visas for up to 14-day trips to Kazakhstan for Iranian citizens was approved and implemented. This was the first time that a Central Asian republic implemented a visa cancellation system for citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In addition to this visit, the presidents of the two countries held other bilateral meetings on the sidelines of international meetings in less than a year. In the months after Tokayev's visit, these interactions continued in various ways in order to implement bilateral agreements between the two countries. Several economic events were held in the form of investment assemblies, and joint political and economic commissions, as well as holding economic exhibitions by sending business delegations.
One of the most important events was the recent visit of Kazakhstan Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov to Iran. Elevating the level of cooperation between Tehran and Astana in various fields including trade, energy, technical and engineering services, transit, and banking was the main focus of Smailov’s visit to Tehran. As part of this visit, Smailov met with Iran President, First Vice President, and some other officials in Tehran. In the joint press conference of Smailov and Mokhber - Iranian First Vice President - several issues were raised as important axes for the development of bilateral relations. These issues included the formulation of a comprehensive roadmap for cooperation between the two countries, increasing direct flights, forming joint companies in the field of shipping and transit, developing cooperation in the field of knowledge-based activities, developing tourism, strengthening interactions within the framework of international organizations, especially the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) , and The Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).
During this trip, 5 documents were also signed between the officials of Iran and Kazakhstan, which are supplementary documents to those signed during the meeting between the presidents of the two countries last spring. The documents signed during this trip included several memorandums of understanding (MOU) in the field of free and special economic zones, sports, youth, tourism, and customs staff training. An interesting point in this event was the extension of the visit of Kazakhstan Prime Minister and the accompanying delegation to Tehran to complete bilateral agreements. Simultaneously with these meetings, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Ashtiani met with his Kazakh counterpart on the sidelines of the meeting of defense ministers of SCO member countries in New Delhi.
Platforms for upgrading relations to a strategic partnership
In relations between countries, strategic partnership becomes a model when some dimensions in bilateral relations have strategic features. This feature can be realized in the framework of cooperation with a strategic actor, cooperation in a strategic field, participation for a strategic goal, access to a strategic national interest, or performing a strategic action. Based on this, the key and long-term aspects of the relations between Tehran and Astana should be considered as strategic features of bilateral relations, and the development of partnership around them can make the formation of strategic partnership between the two countries inevitable. From this point of view, the most important strategic platforms for the Tehran - Astana relations can be described as follows:
Energy: All categories related to production, consumption, sale and transfer of energy are among the interests and strategic goals of countries. Both Iran and Kazakhstan are considered to be major energy producers, and they can have strategic cooperation, especially in the field of energy transmission. Kazakhstan produces more than 100 million tons of oil annually, most of which was traditionally exported through Russia. But the Russian embargo on the one hand, and the differences between Moscow and Astana on the other hand, have caused a disruption in Kazakhstan's energy export process.
This situation has led Astana to adopt a strategic approach to replace its oil export routes and destinations. Kazakhstan has considered several key routes for this purpose, in order to create a strategic balance between the Russian route and these routes. Increasing oil exports to China, strengthening oil supply to Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan, and transferring oil through the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and then Georgia and Turkey for European markets are among Kazakhstan's alternatives.
In addition to this, the resumption of oil swap with Iran, or even the export of oil through the southern ports of Iran, is one of the options for cooperation between the two countries. In the recent visit of Alikhan Ismailev to Tehran, the existence of oil loading infrastructure in Neka, Iran, and the cooperation capacities in the field of shipping have been discussed. If Kazakhstan's oil transfer capacities through Iran, even in the form of swaps, reach a volume of at least one million tons per year, then the strategic dimensions related to energy can be added to the relations between the two countries. At the same time, Iran and Kazakhstan have the opportunity to cooperate in other fields such as determining the global price of oil, nuclear energy and other similar cases.
Transit: As a landlocked region, Central Asia has faced transit challenges since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These challenges have intensified, especially after the war in Ukraine and the limitation of Russia's route, as well as the emergence of uncertainty in Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power in the country. This situation has strengthened Iran's position as one of the transit access routes to international waters for Kazakhstan. Currently, one rail corridor and two sea corridors are considered as the main platforms of transit cooperation between Iran and Kazakhstan. The East Caspian rail corridor, which was opened by the then Presidents of Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in 2014, at Inche Boroun border point, is considered as one of the most important common corridors between Tehran and Astana.
During the last year, Kazakh authorities have emphasized the importance of using this corridor in various ways, at international meetings. One of the most important emphasis was Mr. Tokayev's reference to the use of this corridor, at the meeting of the leaders of the CIS member states in St Petersburg. Kazakhstan's interest in joining the Ashgabat Agreement is another sign of the strategic importance of this corridor. The East Caspian rail corridor is also one of Kazakhstan's key routes for grain export. However, some logistical problems have prevented the realization of its real capacities so far.
Two sea corridors to Amirabad and Caspian ports are among other access routes between Iran and Kazakhstan. During recent years, these corridors have reached tangible progress by strengthening shipping in the Caspian Sea, and developing logistics infrastructure. Determining them as one of the routes of The International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) can also strengthen them further. In addition, the increase of swaps or the transfer of oil through sea routes can make these corridors more active. The significant increase in the use of the Middle Corridor over the past year shows that there are similar capacities in this field for the Iranian route as well.
Balance in foreign policy: Both Iran and Kazakhstan have adopted new approaches in their foreign policy, which require the development of relations with the other side. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian war, Kazakhstan has noticeably focused on diversifying its political and diplomatic cooperation, in order to maintain a balance in its relations with Russia and the West. In this framework, the development of cooperation with regional actors such as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran has been put on its agenda. In such an approach, strengthening relations with Tehran in a multilateral dynamic will play an important role in this balance. On the other hand, Tehran is also trying to manage the challenges related to the JCPOA, and especially the pressures of the United States and Europe, by focusing on the neighborhood policy. In such a situation, the development of political relations and trade exchanges with neighboring and low-tension countries, such as Kazakhstan, is considered one of the key priorities. Strengthening relations also means realizing one of the strategic goals, in order to realize a strategic benefit for both countries.
Regional Security: Both Tehran and Astana have defined a regional-centric approach in their security doctrine. Realization of Stability and security in the peripheral region of each of the two countries also means the realization of stability and security in the other side. Iran clearly considers Central Asia as one of its safe and stable peripheral areas, which has an important advantage in the turbulent Middle East environment. After the severe damages caused by the Syrian war, Kazakhstan has clearly focused its attention on the stability and security of this region. The two countries have also shared common views on Afghanistan, which shows their close approaches in the security of South Asia. At the same time, both countries are members of the SCO. In the context of this organization, it seems that there are common views on regional security, so the security strategic views of Tehran and Astana can be considered at least convergent and close to each other.
Strategic partnership is an upgraded level of relations between countries, that has some strategic features but with a lower level of commitments. Economy has a very decisive role in this model of relations, including in the relations between Tehran and Astana. Iran-Kazakhstan relations can go beyond mere economics, and develop around geo-economic interdependence centered on energy and transit. The idea of a 3 billion dollar trade exchange, and the possible addition of important areas such as grain to it, is an issue that can effectively realize this strategic feature in bilateral relations. However, like many other economic issues, the actualization of these potential capacities requires appropriate investment and spending the necessary expenses at the appropriate time. For example, while the use of the Middle Corridor has increased significantly, the use of Iran-based corridors has seen limited growth. One of the reasons is the lack of proper focus on the allocation and spending of the necessary resources.
At the same time, it should be noted that all these capacities are possible in the context of close and dense political dialogues. Such a dialogue requires the realization of multifaceted relations, with the presence of various governing institutions in bilateral relations. Merely focusing on institutions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Agriculture (as a representative in the Joint Commission) cannot effectively apply political catalysts in relations.
Finally, it should be noted that in addition to developing and upgrading relations to the level of strategic partnership, its stabilization is also considered an important issue in current relations. It has usually been proven that with the change of governments (at least in Iran), these relations may undergo changes, even at the strategic level.
Omid Rahimi,is an expert with Institute of East Strategic Studies (IESS).