Iran, uranium and Israel’s stakes in Kazakhstan’s leadership transition

The astute Kazakh president is likely to strike a careful balance between the interests of Jerusalem and Tehran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
At the close of 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first serving Israeli prime minister to visit Kazakhstan, marking a significant milestone in the deepening strategic and economic relations between Israel and Central Asia’s largest nation.
While serving as an important model for Israel’s relations with Muslim-majority nations outside the Middle East, Israel has an additional critical stake in the relationship since Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium and the first supplier to which Iran has turned to fuel its nuclear program.
Kazakhstan’s relationship with Israel is primarily the result of the visionary foreign policy of its long-serving leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev. While the astute Kazakh president is likely to strike a careful balance between the interests of Jerusalem and Tehran, Kazakhstan’s future cooperation with Israel may now rest on the success of the aging Nazarbayev’s bold domestic initiative to transfer power to the Kazakh parliament before he leaves the political scene.
On January 25, 2017, President Nazarbayev made a landmark televised address to the nation announcing a constitutional reform process that would devolve several powers of the presidency onto the country’s parliament. The 76-year-old president has served for over a quarter of a century as the first and only head of state of the energy-rich Central Asian giant located in the strategic heart of the Eurasian continent.
Spanning the western border of China and the eastern borders of Russia, Kazakhstan’s economic and security relationships play a strong role in defining the contours of Eurasia’s regional architecture. Kazakhstan’s stability and political autonomy in the post-Nazarbayev era will be key to the preservation of the fragile power equilibrium in the Eurasian landmass between the West, Russia and China. If Astana were to deviate from Nazabayev’s foreign policy orientation, particularly in the event that a power struggle to succeed the president left the triumphant contender beholden to either Moscow or Beijing, then the current relative balance among the global powers would be disrupted, with either Russia or China enjoying an inordinate advantage in the Eurasian strategic architecture. The balance that Kazakhstan maintains between its relationships with Israel and Iran could also be potentially affected.
Nazarbayev’s “multi-vectored” foreign policy for Kazakhstan – its careful threeway balancing among Russia, China, the EU and the United States – has helped maintain a sort of great power equilibrium in Central Asia. To preserve its autonomy and prosperity in the face of new political and economic challenges that began in 2014, Kazakhstan increased its efforts to “rebalance Westwards,” offsetting the threat of Russian hard power and of Chinese soft power by deepening its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and economic cooperation with the EU.
Kazakhstan has also turned to its relationship with Israel to help preserve this balance, with the two states engaging in robust defense and counter-terrorism cooperation. According to press reports, this cooperation extends to weapon systems modernization as well as advanced communications and radar systems. Kazakhstan also provides Israel with up to 20% of its yearly oil supply, reportedly valued at $700 million. Israeli agricultural technology has already proven itself to be an asset to Kazakhstan and great potential exists to bring other leading Israeli technologies to Kazakhstan for mutual benefit.
At the same time, Iran constitutes an important regional partner for Kazakhstan. For the essentially landlocked Central Asian nation, Iran also potentially represents a vital maritime outlet for Kazakhstan’s exports via the Kazakhstan- Turkmenistan-Iran railway – providing a route by which Kazakh exports could reach global markets without having to traverse either Russian or Chinese territory.
Russia’s irredentist activities in Ukraine combined with the general revanchist rhetoric emanating from Moscow has continued to alarm Kazakhstan. Five months after the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned the legitimacy of Kazakhstani statehood at Russia’s annual national youth forum in late August 2014. In his speech, which coincided with Kazakhstan’s celebration of its Constitution Day holiday, the Russian president claimed that Kazakhs had no state before the leadership of Nazarbayev. Putin also implied that after Nazarbayev’s passing “Kazakhs” – not Kazakhstan – would be part of the “greater Russian world.” That same year, the precipitous drop in oil prices along with Western sanctions on Russia brought Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon-based economy to a virtual standstill, forcing the country to devalue its currency by 19% in February.
China’s ambition to fill the economic gap in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics has also triggered concern in Kazakhstan and throughout the region. China has already collectively invested well over $250 billion in Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics through its Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. In November 2014, Beijing established a $40b. Silk Road infrastructure fund to further finance Chinese investments in Central Asia. While China was once welcomed as an important countervailing economic force to Russia, widespread concern within the Central Asian republics over Chinese economic hegemony has become palpable.
Now in 2017, with a resurgent Russia on one side and the economic juggernaut of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on the other, Nazarbayev is looking to maintain Kazakhstan’s autonomy and ensure its preservation beyond his own tenure. Iran’s request to purchase 950 million tons of uranium concentrate, or “yellowcake,” from Kazakhstan, formally announced on February 25, 2017, needs to be understood in this context. Iran intends to convert the material with Russian assistance into the enriched uranium hexafluoride gas for resale back to Kazakhstan, which will then convert the gas into nuclear fuel pellets for export.
The scheme is permissible under the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). However, the United Kingdom, one of the five members of the commission overseeing the implementation of the agreement, has so far refused to give its final approval for the yellowcake deal. Presumably, in his December 14, 2017, meeting in Astana, Prime Minister Netanyahu reviewed Israel’s concerns with President Nazarbayev as well as what measures would be taken to ensure that no material is diverted to a weapons program or to rogue actors intent on building an improvised nuclear device or a radiological weapon (“dirty bomb”).
Israel has had a responsive partner in the figure of President Nazarbayev. The Kazakh president is now attempting to ensure a smooth leadership transition and the continuity of his policies by devolving many of the presidency’s authoritarian powers onto the country’s legislature. In his own way, Nursultan Nazarbayev may become a Central Asian version of Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus, the 5th century BCE leader of the Roman Republic who voluntarily relinquished his near-absolute authority and who served as an exemplar for the first US president, George Washington, as well as several other founders of modern Western democracy. If Kazakhstan’s political transition succeeds, not only will Nazarbayev rightly be deemed the “father of his country” but he will have made a critical contribution to preserving the overall strategic equilibrium on the Eurasian continent, including the delicate balance between Israel and Iran.
The author is a fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Follow him @michaeltanchum