Tehran is wary of destabilisation in Central Asia, which could pose a threat to its economic and national security.

Many world powers have high stakes in the outcome of ongoing unrest in Kazakhstan, an oil-rich state bordering Russia and China with a land mass equivalent to Western Europe. This former Soviet republic maintains an alliance with Moscow and deep economic links to Beijing. Kazakhstan also has important ties to the West, which have helped Nursultan maintain a sense of balance in its foreign policy. 

Ultimately, the geopolitical ramifications of the crisis in Kazakhstan have yet to be realised. Nonetheless, one country closely monitoring Kazakhstan’s tense situation is Iran.

Although Kazakhstan rarely enters discussions about Iranian foreign policy, many analysts overlook the importance of Central Asia to Tehran. Since Kazakhstan's independence in 1991, it has maintained good ties with the Islamic Republic. From energy to trade and culture, bilateral relations have been strong. 

Over the years, Kazakhstan has served to provide Iran with economic help in the form of oil swap arrangements. The Central Asian nation has been important to Tehran’s ability to circumvent Washington’s sanctions and other US-backed measures designed to isolate and weaken Iran internationally.   

“Iran's primary concern in Kazakhstan is avoiding instability,” Dr Samuel Ramani, an Associate Fellow at Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), told TRT World: “Since Mohammad Khatami's presidency, Iran has viewed Kazakhstan as an increasingly important trade partner in Central Asia and Kazakhstan continued to engage with Iran economically even during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency.”

Because Tehran's Central Asia policy depends on actual and potential connectivity projects, particularly in energy sectors, deep ties to Kazakhstan advance these Iranians interests.

Opposing ‘foreign interference’

For the Islamic Republic, Kazakhstan’s unrest this month is a source of concern. On January 6, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh addressed the violence in Kazakhstan, affirming that Tehran is closely observing the country’s ongoing unrest and attaching much importance to the Central Asian state’s security and stability.

He said: “[Iran’s government] believes that the wise people and government of the friendly country of Kazakhstan can solve their disputes and problems through dialogue based on national interests and peaceful ways without foreign interference.” Khatibzadeh added that Tehran wishes that tranquility will soon return to Kazakhstan.

Notably, “foreign interference” is not a reference to this month’s deployment of troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to Kazakhstan. Because Nursultan formally asked Moscow to send armed forces to help quell unrest, Tehran’s concerns are not about Russia and the CSTO’s current roles in Kazakhstan. In fact, it is fair to conclude that Iran will be closely aligned with the Kremlin in relation to Central Asia’s latest crisis.

“Iran's foreign policy interests in Central Asia are best served by continuing to align with Moscow as far as events in Russia's so-called 'near abroad' are concerned. A stance it has largely maintained since the break-up of the Soviet Union,” explained Dr Edward Wastnidge, who lectures on international studies and politics at the British Open University, in an interview with TRT World. 

“Iran sees itself as playing a complementary role to that of Russia and China in the region, and like them it wishes to see a stable Central Asia that doesn't become too closely aligned with Western powers.”

Like the Syrian crisis, which Moscow responded to with intense military intervention in 2015, President Vladimir Putin’s government depicts Russia’s role in Kazakhstan within the framework of its struggle against “international terrorism” and “external forces” that seek to destabilise countries on Russia’s borders. 

The narrative in Moscow is that the crisis in Kazakhstan echoes the spirit of the so-called 'colour revolutions' and are, therefore, foreign attempts to alter the status quo.

Tehran shares Moscow’s interests in standing by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s government and limiting Western involvement in Kazakhstan.

Dr Ramani agrees with this assessment. “Iran is siding firmly with the Kazakh government and against the protesters. The Iranian Foreign Ministry is aligning closely with the views of Russia and China, and their colour revolution narratives resonate within the Iranian foreign policy establishment, especially since the 2009 Green Movement.”

Iran is also wary of the perceived US role in destabilising Central Asia, which could pose a threat to its security. He explained: “These conspiracies followed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which some in Iran saw as a means of trying to destabilise the region, and fuel support within Iran for the belief that these protests in Kazakhstan are US orchestrated.”

Strengthening of Eurasian ties

The unrest plaguing Kazakhstan will likely lead to Tehran deepening its relationship with Nursultan, both on a bilateral basis and via multilateral institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). At the same time, the current situation in the Central Asian country could easily lead to Iran advancing its interests with Moscow and Beijing vis-à-vis the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.

Iran will likely play a lower profile role in Kazakhstan than Turkiye, but will leverage the situation to strengthen its normative bonds with Russia and China, according to Dr Ramani. He explained: “The coincidence in timing between the Kazakhstan [crisis] and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations is fortuitous for Iran. Tehran can use its solidarity with Russia and China on Kazakhstan to ensure that they continue backing its positions in the JCPOA talks.”

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Source: TRT World