Volume 3, Number 153
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Peres frustrates Iran in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan

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Kazakhstan, which has no border with Iran, has sought to develop strong trade and strategic relations with the Islamic republic. Part of the mission of Peres (pictured at right) was to seek a firm Kazakh commitment that it would cease the sale of uranium ore to Iran. Astana's stance appears to reflect a desire to play a part in diplomatic mediation in the region and beyond it, on the basis of its image as a moderate Muslim state.

The more diffuse threat of radical Islam offers a further natural basis for friendship. In the Shi'ite but secular-governed Azerbaijan, this threat takes the form of Iran-supported local Shi'ite Islamist parties, and the presence of Hizbullah.

In largely-Sunni Kazakhstan, meanwhile, Saudi-supported Islamic extremists and the pan-Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir party constitute a significant irritant to the authorities, making them more inclined to greater friendliness toward Israel. The response to domestic Islamic extremism has been determined and uncompromising.

Kazakhstan's commitment to purchase satellite and surveillance technology from Israel reflects the growing role of Israeli defense industries in the country - a role which was shaken in April by claims that Israel had sold faulty military hardware to Kazakhstan.

Despite the extensive cooperation and common interest, Jerusalem has been frustrated by the unwillingness of both Kazakhs and Azeris to move toward a more open and overt relationship. There has long been a sense that both countries preferred to benefit from close links with Israel in a variety of areas, while keeping the public profile of the relationship as low as possible. Such a stance reflected the desire of both countries to maintain good relations with the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Israeli officials hoped that Peres's visit would be of importance in laying the basis for changing this stance. The Iranian response to the visit suggests that Teheran shared the sense of this possibility.

The Iranians lobbied hard to have the visit to Azerbaijan called off. Iran's chief of staff visited Baku two weeks ago in an attempt to persuade the Azeris to cancel the trip. He was unsuccessful. In response to the Peres visit, Iran has recalled its ambassador for consultations. In Kazakhstan, the Iranian decision to walk out of an interfaith conference while Peres was speaking represents an additional indication of Iranian displeasure, and hence a further diplomatic point for Israel. The bottom line: Iranian lobbying failed.

Inducing Muslim countries with which Israel has shared interests and firm connections to overcome the desire to "camouflage" or downplay their relations with Israel represents a perennial challenge for Israeli diplomacy. The latest developments in Central Asia suggest that, in this region at least, real progress has begun to be made.

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