by Neville Teller
On 19 and 20 April Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, visited two of Iran’s close neighbours in central Asia. Facing each other across the Caspian Sea are Azerbaijan, which borders north-western Iran, and Turkmenistan, which borders its north-east. Both were among the fifteen republics once swallowed up by the USSR, and both regained their independence in 1991.
Subsequently both avoided falling under the domination of their increasingly powerful neighbour, Iran. For that reason they became of great strategic importance to Israel, which has taken pains to maintain good relations with them.
Cohen went first to Azerbaijan. Israel has had a close strategic and business partnership with the Azeris for more than thirty years, but not a diplomatic one. That deficiency was remedied less than a month before Cohen’s visit, when Azerbaijan opened its embassy in Israel – the first ever of a Shi’ite Muslim nation. Up till then Azeri-Israeli diplomatic relations had been a somewhat one-sided affair. Israel, which was one of the first countries in the world to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in December 1991, actually established its own embassy in the capital, Baku, back in 1993. A whole range of political and practical difficulties had frustrated Azerbaijan’s reciprocal gesture, until this March.
Israel supported Azerbaijan with increased shipments of weapons during the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War with Armenia. Partly because of this, Azerbaijan emerged victorious from the six-week conflict and regained control over long-disputed territories.
“Israel showed we were there with Azerbaijan at a time of need,” said Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, George Deek. “For them, it was proof of a real friendship.”
Even though commercial ties between the two countries are strong (Israel imports 30% of its oil from Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan acquires nearly 70% of its arms from Israel), Cohen declared that the opening of the Azeri embassy in Tel Aviv symbolized a new era in relations between the two countries. On his visit to Azerbaijan Cohen was accompanied by a 20-strong delegation representing the Israeli cyber, defence, homeland security, water management, and agriculture industries. The delegation met with Azeri business and government leaders, and discussions ranged widely and included Azerbaijan’s desire to expand Israeli imports to include the cyber and solar energy fields. The two sides also agreed to cooperate on space exploration.
Underlying the close business and working relationship, of course, lies the threat posed to the region by Iran. When meeting Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, Cohen spoke about the dangers. “Israel and Azerbaijan share the same perception of the Iranian threats,” he said. “The Iranian ayatollah regime threatens our regions, finances terrorism and destabilizes the entire Middle East.”
Media reports suggest that the Azeris have been allowing Israel to launch reconnaissance missions into Iran from its territory. More than this, some reports speculate that any future Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear programme could enjoy the same privilege.
From Azerbaijan Cohen flew to Turkmenistan, becoming the first Israeli foreign minister in 30 years to do so. He met President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, and opened Israel’s first permanent embassy in the capital, Ashgabat. Israel and Turkmenistan established diplomatic relations back in 1993, but it was only some ten years ago that Israel sent its ambassador to the country, and he has been operating out of temporary premises ever since.
“Turkmenistan is an…energy powerhouse in a strategic location,” said Cohen. “The opening of our permanent embassy today strengthens the relationship between the two countries.”
The event was also of symbolic significance. Located a mere 15 kilometres from the Iranian border, the new embassy is the closest to the Islamic Republic of any Israeli diplomatic mission. It sends a message to Iran’s leaders that Israel is a present and growing influence in the region. The importance of the occasion was recognized by other states concerned by the threat posed by Iran, and ambassadors from a number, including the US, Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates attended the opening ceremony.
Cohen was joined at the event by his Turkmen counterpart, Rashid Meredov. The two cut the ribbon together. “We have a very good relationship with the State of Israel,” said Meredov. “We will do everything toward expanding and strengthening our relationship…”
A topic common to Cohen’s discussions with both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan was the prospect of connecting Israel’s natural gas deposits to their pipelines, thus increasing the potential for delivering Israeli gas to Europe.
Another possibility would involve Turkey, which enjoys close linguistic, cultural and political ties with the Central Asian states. With Europe eager to divest from Russian energy, Turkey has become a potential gateway through which the continent could be supplied with oil and natural gas from alternative sources, including both Israel and Central Asian states.
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are very different in nature. Azerbaijan is a secular democratic republic headed by a president – since 2003, Ilham Aliyev. Its constitution promises its citizens “full civil and political rights, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, class, profession, or sex”. The thriving Jewish community, one of the largest in the Muslim world – up to 18 thousand – enjoys complete freedom of religion and worship.
Turkmenistan, on the other hand, is a closed society with an authoritarian political system and centralized economy. The country’s gross domestic product is heavily dependent on the export of natural gas, but the nation’s massive revenues are not reflected in the lifestyle of most Turkmen. The official US government website maintains that corruption is rife within virtually all layers of society in Turkmenistan, while the government’s overall human rights record remains poor, including its restrictions on religious freedom.
Despite the differences between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Israel has always understood the political importance of maintaining close relations with both. As regional peace and stability are increasingly threatened by Iran, it becomes more important than ever for Israel to improve and develop existing ties with the two states. Ideas to do so are already afloat. Turkmenistan’s President Berdimuhamedov has said he is considering following Azerbaijan and opening a Turkmenistan embassy in Israel, while Israel’s President Isaac Herzog has said he intends to visit Azerbaijan later this year.