Turkmenistan’s recent opening of an Israeli Embassy some 12 miles from the Iranian border is the latest step in a burgeoning relationship between the two nations. Traditionally, Ashgabat has preferred quieter cooperation with Israel to avoid reaping the wrath of neighboring Iran.
The desert country of six million inhabitants has greatly benefited from Israeli desalinization and water-conserving agricultural technology to combat a lingering drought. That dry spell has created such havoc on the nation’s agricultural sector – which employs four out of ten residents — that officials debated whether to stop exporting cotton, their fourth largest export.
Yet, while some see these recent moves toward friendlier relations as a major policy change, the opening of the embassy is part of Turkmenistan’s longstanding balancing act with Iran to not become a client state of a regional power.
“Turkmenistan understands that it is in a complex neighborhood, especially considering its borders with Iran, however, national interests come first,” said Galiya Ibragimova, a journalist and Central Asia Expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, adding, “However, national interests come first.”
Potential Military Cooperation?
At the opening of the embassy, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen expressed Israel’s willingness to support Turkmenistan’s “defense of its borders.”
Central Asian leaders appreciate the benefits of military cooperation with Israel, especially after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. Between 2016 and 2021, Israel supplied Azerbaijan with 69% of its imported weapons, which included Harop precision drones and missile interceptor systems. Both played a major role in Baku’s victory over Armenia.
“The success of Azerbaijani-Israeli military cooperation has been a powerful statement to all the post-Soviet countries,” said Ibragimova. “I wouldn’t rule out that Israel has promised Turkmenistan some sort of military technology or other forms of cooperation in the military sphere.”
While there are no statistics on the current state of the Armed Forces of Turkmenistan (AFT), there are numerous signs that it badly needs military assistance. A prime example – In 2015, Ashgabat allowed Uzbek and Russian troops to fortify its border following numerous major incursions by the Islamic State and a buildup of Islamist radicals in Northern Afghanistan.
In Central Asia, Afghanistan shares borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The Tajik border is mostly unpassable mountainous terrain, while the Uzbek portion is small and guarded by a strong military. The Turkmen border makes for an easier crossing point. Geographically, the sparsely populated desert border is the most accessible, and militarily, the AFT has proven unable to deal with the problem. This has led to the Turkmen border becoming the crossing point of choice for drug smugglers and various radical groups seeking to penetrate Central Asia.
Turkmen’s concerns about Afghanistan only increased following the 2020 withdrawal of American troops, which left the countries of Central Asia alone in dealing with their problematic neighbor.
Recent relations have been rocky, which began with Iran’s failure to pay for Turkmen gas between 2007 and 2013. In 2020, the International Court of Arbitration sided with Turkmenistan, ordering Tehran to pay $2 billion. Nevertheless, Kasri Nouri, a spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Oil, claimed that the court had fined Turkmenistan, not Iran. The matter was finally settled last year by shifting the Iranian debt to Baghdad, which owed Tehran roughly $1.6 billion in unpaid gas dues.
Another contentious issue is the Caspian Sea. In 2018, all the Caspian states was signed by all the Caspian states — Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran—signed the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, but all the same, disagreements have remained between Ashgabat and Tehran. Turkmenistan wants to build the undersea Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) to Azerbaijan that will eventually reach Europe. Iran and Russia oppose the gas project since it would bypass both nations. Both Tehran and Moscow have threatened to block the project on environmental grounds, despite not opposing the construction of similar pipelines built at the bottom of the Caspian.
“Turkmenistan may have decided that this current tension is a good excuse to show Iran that we are not going to orient towards you,” said Ibragimova.
And while Turkmenistan takes Iranian ire into account when seeking to improve relations with Israel, security challenges from Afghanistan, a desperate need to revamp their military, and the potential benefits from Israeli agricultural and desalination technology outweigh it.
There are several signs, however, that cooperation with Israel would not significantly worsen relations with Tehran.
Trade has increased significantly between Turkmenistan and Iran as the Islamic Republic has sought to increase trade with Central Asia. From March 2022 to March 2023, Iran exported $460 million of non-petroleum products to Turkmenistan, a 32% increase over the previous year.
But Iran has an even more lucrative interest in good relations with its neighbor aside from trade. The European Union is currently looking to Turkmenistan as an alternative to Russian gas. In this past year, many European officials have come to Turkmenistan to explore the feasibility of building resources for this gas. Because of the sudden global interest in Turkmenistan, Iran may try to take advantage to better position itself to receive urgently needed gas supplies.
Despite having the world’s second-largest gas reserves, Iran faces major shortages due to crippling sanctions. This January, Iran had to cut gas to 90,000 homes during a cold snap due to the lack of supplies. Tehran has good reason to believe that a Europe resolved not to go back to Russian gas would be willing to loosen sanctions on Iranian gas supplies to transit Turkmen gas through Iran.
“Iran will likely just swallow the opening of the Israeli embassy in Ashgabat,” said Ibragimova. “There will likely be condemnations and criticism, but they will swallow it all the same because partnership on gas with Turkmenistan, and through Turkmenistan, with the Western World, is much more important.”
Israel has been hungry for a diplomatic win. This March, Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish relations with Iran in a deal brokered by China. This was not only a blow to Israel’s desire to expand the stalled Abraham Accords but also a sign to the region that the U.S. –Jerusalem’s main benefactor—is taking a much more passive role in the region. Since the deal was brokered, many old foes in the Middle East, like Turkey and Syria, have been meeting to settle their differences, with one notable exception – Israel. This comes at a time of domestic political turbulence and protests on an unprecedented level over proposed judicial reforms.
This new realignment and domestic strife have left Israel more isolated and vulnerable and has caused Jerusalem to more aggressively seek additional partnerships, especially with Muslim-majority countries. Israel sees these partnerships as potentially leading to greater normalization with the Muslim World. Such accords are not only popular domestically but also with American Jews, traditionally large supporters of Israel.
More importantly, Turkmenistan, like Azerbaijan, shares a border with Iran. In its proxy war with Israel, Iran has sponsored and supported hostile governments and extremist groups surrounding Israel, like Gaza’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The strengthening of relations and military cooperation with Baku give Israel a successful retort. The Jewish State reportedly now has two F35 fighter jets in Azerbaijan, and if it decides to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, the strike will originate from there.
While it is unlikely that relations with Ashgabat will lead to a similar level of military cooperation, the possibility of some sort of defense partnership on Iran’s borders is a tantalizing prospect.
Dissimilar to Europe, Israel produces and even exports its own gas and thus is in no need of Turkmenistan’s main product. But Ashgabat’s gas riches and agricultural and water needs make it an ideal customer for Israeli desalination and agricultural technology. And Turkmenistan’s security woes provide a market for potentially lucrative defense exports.
Yet some regional observers remain skeptical of the Foreign Ministry’s decision.
“Turkmenistan is far from a commercial hub, so I don’t think there is much to gain,” said Alex Grinberg, a foreign policy expert at the Jerusalem Institute for International Studies and Farsi Professor at Ariel University. “[Foreign Minister] Eli Cohen saw that it is a Muslim country, next to Iran, and willing to establish relations with us. The decision was likely made without any serious deliberation or even an in-depth study of the country in question.”
According to Grinberg, this type of rash diplomacy comes with a price.
“Given that Turkmenistan is a ferocious dictatorship comparable to North Korea, any boasting about relations could harm Israel’s image,” said Grinberg. “But even worse, because of Ashgabat’s poor security and intelligence, Iranians could theoretically target Israelis there.”
In a letter congratulating Israel on its 75th year of independence last Tuesday, President Berdimuhamedov expressed his interest in increasing cooperation in the political, economic, trading, cultural, and humanitarian spheres. Yet while there is a lot of room for increased cooperation with Israel, Turkmenistan will refrain from creating a conflict with Iran.
“Ashgabat will likely try to fix relations with Tehran in the medium term,” said Ibragimova. “The politics of Central Asia are a balancing act between global and regional power centers. There will be cooperation wherever it is necessary, whether with Israel, Iran, or whomever else.”
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