ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Foreign Minister Cohen heading to Turkmenistan to open embassy 15 miles from Iran

FM to become first Israeli minister in nearly 30 years to visit the closed central Asian dictatorship, an oil-rich state on Iranian border

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives at a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives at a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen will fly from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan on Wednesday night, becoming the first Israeli minister to visit the central Asian state in nearly three decades.

Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres visited the oil-rich dictatorship in 1994, three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had ruled the area.

Cohen will inaugurate Israel’s embassy in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, a mere 15 miles from Iran’s northeast border. The office will be Israel’s closest embassy to its archenemy Iran.

Turkmenistan’s border with Iran stretches for 713 miles (1,148 kilometers), offering Israel an enticing possible means of entry into the Islamic Republic as it tries to stop Tehran’s nuclear program.

Israel has had an ambassador in Ashgabat for a decade, but he has worked out of hotels and a temporary office.

Cohen will meet on Thursday with Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, as well as the agriculture minister and Jewish community.

Turkmenistan is a closed country with a poor record on human rights and corruption.

Cohen is currently in Azerbaijan, another key ally on Iran’s northern border.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with Azerbaijani Economy Minister Mikayil Jabbarov in Baku on April 18, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Cohen will meet on Wednesday morning in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. He will meet with his counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov later in the day.

Israel’s top diplomat is bringing a business delegation representing 20 Israeli cyber, homeland security, water, and agriculture companies along with him, and will host a business forum with Azerbaijan’s economy minister.

He is also slated to meet with the local Jewish community, and will land back in Israel on Friday morning after the Turkmenistan visit.

President of Turkmenistan Serdar Berdimuhamedov, June 10 2022. (Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before flying, Cohen said in a statement that Azerbaijan’s geographic position on Iran’s border “makes our relations highly important and with great potential.”

Cohen added that he aimed in his visit to “continue to build, together with our good friends in Baku, a unified and resolute front in the face of our joint challenges,” as well as deepening cooperation on economy, trade, defense, energy and innovation.

Azerbaijan’s alliance with Israel has flourished in the wake of Israeli support for the country during its 2020 conflict with Armenia.

Cohen announced he would visit Baku in March, when Bayramov visited to open an embassy in Israel.

Foreign reports have indicated that Azerbaijan likely allows Israel to use bases on its soil to launch reconnaissance flights over Iran and to send intelligence operatives into the country to disrupt its nuclear program. In case Israel does decide to carry out airstrikes on Iranian reactors and plants, access to Azerbaijani bases would make that task far more feasible.

Azerbaijan’s most important contribution to Israeli national security, however, is oil. Bayramov said that Baku provides 30 percent of Israel’s oil.

Israel stepped up its weapons shipments to Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan emerged victorious in the six-week war with Armenia, which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 soldiers and resulted in Baku regaining control over disputed territories.

Illustrative: In this image made from a video released by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on Oct. 9, 2020, Azerbaijan’s soldiers walk in formation on a road during a military conflict in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry via AP)

Tensions with Iran spiked in the aftermath of the war, with Iran carrying out major military exercises on Azerbaijan’s border and escalating its rhetoric against its neighbor.

Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s leading arms suppliers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel provided 69 percent of Baku’s major arms imports in 2016-2020, accounting for 17% of Jerusalem’s arms exports over that period.

The Shiite-majority country has, in turn, supplied Israel with significant amounts of oil in addition to the reported cooperation against Iran.

Iran, home to millions of ethnic Azeris, has long accused its smaller northern neighbor of fueling separatist sentiment on its territory.

Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azeri independence in 1991. It has had an embassy in Baku since 1992.

Illustrative: Then-defense minister Benny Gantz, on a state visit to Azerbaijan, October 3, 2022. (Nicole Laskavi/MOD)

In October, then-defense minister Benny Gantz made an official visit to Azerbaijan, where he met with his counterpart Zakir Hasanov, and President Aliyev.

In December, Azerbaijan announced the appointment of its first-ever ambassador to Israel, less than two months after approving the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv.

At the time, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fariz Rzayev said that following his country’s decision to open an embassy in Israel, “the sky is the limit” for the two countries’ bilateral ties.

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