Foreign Minister Eli Cohen embarked on a rare trip to Turkmenistan Wednesday, where he is set to open an embassy just a few miles from the border with arch-enemy Iran, as Israel looks to tighten ties with strategically situated allies in central Asia.
Cohen tweeted a photo of him meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Berdyniyaz Myatiev upon arrival to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat late Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli minister to visit the repressive state in almost 30 years.
On Thursday, he is slated to open Israel’s first-ever embassy in the country, which he said would be located 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the border with Iran.
“Ties with Turkmenistan have great importance for security and diplomacy, and the visit will strengthen Israel’s place in the region,” Cohen said in the tweet.
He is also scheduled to meet Thursday with Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, as well as other officials and members of the country’s tiny Jewish community, before returning to Israel Friday.
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.
But the country also has close diplomatic and trade ties with Iran, and has expressed a desire to upgrade that relationship further.
The capital sits just on the other side of the rugged Kopet-Dag mountain range from the Iranian frontier; many of Ashgabat’s embassies are located in the south of the city, at the closest point to the border.
Israel has had an ambassador in Ashgabat for a decade, but he has worked out of hotels and a temporary office. The new embassy will be Israel’s closest official mission to its rival’s territory.
Cohen’s visit is the first since then-foreign minister Shimon Peres traveled to the oil-rich dictatorship in 1994, three years after it declared independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The authoritarian state is consistently cited for its repressive policies, poor human rights record, and systemic corruption. In its latest report, NGO Freedom House listed Turkmenistan as one of the least free countries in the world, giving it a lower score than North Korea.
Cohen arrived in the country from high-level talks in neighboring Azerbaijan, where Israel has focused more intense efforts on shoring up alliances ahead of a possible showdown with Iran.
Before flying from Israel, 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.
In March, Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov visited Israel to open an embassy.
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.
Tensions between Baku and Tehran spiked in the aftermath of the war with Armenia; Iran has carried 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.
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.
In October, then-defense minister Benny Gantz made an official visit to Azerbaijan for high level talks with President Ilham Aliyev and defense chief Zakir Hasanov.