Turkmenistan looking to open embassy in Israel, president tells visiting FM Cohen

Leader Berdimuhamedov expresses desire to expand bilateral ties ahead of opening of permanent Israeli diplomatic mission in Ashgabat, miles from Iranian border

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat, April 20, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat, April 20, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Turkmenistan is considering opening an embassy in Israel, the leader of the central Asian country told Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in Ashgabat on Thursday.

Cohen arrived in the oil-rich dictatorship on Wednesday evening. He is scheduled to officially open Israel’s permanent embassy later Thursday just a few miles from the border with arch-enemy Iran, as Israel looks to tighten ties with strategically situated allies in central Asia.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Cohen and Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov discussed expanding cooperation in cybertech, agriculture, and water technology.

“Opening an embassy will strengthen the ties between the two countries, and will encourage cooperation between the governments and between the economies in the fields of technology, agriculture, and regional security,” said Cohen after his meeting with Berdimuhamedov.

Footage of the meeting showed a rather stiff encounter, as the two communicated through a Turkmen interpreter speaking to Cohen in English, though the famously dour Berdimuhamedov has read speeches in English directly from the page.

Cohen was greeted by Deputy Foreign Minister Berdyniyaz Myatiev upon arrival at the Turkmen capital late Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli minister to visit the repressive state in almost 30 years.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat, April 20, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Israel’s first-ever embassy in the country will 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 a tweet.

He is also scheduled to meet Thursday with 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.

A cargo train prepares to cross into Iran from Turkmenistan following the inauguration of the line on December 3, 2014. (AP/ Alexander Vershinin)

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 enemy’s territory.

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

Cohen’s visit is the first since then-foreign minister Shimon Peres traveled to Turkmenistan 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, the Freedom House rights group 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.

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

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.

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