Israel's Central Asian Power Play

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The recent decision by the government of Turkmenistan to allow Israel to open an embassy in its capital city of Ashgabad is a major diplomatic victory for Jerusalem, and for foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in particular.

Although both countries had established relations 17 years ago, not until now was Israel - despite several requests - allowed to open an embassy in the country. One of the reasons behind Turkmenistan's hesitation is thought to be Iran. Both countries share a 992 kilometer border, and annual trade between the two nations stands at $1.2 billion. Turkmenistan's late president, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov (also known as Turkman Bashi, meaning “leader of Turkmens”) feared that allowing Israel to open an embassy in its capital could sour relations with Tehran, whose friendship was important to him.

However, upon the death of Niyazov, Ashgabad's enthusiasm for Tehran waned. This was due to two factors.

Under Niyazov's rule, Turkmenistan was governed with an iron fist. His intolerance for opposition and repeated abuse of human rights raised the ire of the West. As means of counter balancing Western pressure, he turned towards Iran both economically and politically. He hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on two occasions while increasing the level of bilateral trade, with emphasis placed on the export of gas to Iran, which his cash strapped country needed. However, upon his death his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow decided that he wanted to gradually bring Turkmenistan out of isolation. One way to do this is to establish relations with America's ally, Israel. It is thought that the Washington-via-Jerusalem route is preferable, because Berdimuhamedow is concerned about the concessions which Washington may want as a price for improving relations directly. This way, he can take his time.

Another important reason that led to the deterioration of relations between Iran and Turkmenistan was the price increase for the export of Turkmeni gas to Russia. In December 2007, Russia agreed to pay Turkmenistan $210 per thousand cubic meters (tcm), while Tehran was paying $75. Turkmenistan wanted to renegotiate its contract with Iran immediately and to increase the price to $140 per tcm. Initially, Iran refused. The Turkmens suddenly switched off the taps. With freezing temperatures in northern Iran, hundreds of thousands of Iranians were left freezing and 60 people died as a result of the cold. The Iranian parliament suddenly panicked. It wanted $1 billion in emergency funds from the country's reserves to supply gas to the affected areas. Ahmadinejad refused. According to the president, the parliament's request was against article 75 of the Iranian constitution. This article states that any law calling for emergency funding must justify how the money will be replaced later on. The President's decision infuriated many politicians, including those inside his own administration, especially since Ahmadinejad has been accused of spending government money without much planning for years. As the issue dragged on, the crisis which was started by Turkmenistan’s decision brought the Supreme Leader of Iran, the most powerful man in the country, into the fray. Sending a letter to the parliament, he openly chastised Ahmadinejad. Upon his involvement, the Guardian Council approved the decision, and the matter was resolved internally.

The ensuing panic added to Turkmenistan's sense of confidence that the Iranians would have no choice but to meet their demands. Finally, on April 19 2008, Tehran agreed. As Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC put it, “Iranian officials, who have managed to fight the international community to a standoff in the confrontation over the country’s nuclear program, were forced to admit defeat in this gas pricing dispute with Turkmenistan.” Since that event, Turkmenistan has acted more independently of Tehran, because it believes that Iran has lost part of its hold and bargaining power. The decision to allow Israel to open an embassy in its capital is yet another indication of this.

The new development is likely to strengthen Jerusalem's presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. With its increasing importance in the international energy market, having an embassy in Turkmenistan, plus Shimon Peres's upcoming visit to Azerbaijan, are all likely to give Israeli companies a bigger foothold in sectors such as construction, agriculture and possibly defense. This is important for Israel, not just for economic reasons, but also strategic ones. All of these countries share borders with Iran. Israel could use this opportunity to expand its intelligence gathering operations against Tehran. Furthermore, with the weakening of its ally in Tbilisi after the 2008 war against Russia, Jerusalem was worried that its influence in the area may have been waning. This new development will serve to allay such concerns.

But the party that stands to gain the most is Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Due to his controversial views, many analysts expected a period of isolation for Israeli foreign policy. However, thanks to his secret meetings and visits to Turkmenistan, Israel has scored a major diplomatic victory by opening its embassy there. This will serve him well in Israeli domestic politics, as long as the recent corruption investigations against him don't force him from office.

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