To Iran’s consternation, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on April 20 inaugurated a permanent embassy in Turkmenistan, located just 17 kilometres (10.6 miles) from the Iranian border.
Iran has lately made clear its concern at the developing diplomatic and defence relations between arch-foe Israel and Iran’s northwestern neighbour Azerbaijan—it must now address anxieties that will be generated by the new diplomatic mission of Israel on territory of its northeastern neighbour Turkmenistan.
"I came to open an Israeli embassy 17 kilometres from the border with Iran, and to hold a series of meetings with the president and other officials," Cohen tweeted on April 20, announcing his arrival in Turkmenistan for the opening of the embassy in the country’s capital, Ashgabat.
Turkmenistan and Israel established diplomatic relations 30 years ago, but there has never been more than a temporary Israeli mission in Ashgabat and predominantly Muslim Turkmenistan still has no embassy in Israel.
In English remarks to Israeli reporters accompanying Cohen, his Turkmen counterpart, Rashid Meredov, described the embassy inauguration as "a very shining example of our friendship", Reuters reported.
Cohen also met Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov. He described his visit as "historic" and referred to Israel's ties with the Central Asian "energy superpower" as of strategic importance. Turkmenistan boasts the world’s fifth largest natural gas reserves, though almost all of its gas exports go to China.
"We intend to widen economic relations to include agriculture, water, technology and border defence," Cohen said in a video issued by Israel's Foreign Ministry. "No doubt both countries will benefit from the closer cooperation."
Turkmenistan, a remote, strictly authoritarian nation of around 6mn, in foreign policy adopts a non-aligned policy of official neutrality. Though it avoids membership in political or military blocs, its main economic partner is China and Russia is generally seen as the big political influence in its affairs.
Turkmenistan's trade with Iran is relatively small, though Turkmen transit routes are important to a considerable amount of trade between the Iranians and wider Central Asia.
Iran frequently accuses Israel of running operations, including assassinations, on its territory. An embassy that gives the Israeli intelligence apparatus another way of getting close to Iranian territory will be viewed by Tehran as a significant threat, with Iran and Israel increasingly involved in a "shadow conflict" in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, including at sea, where there have been many attacks on shipping.
Iran has made known its displeasure at Azerbaijan’s recent opening of its first embassy in Israel. Tehran is deeply unhappy at Azerbaijan’s acquisition of military hardware from Israel. Some Iranian politicians occasionally hit out at what they claim is Israeli espionage conducted from Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Israel is pre-occupied by foes in locations including Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, which it says are armed by Iran.