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Armenia and Israel Throw Down a Gage to Iran and Turkey

Sami Rosen, AIA Israeli section

Russian version

This week, for the first time in history of bilateral relations, the Armenian Air Lines board landed in the Israeli

Ben Gurion airport, our sources in Tel Aviv informed. According to the same sources, this air company hereafter plans to launch one Yerevan-Moscow-Tel Aviv flight a week. It is expected that at the beginning the outturn of this project will not be considerable, with regard of the fact that the contacts between the two countries are too limited. However, appearance of the Armenian liner in the central Israeli airport has political implications, rather than economic ones. In spite of the fact that the local mass media did not notice this event at all, it is a result of the gradual and soft-pedal thaw in relations between Armenia and the Jewish State.

Natural opponents

After the USSR collapse in 1991, the new geopolitical realities guaranteed Armenia’s position in the camp of the Jewish State’s opponents. Decisive role in this was played by the relations of both states with Turkey and Iran.


Developments that took place in the Ottoman Empire short before its decay, and that are known from the Armenian historiography as Armenian genocide, to a large extent defined further identity evolution of this Caucasian people. Ankara’s categorical refusal to agree with such evaluation of the past was the reason of confrontation between Turkey and young sovereign Armenia. Simultaneously, against the background of the Upper Karabakh conflict, there took place a rapid rapprochement between Ankara and Baku. During the first years of Azerbaijan’s independence, Turkey took upon itself the role of a patron of the neighboring Turkic republic. After the USSR collapse, the power in the latter passed into the hands of the National Front leaders – the fervid partisans of Pan-Turkism. Strategic partnership of Ankara and Baku promoted even greater tension in Armenian-Turkish relations.


In parallel, Turkey aspired to extend its influence over the Turkic and Caucasian nations of the post-Soviet space. This provoked a confrontation between Ankara and Moscow. At the same time, the Russian-Azerbaijani relations started worsening. The Kremlin showed an extremely negative attitude toward cooperation of Baku with the western oil companies, as well as toward rapprochement of the Azerbaijani leadership with Ankara. As a consequence, Russia’s and Armenia’s regional interests have coincided. All the more so, Georgia has also headed toward strengthening of ties with Turkey and the West.

Yerevan has remained the only strategic ally of Moscow in the Southern Caucasus.


Armenia’s reliance on Russia, though strengthening the international positions and military capacity of the former, could not cardinally improve the situation in this South Caucasian republic. Not having a common border with its northern ally, Armenia practically found itself in a Turkish-Azerbaijani blockage from the South and from the East. Moreover, Ankara and Baku, with Washington’s assistance, tried to draw Tbilisi into the camp of the Moscow-Yerevan alliance’s opponents. Such development threatened to close up Armenia’s northern border, which would considerably harden its connections with Russia. In such a situation, Tehran naturally appeared to be Yerevan’s most important regional partner.

Iran has been Turkey’s historical contestant over the influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the first half of the 1990s, the antagonism between Ankara and Tehran was nourished by strengthening of American-Turkish military and strategic cooperation. After 1979 revolution, Iranian leaders proclaimed the USA “the Big Satan”, and the relationship between Tehran and Washington turned into an everlasting confrontation. Approach of Islamic Republic to American-Turkish alliance became even more militant after the Iranian aspirations concerning the independent Azerbaijan gave disappointment.


Of all the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, Iran firs of all tried to disperse its influence over its north-western neighbor, and only after it – over Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the other newly established states.

“Azerbaijani factor” had a special role in guaranteeing of Iran’s security. In XIX century, the Russian and the Persian Empires divided Azerbaijan between them. Its northern part passed under the control of the Russians, while the southern one was subordinated to the Shah. Northern Azerbaijan gaining independence in 1991 threatened to revive the separatist moods in Southern Azerbaijan. Tehran thus had a goal of including Baku in the zone of its influence. Ayatollahs regime staked on the religious community of the Azerbaijanis and the Iranians represented by the Shiah Islam. The latter, however, even in procommunist period, had played rather unimportant role in socio-political life of Northern Azerbaijan. In the Soviet period the influence of religion was definitely reduced merely to household issues. Revival of the Azerbaijanis’ national identity in the 1980s, however, promoted dispersal of the Pan-Turkist moods. This fact in the first half of the 1990s guaranteed Turkey a victory in the battle over influence in the most important state of the Southern Caucasus. Baku then started patronizing the south-Azerbaijani separatists. Moreover, independent Azerbaijan was then regarded as a potential bridgehead for the USA and Israel on the Iranian track. This caused tension in the relations between Tehran and Baku.

Presence of the influential Armenian community in Iran, the competition with Turkey, and the growing confrontation with Azerbaijan predetermined a rapprochement between the Ayatollahs regime and Yerevan.

In parallel with this, Iran and Russia were strengthening their ties, the latter being Armenia’s strategic partner.

Israel – Turkey

In the first half of the 1990s the relations between Israel, Turkey, and Iran were completely the opposite of the Armenia-Turkey-Iran relations. The generalship that had a special influence in Ankara stood for broadening of cooperation with the USA and Israel. Formation of a triple military-strategic alliance was promoted by Turkey’s regional rivalry with Iran and Russia, as well as by the permanent tension on the Turkish-Syrian border. Israel, having lost its allies, – the Iraqi Kurds, the Iranian Shah and the Lebanese Christians, during the 1970s and 1980s, saw Turkey as the only remaining strategic partner in the Middle East.

Israel – Iran

After coming to power in 1979, the Ayatollah’s regime declared the Jewish State to be the “Small Satan”. In the first half of the 1990s, Tehran refused to recognize the results of the Israeli – Palestinian arrangements. The Islamic and left wing radical organizations opposing Yasser Arafat, began to enjoy the Iranian patronage. Verbal battles between Tehran and Tel Aviv grew into a direct confrontation of their secret services in Lebanon and Jordan, and a bit later – in the Palestinian territories.

The Geopolitical Axes

As a result of the abovementioned geopolitical configuration, two contradictory axes were generated on the “Big Middle East” up to the middle of the 1990s (the third one: the USA – Saudi Arabia – Pakistan – Afghanistan appeared one and a half decades prior to that, and is irrelevant to our issue). One of them consisted of Russia, Iran, and Armenia, then joined by Syria. Participation by Damascus had two causes; first, the traditionally maintained close relations with Tehran and Moscow, and second, the fact that Syria was in confrontation with Israel and Turkey. Besides, there is a large Armenian community in this Arab country, and that, together with concurrence of geopolitical orientation, promoted development of relations between Yerevan and Damascus. This axis was actually joined by Greece and Greek Cyprus. Both these states actively cooperated with Russia and Syria, in particular in the military sphere, while being in confrontation with Turkey and Turkish Cyprus.

The second axis included the USA, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Uzbekistan was considered as potential member.

In such a situation in the region Armenia and the Jewish State, though they had no reasons for enmity, appeared on the different sides of the barricade. These conditions prevented any normal development of mutual relations, especially when any attempts at dialogue between them were perceived by Turkey and Iran as “treachery”, and were met by powerful pressure to cease.

The Peak of Confrontation

The geopolitical configuration described above did not change throughout the 1990s, as the structure of the axes and the confrontations were maintained. The peak of confrontation occurred during the period between 1996-98.

1996: Russia sold two nuclear reactors to Iran and started delivering tanks to the Greek Cypriots. At the same time an agreement on selling of the Russian anti-aircraft missile systems to Athens was signed and the Greek-Armenian military cooperation began.

On the other hand, in the summer Turkey and Israel concluded the contract on military strategic partnership. Soon Israeli aircraft began to appear in immediate proximity to the borders of Iran and Syria. At the same time, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed an agreement on military cooperation. A group of advisers – more than 70 officers of the Turkish army – was sent by Ankara to Baku.

1997: This year began with the signing of the agreement on delivery of the S300 anti-aircraft – missile complex (SA-10 Grumble) by Russia to Greek Cyprus, provoking so-called “missile crisis on Cyprus” which continued for two years. Later Russia carried out joint air defence drills with

Syria and for the first time since the Soviet period it renewed large deliveries of arms to Damascus. In the summer, Moscow and Yerevan signed the contract “On Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Aid”. At the end of the year the tripartite agreement on interaction in a number of areas was concluded between Armenia, Greece, and Iran.

On the other side, the first ever joint Naval Forces and the Air Forces manoeuvres by Israel, Turkey, and the USA, with participation of Jordanian representatives, took place. Soon after, Ankara declared its readiness for a preventive air strike on Greek Cyprus in case the Russian anti-aircraft – missile complex were to be placed there. Turkish generals also declared Syria and Iran to be “strategically hostile states”, in connection with their support of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and radical Islamic groups in Turkey.

1998: In the autumn the confrontation between Turkey and Syria almost became a direct military conflict, and two Israelis were detained on Greek Cyprus, charged with espionage. Military drills by Turkey, Israel, and the USA again took place. In addition, Ankara signed a Memorandum on Strategic Partnership with Tbilisi, and the Protocol on Security Cooperation with Baku.

The End of Saddam’s Era

The confrontation between the two axes proceeded up to the end of the 1990s. Then gradually the situation began to change. In 2000, the process of geopolitical transformation started in Eurasia. In the spring of this year Vladimir Putin officially took the post of President of Russia. Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad died in the summer and his son, Bashar, became the new head of state. Several months later the Intifada became inflamed in the Palestinian territories, causing the resignation of the Israeli government at the end of the year with subsequent early elections, Ariel Sharon won in February, 2001. Simultaneously President George Bush was elected in the USA.

In the year 2001, the process of geopolitical transformation of the region was considerably sped up by the September 11 acts of terrorism, the operations of the allies in Afghanistan, and the beginnings of preparation for the Iraqi campaign. The next year, 2002, passed in the preparations for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, and ended with coming to power of the moderate Islamists in Turkey, led by Recep Erdogan.

Syria – Turkey – Iran

As a result of the change of Syrian leadership the process of normalization of its relations with Turkey began.

The preparations for the operation in Iraq served as a powerful push to the activization of contacts between Damascus and Ankara. The plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein led to the concurrence of interests of Turkey, Iran, and Syria. All three were concerned in the face of the threat of creation of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. This could have provoked separatist moods among the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, and Syria and could have lead to destabilization in these countries. The common strategic interests encouraged rapprochement of Ankara with Damascus and Teheran, which was amplified especially after Recep Erdogan’s coming to power. Up to that, in the summer of 2002 the Turkish president visited Iran. Ankara has then concluded agreements on military cooperation with Teheran and Damascus. The historical visit of the Syrian President to Turkey took place in the beginning of 2004.

The USA – Turkey – Israel

The Turkish refusal to support American actions in Iraq caused deterioration in the relations between Ankara and Washington. Further, against the background of reports on renewal of confidential communications of the Israeli “Mossad” with the Iraqi Kurds, and proceeding tension in the Palestinian territories, Turkish-Israeli relations worsened appreciably in 2004.

The Israeli refusal to use Turkish intermediary services in negotiations with the Syrians and the Palestinians, and also destabilization in Iraq, harmed the prestige and positions of Ankara in the Middle East. Turkey found an alternative to its deteriorating alliance with the USA and Israel in cooperation with Syria and Iran, and also in a rapprochement with Russia.

Turkey – Russia

President Vladimir Putin strives to restore at least partially the international positions lost by Moscow after the USSR’s collapse. The revival of the former power, according to the Kremlin’s traditional geopolitical views was examined through the prism of opposition to the West. As was true during the Russian Empire’s epoch, and also the period of the Soviet Union, the Middle Eastern region became one of the primary fronts of diplomatic struggle. First of all Putin has increased cooperation with Iran and Syria even more. Moreover, due to the coming to power of Ariel Sharon, Putin made active contacts with Israel (in the spring of 2005, for the first time in history, the visit of the Russian leader to Jerusalem and Ramallah took place). However, the US operations in Iraq deprived the Kremlin of one of its main partners in the Middle East. At the same time, Saddam Hussein’s overthrow caused deterioration in relations between Turkey and the USA. Russia took advantage of this. Moscow and Ankara both aspired to keep their Middle Eastern influences in the conditions of various parts of the region because of Washington’s actions.

And especially, by this time, there remained much fewer disputed aspects in Russian-Turkish relations, than at the beginning of the 1990s. Directing most of its foreign policy efforts towards preservation of its position in the Middle East, the solution of the Cyprian problem, and Turkey’s introduction into the EU, Ankara appreciably lowered its activity in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In these two regions Turkey and Russia stopped their rivalry and preferred to cooperate for the sake of blocking American influence.

Rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara, which was clearly traceable in 2002, two years later led to the establishment of a bilateral strategic partnership in the fields of geopolitics, energy, and security. In December, 2004, for the first time in the history of their mutual relations the Russian leader visited Turkey.

The Geopolitical Axes

Owing to the abovementioned events of 2002-2005 the geopolitical design of Eurasia has essentially changed. Turkey joined Russia, Iran, and Syria. The actions of the West in Central Asia pushed Uzbekistan into the Russian embrace. In Southern Asia the Kremlin appreciably activated its cooperation with India after almost complete stagnation in their relations during the first half of the 1990s and, in the Far East, with China. As a result, in the western part of the Asian continent an axis was generated including Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. In the eastern part, one more axis is formed of Russia, China, India, and Uzbekistan.

At the same time, against the background of contradictions between the USA and the EU, Moscow has strengthened cooperation with Brussels, leaning on the strategic partnership with Berlin and Paris. Rapprochement between Russia and the EU was caused by Europe’s disagreements with America, in particular concerning Iraq, and also by the dependence of Western Europe on deliveries of oil and gas from Russia. In any case, rapprochement between Moscow and Brussels damages the interests of Washington and its allies in Eastern Europe. This became obvious after the signing of the Russian-German agreement the Northern European gas pipeline along the bottom of the Baltic Sea, excluding Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States.

The USA appeared almost alone, its major allies in its Eurasian politics being only Britain and Israel. The latest events connected with Iran’s nuclear program will hardly be reflected in the geopolitical design of the region. Moscow and Beijing, though officially supporting the West on this issue, will attempt in every possible way to hamper of real pressure on Tehran. The press conference of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs on January 17 is eloquent testimony to that.

The Caucasian Paradox

After the “Velvet Revolution” of 2003 Georgia unequivocally sided with the West. But Azerbaijan and Armenia appeared in a rather strange situation, owing to the new geopolitical realities.

Azerbaijan is closely connected both with the West and with Turkey in the extraction and transportation of oil. However, preservation of friendly relations with Ankara obliges President Aliev to take into account its rapprochement with Tehran and Moscow. Activization of the Russian-Azerbaijani dialogue was promoted also by their common fears of a possible “Velvet Revolution” in Baku during parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2005. Taking into account the experience of other CIS countries, President Aliev suspected certain western circles of supporting the Azerbaijani opposition. Wishing not to provoke simultaneously tensions in their relations with Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran, Baku was effectively hampering cooperation with Washington on Iran, in particular having refused to allow an American military base on its territory. Thus, while continuing to cooperate closely with the West in the field of energy, Azerbaijan took its place in the sphere of influence of the axis uniting Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

Armenia’s situation is even more complex. Rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara destroyed Yerevan’s traditional system of foreign policy guidelines. The Armenians were especially disappointed by that fact, that in their

dialogue with the Turks, the Russians have absolutely ignored the interests of their strategic ally in the Caucasus. The subsequent activization of Russian-Azerbaijani contacts has caused even bigger concern in Yerevan. Though Iran is still the major support of Armenia, it is hardly possible to rely on it as before in confrontation with Azerbaijan and Turkey, taking into account the warming of relations between Tehran and Ankara.

The de-facto recognition of Turkish Cyprus by Azerbaijan in the summer of 2005 led to the reviving of the Armenian-Greek connection, but that was merely an echo of the large-scale participation by Yerevan in the geopolitical axis of Russia, Iran, Syria, and Greece.

Fearing of full isolation, Armenia gradually began to reconsider its foreign policy. Despite the protests of its powerful pro-Russian lobby, in 2005 Yerevan tried to speed up contact with the European Community and the USA. The soft-pedal activization of connections with Israel became a part of this policy.

The Armenian initiative

During the 1990s the Armenian-Israeli relations remained “in embryo.” Of all the CIS countries only Armenia and Tajikistan have no official representatives in Israel, and Israel has no representation in these states.
The first serious attempt to initiate contact with Tel Aviv was undertaken by Yerevan in May, 1999. The first round of negotiations between representatives of the foreign policy departments of the two countries took place in the Armenian capital. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs represented Israel. This event caused extreme irritation in Ankara and Teheran. Despite the reaction of the Iranian partners, in January, 2000, the Armenian President visited the Jewish State for the first time. However, further development of mutual relations was interrupted as the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in the autumn of the same year. The coverage of the events in the conflict zone by the Armenian mass media usually had a frankly anti-Israeli character. It was caused by the efforts of the pro-Iranian lobby in the business circles of the republic, and owing to the activity of the Israeli armies in the areas close to Armenian Church facilities in the Palestinian territories.

And even stronger blow to the fragile mutual relations was made by the official representative of the Jewish State.

Rivka Cohen, who was heading the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi and responsible for connections with Yerevan, made a highly improper declaration in February, 2002. She publicly refused to recognize the events of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire to be the genocide of Armenians. Her statement caused the most serious reaction in Armenia. However, in reply to the indignation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the republic, the Israeli Foreign Service refused to correct the statement of its representative. The wave of the anti-Israeli publications in the Armenian press and statements of local politicians was enormous. Many demanded that the nation’s leaders break off any connection with the Jewish State. Yerevan, on the contrary, tried to smooth away the consequences of this unpleasant incident. In November, 2002, Israel was visited by Ruben Shugaryan, the Armenian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. The following year, talking to Russian journalists he declared: “There are problems which puzzle us from time to time, in particular concerning the relations between Israel and Turkey. But we carry on political dialogue with Israel and we have an opportunity to discuss all urgent problems.” Shortly before that, in January, 2003, David Peleg, the Deputy Director of Israel’s Foreign Department, came to Yerevan. According to the diplomats on both sides, these two visits served as a breakthrough toward development of the Armenian-Israeli relations.

According to our sources, in October, 2004, Yerevan was visited by two Israeli diplomats. Their arrival remained unnoticed by the journalists. At a meeting with the visitors from Tel Aviv, the Minister of Agriculture of the republic discussed questions of cooperation in this area. Summing up the results of the year, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia announced activization of contact with Israel within the framework of the United Nations, and also “in consular and intergovernmental spheres.” One month after that, Shugaryan told Armenian journalists about the relations with Israel: “We have some distinctions in our visions of the Middle Eastern settlement, and there are certain constraining circumstances. But at the same time there is much what we will learn in the sphere of economy, information technologies, agriculture, medicine.” Yerevan publicly showed interest in the development of cooperation with the Jewish State

The year 2005 appeared to be the most outstanding from the point of view of Armenian-Israeli relations, primarily due to the efforts of Yerevan. In May, Jerusalem was visited by the largest Armenian delegation, numbering almost 80 persons, in the history of bilateral contacts, Among them were Garegin II, the Catholicos of all Armenians, Ara Abramyan, Chairman of the World Congress of Armenians, Serge Sarkisyan, Minister of Defence of Armenia, Tigran Sarkisyan, the Head of Central Bank, and a number of the high-ranking diplomats and businessmen. Summing up the results of the visit, the Catholicos proclaimed “the beginning of a new era in relations between the Jews and the Armenians.” The Head of the World Congress of Armenians added: “The relations between our countries are obviously at unsatisfactory level, and there is a necessity to develop them.”

In November, following the invitation of the Catholicos, Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yonah Metzger and the Member of Parliament of Russian origin, Yuri Stern, arrived in Yerevan. They visited “the Memorial to the Victims of the First Genocide of the Twentieth Century” in the Armenian capital. According to the Russian media reports, Metzger stated that: “It is impossible to recollect what happened with the Armenians in Turkey without shedding tears.” Stern in his turn noted that he recognizes “the genocide of the Armenians”. It is curious that according to the Azerbaijani journalists, the Embassy of Israel in Baku tried to deny these statements. “The Israeli position concerning the genocide of the Armenians remains unchanged. The statements of the Rabbi and of the Member of Parliament have an informal character and consequently of low significance,” the comment of the press secretary of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Baku emphasized.

Despite the deterioration of relations with Turkey during recent years, in its contacts with Armenia the Jewish State still looks back at Ankara. However, after the beginning of Armenian Air Lines flights to Israel, one must first of all expect the reaction from Teheran…

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