Consequences of the Israel-Turkey Alliance: Who Encircles Whom? Israeli-Turkish Flanking of Syria Warms Relations between Greece and Iran

By P, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Consequences of the Israel-Turkey Alliance: Who Encircles Whom? Israeli-Turkish Flanking of Syria Warms Relations between Greece and Iran


P, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Consequences of the Israel-Turkey Alliance: Who Encircles Whom? Israeli-Turkish Flanking of Syria Warms Relations Between Greece and Iran

On June 28, 1999, the Greek defense minister visited Tehran. While he was there he claimed, and his hosts confirmed, that a defense agreement was going to be finalized between the two countries.(1) Immediately there was a curious reaction from the U. S. State Department. The spokesperson denied such a pact existed, and cited as his source the U.S. Embassy in Greece. However, official Greek sources never confirmed this denial.(2)

At first glance an alliance of Greece and Iran seems like an odd coupling that is without connection to larger strategic issues. On second thought, however, it makes sense, and so does the U.S. government's wish that it would go away.

GREECE AND THE MIDDLE EAST

The meeting in Tehran was neither the beginning nor the end of Greek engagement with Iran. Two weeks later on July 12, the deputy foreign ministers of Greece and Iran met in Athens with their counterpart from Armenia for one in a series of annual meetings. In early September, the three foreign ministers met in Athens to sign agreements on a number of economic topics including, perhaps, Greek participation in an Armenian-Iran pipeline.(3)

Now that would make sense. Armenia and Turkey are certainly not allies. Since Armenia is supported by Russia, that brings the Russians into the equation. And Russia, remember, was going to provide missiles to Cyprus -- missiles over which the Turks threatened to go to war.

So it could appear that the Greek outreach to Iran is motivated primarily by an aggressive desire to encircle Turkey. However, that conclusion omits too much of the context. Greek foreign policy is often driven by a search for allies to protect itself against its much larger Turkish neighbor.

Greeks have long hoped that its -- and Turkey's -- membership in Western European institutions would do that, bringing publicity to bear on the Cyprus issue and also on what Greece views as Turkish claims against its territory. This hope has generally not been realized, leading to tension in Greece.

Then came Kosovo. In the West, Greek support for the Serbs is usually portrayed as little more than a semi-rational identification with their Christian Orthodox co-religionists. This is of a piece with Western views of Greek relations to the Middle East, which still assume the context of the socialist government of Andreas Papandreaou in the '80s, when extreme Greek rhetoric and casualness about terrorism and security were upsetting Europe and the U.S.(4)

Those policies have long since been abandoned, and this view trivializes Greek concern with NATO. Memories of U.S. manipulation of Greek politics leads to Greeks being edgy about an extensive intervention into the Balkans by a U.S.-led NATO.

Greeks are upset that years of Turkish ethnic cleansing of its Kurdish population has produced little reaction from Europe or the U.S., even though the casualties may have been 10 times the number of victims of the atrocities that NATO used to justify intervention in Kosovo.(5) Nor did it help that NATO bombed a Greek column bringing relief supplies to refugees.(6) Opposition in Greece was extensive and angry, leading in one comic incident to a rearrangement of road signs in Thessaloniki, causing a NATO convoy to beach itself in the local vegetable market.(7)

Prime Minister Costas Simitis conducted a careful balancing act, avoiding active Greek participation in the NATO war that would have jeopardized his government, yet keeping the United States content with the level of cooperation it was receiving. Perhaps a more aggressive outreach to the Middle East only seems a prudent expansion of Greek options.

IRAN'S PERSPECTIVE

In welcoming Greek diplomacy, Iran was not acting merely out of hospitality, nor out of mutual admiration of their ancient cultures (a theme of much diplomatic banter when Greek President Constantinos Stephanopoulos visited Tehran last October). …

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