In this issue: Greece and Iran
Philhellenic Perspective, Issue 11, December 1999.
On June 28th of 1999, the Greek Defense Minister visited Tehran. While there he claimed, and his hosts confirmed, that a defense agreement had been agreed to between the two countries. Many things were curious about this incident and the reaction to it. Immediately, there was a curious denial made by the U. S. State Department, citing information from the Greeks. However, the Greek government would not confirm the denial. Then, the reaction to the consequences of the pact was also curious. Cries were made that this upset the strategy of NATO in the Balkans. Since Iran isn't exactly in the Balkans, nor a target of NATO, and Greece actually is in NATO, it is not readily apparent why a pact between Greece and Iran would be a threat to NATO. The real story is the unstated reason: Iran offers Greece an alley in responding to Turkish adventurism in the Aegean, adventurism that the west is desperately trying to ignore.
That this is the real issue surfaced later. On July 12th, the deputy foreign ministers of Greece and Iran met in Athens with their counterpart from Armenia for their annual meeting. In early September the three foreign ministers met in Athens to sign agreements on a number of economic topics. Armenia and Turkey are certainly not allies. Since Armenia is backed by Russia, this also meant that the latter country figured in the consequences of the agreement. And Russia, remember, was going to provide missiles to Cyprus, missiles the Turks threatened to go to war over.
Looking at the map, it is easier to see that Greece sees this alignment as helpful in strengthening their options in dealing with Turkish aggressive claims on Greek territory. What is less immediately obvious is why Orthodox Christian Greece should find common cause with Islamic Iran against a nominally Islamic but officially secular Turkey.
Some history helps. It is often said in the west that Turkey is an important ally because it is a link to the Moslem world. However, Turkey has a defense pact with Israel. That puts a strain on its relations with both Arab countries and with Iran. Iran also expresses concern about the repeated suppression of Moslem culture by those in power in Turkey. Turkey also has close connections with Albania. Given instability in the Balkans, this further increases Greece's anxiety about Turkey's intentions. Then, both Iran's president and Greece's prime minister are on "charm offensives" trying to establish better relations for their country with a spectrum of other nations. These factors provide the context that leads Iran and Greece to be open to explore better relations with each other.
The way that NATO dealt with the Kosovo crisis also motivated Greece to explore alternatives. The Greek population was not amused by what they considered to be NATO hypocrisy. NATO has turned a blind eye to Turkish attacks on the Kurds, to Turkish territorial claims on Greece and to human rights violations against the Serbs. Thus when NATO both exaggerates the Serbian atrocities, and claims a moral superiority based on bombing that terrorizes and makes refugees out of many more civilians than the Serbs killed, it looks hollow in Greece. Having perhaps concluded that Greece will find no help for its Turkish problems in NATO, it now seeks additional allies.
However, all powers are playing one country off against another and making alliances with one country to provoke favorable reactions from another. The Greek president had a successful and well-received visit to Iran, signing various agricultural agreements. Yet, immediately afterward, Iran went on to conclude an agreement with Turkey. Equally quickly after the alleged alignment of Greece, Iran and Armenia against Turkey, Greece and Turkey launched one of the most significant series of talks between the two countries in recent years. This is popularly considered to be the result of the earthquakes, but actually, the Greek foreign minister had laid the groundwork for this before the disasters occurred. Then, it might well be the case that Greece's overture to Iran will produce more interest among NATO countries in wooing Greece with attention to its issues with Turkey.
In any case, Greece's flirtation with Iran hardly indicates any desire to realign itself away from Europe. Prime Minister Simitis has made integration with Europe a keynote of his administration, and continues to seek convergence of his nation's economy with the economic targets needed to join the monetary union.
Sources used for this report included:
Stratfor, "Greece Announces Pending Defense Pact with Iran
and Armenia," July 1, 1999.
Stratfor, "Greece Assures U.S. - No Military Accord with Iran," July 3, 1999.
Stories in Ettela'at online newspaper. Dates: July 1, July 9, October 12, 14, 15, 18, 20.
Stories in Iran Daily online newspaper. Dates: October 12, 13, 14.
Stories in Tehran Times online newspaper. Dates October 14.
Stories in Athens News Agency, online daily briefing, for June 29, 20, July 7, Sept. 9, October 11 and 13.
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