Greece’s Fadeaway: Iran and Israel Battle over Cyprus
The Last Withdrawal of Alexander the Great
Today, February 26, 2012, an odd media battle took place in Iran. Different agencies reported and denied that Iran was blocking the shipment of 500,000 barrels of crude oil to Greece, in retaliation for European Union sanctions. After the initial report by the Fars news agency, the news item was denied by the Iranian Student’s News Agency, and then also by Greek officials. Was this an innocent error? This happened while Iran’s Defense Minister was visiting Lebanon. Iranian defense ministry’s website reported that Iranian Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said to his Lebanese counterpart, Fayez Ghosn, that Tehran’s strategic policy is to strengthen the Lebanese army. These two events and the recent visit of Benjamin Netanyahu to Cyprus (see Buying Cyprus) indicate that the battle over the gas fields below the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is intensifying, with new alliances being made and old ones being strengthened. Complementing the economic failure of Greece within the European Union, this country is bound to become the largest loser of the new contest.
The Iran-Europe oil affair is a minor battle in a larger war. The European Union decided in January to stop importing Iranian crude oil as of July 1, as part of international sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to halt its sensitive nuclear work, which was demanded by the UN Security Council. Yet, this turned out to be sanctions against the European Union itself. Iran’s anticipatory answer was to stop selling crude to British and French companies last week. Oil prices rose immediately over fears of tightening supplies, including a threat from Tehran to close the Straits of Hormuz, a vital oil shipping route, if attacked. Saudi Arabia said it would compensate for any oil shortage in the market. Yet, if the UN sanctions remain, oil prices are bound to stay high. In fact, the sanctions turn out being on the western energy pirates.
The Third Lebanese War
Dramatic as it seems, the fact that Iran’s Defense Minister is in Lebanon during the developing crisis, shows clearly what the real fight is about. On September 5, 2011, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansor, sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, rejecting Israeli claims on the maritime border between the two countries. The border has become important since the discovery of huge amounts of gas (see Gas, Oil … Uranium) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Worldwide, these fields form one of the largest gas reserves found in the last decade. Israeli maps incorporate the gas fields in Israel’s maritime territory, and the IDF protects the drill operations. However, international law usually recognizes a perpendicular line to the shore as a maritime border between two countries. The line drawn by Israel is askew. Lebanon has warned it will go to war to defend its claim to the gas fields.
Lebanon has been the victim of several Israeli attacks, mainly the wars of 1982 and 2006. Traditionally, Syria was Lebanon’s closest ally, but with the Assad regime wobbling badly, it seems Iran is trying to replace Syria as Lebanon’s closest ally. Iran is already a key supporter of the Lebanese group Hezbollah; Lebanon’s Defense Minister mentioned above, Fayez Ghosn, is member of Marada, a Christian party allied with Hezbollah. Now Iran has announced it would strengthen the Lebanese army. Iran being in a struggle with Europe over oil and UN sanctions, it means it is trying to get a say also in the issue of the new gas fields, since Lebanon has already announced the gas fields being a casus belli in its relations with Israel. In this way, Iran will strengthen its already significant leverage on oil issues. This attitude is not new; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon in October 2010, signaling the strengthening of the bilateral relations. Given the delicacy of the actual situation, it also means war is in the Eastern Mediterranean salty air. This evaluation is further reinforced since Turkey—Israel’s closest ally until the Freedom Flotilla events—has declared it will militarily support Lebanon in its maritime claims.
In November 2011, Cyprus announced it would explore its undersea natural gas wells in cooperation with Israel; this was the trigger for Netanyahu’s visit to the island in February. The agreements announced between the countries—including military ones—indicate that Israel has shifted its main ally in the area to Cyprus.
However, Turkey has announced that it would not allow underwater drills in Cypriot waters, clearly citing military preventative actions. The Turkish intervention is the result of Cyprus being divided between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Thus, two clear bands had been created around the gas field issue: Turkey-Lebanon-Northern Cyprus-Iran, and Israel-Cyprus. This is enough to ensure record audiences to any military event in the area.
The Last Withdrawal of Alexander the Great
It would be very easy to dismiss all these events as minor regional struggles around a profitable gas business. Yet, these new alliances seem capable of redrawing political borders in the area. Given the violent history of such events, we may be watching the beginning of the triggering incident. This time it would have direct implications towards Europe.
Cyprus is more than a state-island. It is the last frontline between Turkey and Greece; a major divide line between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and is also closely related to Greece. The Greek state dates back to just 1822. Created with the support of three Great Powers—Russia, the United Kingdom and France—it was formally recognized under the London Protocol in 1830. Yet, despite the historical connection to Ancient Greece, Cyprus was left out of it, as part of the Ottoman Empire. In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) and the Congress of Berlin, Cyprus was leased to the British Empire. On August 16, 1960, Cyprus attained independence under the Zürich and London Agreement between the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey. The UK retained the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, while government posts and public offices were allocated by ethnic quotas, giving the minority Turkish Cypriots a permanent veto, 30% in parliament and administration, and granting the three mother-states guarantor rights. On July 15, 1974, the Greek military junta carried out a coup d’état in Cyprus, to unite the island with Greece. Five days later, the Turkish army invaded the island on the pretext of restoring the constitutional order of the Republic of Cyprus by claiming a right to intervene as one of the guarantors of the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. Since then, the island has been divided.
This difference in the independence dates of Greece and Cyprus was crucial in the creation of the actual reality. After WWI, Greece fought against Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal, a war which resulted in a massive population exchange between the two countries under the Treaty of Lausanne. Thus, Greece and mainland Turkey became populated mainly by Greeks and Turks respectively. It was probably the largest ethnic transfer in history; Israeli politicians advocating for transfer of the Palestinian population often quote this event. However, Cyprus was not part of this arrangement and was left with a highly polarized population. By the beginning of 2012, this has become an extension of the maritime frontline between the Turkey-Lebanon-Northern Cyprus-Iran, and the Israel-Cyprus axes.
Can this new reality help explain the fluke in the Iranian media described at the beginning of the article? Another odd characteristic of the incident is that Greek authorities were very fast to react and ensure that everything was in accordance with signed deals between Greece and Iran. If the incident had been an accidental error, Greece would probably have ignored the Iranian internal press. The fast reaction shows Greece is under pressure. It needs the Iranian oil. Considering this, a more intriguing option must be considered. Maybe Iran sent a subtle message to Greece to stay out of the new Israel-Cyprus alliance. “Step back, Alexander the Greek, Alexander the Meek, even if Israel is Buying Cyprus!” was the message. Battered by the European Union finances, Greece has little choice but to surrender to the new Pax Iraniana.