Cypriot diplomats were on the defensive this week after a joint military exercise with Israel sent jitters in the region, with Nicosia finding itself in a predicament with Tehran and Beirut as well as usual suspect Turkey.
A large-scale Israeli army exercise taking place on the island this week was drawing to an end on Thursday, with officials saying AGAPENOR-2022 was part of a regular bilateral program between the Republic of Cyprus and Israel.
The exercise on the island, where soldiers trained on varying types of terrain, including wilderness, urban, rural and high-altitude mountainous areas, was part of IDF’s month-long Chariots of Fire massive drill, seen by experts as a substitute for intense fighting against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
'It is based on fictitious scenarios and is not targeted against any other country in the region' a Cypriot foreign ministry statement said on Wednesday
Some reports on Wednesday said Hezbollah, a group listed as a terrorist organization by the US and UK, was calling on its fighters to be prepared to confront the enemy. The EU has also designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization but not the political faction of the group.
But Nicosia rushed to clarify that the “aim of the exercise is to increase the level of defense readiness of the Cyprus National Guard.”
“It is based on fictitious scenarios and is not targeted against any other country in the region,” a Cypriot foreign ministry statement said on Wednesday.
The Chariots of Fire also did not go unnoticed in Tehran after IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kohavi joined Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on the island on Wednesday during the “Beyond the Horizon” portion of the exercise.
Last year Kohavi gave a speech in Tel Aviv saying he had ordered the military to redraw plans for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
“We are studying these plans and we will develop them over the next year. The government will of course be the one to decide if they should be used. But these plans must be on the table, in existence and trained for,” Kohavi said.
Israeli officials have said the drill was “an important component in maintaining the readiness of the IDF for a variety of operational scenarios.”
Drills simulate air raids on Iranian nuclear facilities
During the exercise this week Israeli forces also conducted drills over the Mediterranean that simulated air raids on Iran and its nuclear facilities, according to media reports.
But Nicosia says the drill was part of the “regular Program of Bilateral Defense Cooperation between the Republic of Cyprus and the State of Israel.”
“The defense capabilities of Cyprus are of a strictly defensive nature, as we face a constant threat from Turkey’s occupying forces on our territory and pose no threat to our partners in the region,” the Cypriot defense ministry said.
The statement came at a time when Nicosia and Tehran have been pedaling through another crisis, after Iran arrested two Greek oil tankers, one with a Cypriot captain, reportedly in retaliation over Athens confiscating oil from an Iranian tanker a week earlier on behalf of Washington.
Turkey-Israel relations & fears over nuclear Iran
Last week Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reportedly sought an explanation from Israel regarding the drill in Cyprus.
Cavusoglu, who was on a visit to Israel for the opening of a “new chapter” in relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, reportedly received clarification that said the drill was for domestic purposes and nothing more.
Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful but Israel insists that Tehran is staving off scrutiny by the UN nuclear watchdog.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused Iran on Tuesday of stealing UN reports in order to deceive the International Atomic Energy Agency, citing documents stolen by Mossad in 2018.
Bennett said in a video posted online that Iran “created cover stories and hid evidence to evade nuclear probes.”
Israel, Washington and the IAEA have long said they believed Tehran had a coordinated nuclear weapons programme until 2003.
Israel, which remains suspicious of renewed efforts for an agreement between Tehran and the international community, has vowed to deny any capability of the Iranian military to go nuclear.