The view from the ground.

Iran’s Near Abroad

Beset by global sanctions, Iran's leaders go local.

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Road signs along the highway heading east to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, note Tehran — almost 800 miles away and separated by the entire country of Azerbaijan — as an upcoming destination. On a recent road trip, a Georgian friend of mine swerved to the shoulder, pointing and laughing, so we could take pictures of it. But, however much the inclusion of Tehran may be a source of amusement, it is also a symbol of Iran’s recent efforts to expand its influence in the South Caucasus — efforts that Georgians have cautiously embraced.

Unlike its rabblerousing in much of the Middle East, Iran’s involvement in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan has been guided not by religious ideology, but by pragmatic economic and geopolitical goals. In fact, judging from Tehran’s vigorous diplomacy this past summer, Iran may prove to be a decisive stabilizing force in the long-volatile South Caucasus. Some optimistic analysts even suggest that Iran’s “good behavior” in a strategically important part of the world could mark the first steps — baby steps, perhaps — toward rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

In the past year, Iranian officials have trekked to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to announce a series of investments in bilateral economic projects and symbolic friendship-building, including the unilateral waiver of visa requirements for Azeri and Georgian citizens traveling to Iran, and an offer to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the two countries’ longstanding dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist region in southwest Azerbaijan claimed by ethnic Armenians. Tehran also recently announced it would partner with Tbilisi to build a new Georgian hydropower plant.

This summer, Mikheil Saakashvili, the staunchly pro-American Georgian president, made a point of publicly inviting his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Tbilisi, an event that followed reciprocal visits by the nations’ highest-ranking ministers. And while Iranian support for Armenia is nothing new, Tehran’s proposal this past summer to build a $1.2 billion railroad linking the two countries is seen as a critical economic rescue plan for Yerevan, which has suffered for its economic and political isolation from Azerbaijan and Turkey — the biggest reminder of which was its exclusion from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylon gas pipeline, which begins near the Azeri capital and runs through Georgia, around Armenia, and ends on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. This month, Tehran expressed interest in buying nearly 10 times as much gas from Baku as it did last year, and has repeated its desire to build a 200-mile oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Persian Gulf in the future.

So what’s with the Caucasian love affair?

Sheer pragmatism. Other regional powers have made no qualms about exploiting the Caucasus to flex their military, diplomatic, and economic muscle. Russia has become increasingly territorial in the area since its August 2008 war with Georgia. In 2008, Moscow agreed to build Russian military outposts in Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and last month, Moscow and Yerevan signed an agreement that will keep Russian troops in Armenia until 2044. Turkey, the other large regional power, has also increased its influence in the South Caucasus in recent years, through economic deals and with diplomatic promises to end the region’s frozen conflicts.

Iran, meanwhile, has largely been left to watch its influence decline. Facing these threats to its regional importance — in addition to a fresh round of EU, U.S., and Kremlin-backed U.N. sanctions, internal unrest and an array of external military threats — Tehran has chosen to fight back with vigorous diplomatic campaigns in its near abroad. “Iran is trying to contribute in a meaningful way to the security and stability in the South Caucasus in order to impress upon everyone the legitimacy and credibility of its role as a regional player,” notes Steven Blank, an analyst at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. “It’s a pragmatic maneuver above all else.”

Iran’s primary motivation, Blank said, is to keep other countries, particularly the United States, from getting too chummy on its northern border. For Iran, which borders Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — all wobbly nations with a significant U.S. military presence — a U.S. military base in the South Caucasus would be a disaster. Iran is calculating that the way to prevent that from happening is through strengthened alliances — or at least mitigated ill-will — with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. “The message they keep repeating is: We are friends, we are economic partners, but if you allow a U.S. base on your soil, very bad things will happen to you,” says a Georgian executive who spoke anonymously in order not to compromise his relationship with Iranian officials. “They are friendly, but the message is clear.”

Iranian-Georgian relations grew cold following Georgia’s 2008 extradition to the U.S. of an Iranian citizen on charges of smuggling, money laundering, and conspiracy. In January, however, in a decision the Georgian president called “an effort to keep one’s enemies closer,” Tehran publicly extended an olive branch, sending a handful of its highest-ranking ministers to Tbilisi. Since then, Iran has deployed its soft power, arranging to send 15,000 Iranian tourists on chartered planes to Georgia’s struggling Black Sea resorts, and emphasizing long-standing historical and cultural ties between the two countries. Georgia was under sporadic Persian control from the fourth to the 18th centuries and Farsi words pepper modern Georgian. An estimated 12,000 ethnic Georgians still live in Iran.

With Russo-Georgian relations in tatters, Iran’s ambassador to Georgia, Majid Saber, has worked hard to style Tehran as Tbilisi’s only reliable friend and ally. “No U.S. help was there when you needed it most,” Saber told reporters in Tbilisi in May, citing the George W. Bush administration’s unwillingness to defend Georgia militarily during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. “Real friendship is demonstrated in hard times.”

In Azerbaijan, Iran has recently renewed its calls for the resolution of regional problems — like the demarcation of Caspian Sea energy resources and the stubborn Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — by regional, not international, actors. But Tehran’s foreign policy there is primarily shaped by Tehran’s fear of a separatist uprising among Iran’s ethnic Azeris, which make up a quarter of the Iranian population. That fear has served to temper Iran’s encouragement of either religious ideology or nationalism in Shiite Azerbaijan. While Iran’s offer to mediate Nagorno-Karabakh is likely to be ignored by both Azerbaijan and the OSCE, which oversees the diplomatic mission there, Iran has in the past served as an even-keeled mediator in the conflict zone, prizing stability over Islamic fraternity along its northern border.

The nations of the South Caucasus — all of which receive U.S. aid, investment and support to one degree or another — have accepted Tehran’s recent overtures of friendship graciously, but cautiously. Georgia alone has received a whopping $4.5 billion from Western funders in the past two years, and can’t afford to burn bridges with Washington.

“We’re in a kind of Bermuda triangle here. Georgia needs U.S. support, but it needs friendly relations with its neighbors, too,” says Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. While the United States has watched Iranian influence in the region cl
osely, it has not yet insisted its allies cut ties with Tehran. “They understand we are a small nation, stuck in the middle. We have Iranian investors, Israeli investors, Turkish investors. We can’t afford to alienate anyone. It is in our interest to keep Russia from having all the cards here,” Rondeli says.

Above all, Iran’s diplomatic overtures are about one issue: energy. Iran, which sits on 18 percent of the world’s gas supply, has had its eye for years on becoming a transit route for Caspian Sea oil resources to the Persian Gulf. It has also proposed to extend its gas pipeline, which already runs from Iran to Armenia, further north to Georgia and states in eastern Europe. Georgia, desperate to reduce its dependency on pricey and unpredictable Russian gas, has been amenable to the idea, and Armenia, desperate for economic ties, would benefit from the transit route as well.

The real economic and geopolitical dividends of all this Iranian diplomacy in the South Caucasus are mostly theoretical at this point. For example, an Iranian business community that has developed a taste for the lucrative transit market might act a moderating force on the Iranian government. For another, Iran’s willingness to behave diplomatically and encourage stability in the Caucasus could produce a potential backchannel through which Tehran is able to begin to soften its 30-year history of isolation from the West.

Realistically, though, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Iran-watchers caution that Tehran’s ambition may exceed its true reach. Another east-west pipeline from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, to Turkey — from which Iran was deliberately excluded — is already in the works. Neither Moscow, which currently has a chokehold on the European gas supply, nor Washington, with its policy of containment of Iran, are likely to allow Iranian pipelines to reach Europe. Politics aside, the gas industry hardly sees Iran as a reliable supplier. And despite big talk, real economic partnerships between Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are still small. In 2008, for instance, only about 1 percent of Georgian imports were Iranian.

Even if everything goes Iran’s way in the South Caucuses, it doesn’t amount to a long-term strategy for the Islamic Republic. Rapprochement with the West doesn’t seem to be in the cards, and it’s unclear how increased regional trade will counter the effects of international sanctions. If Tehran has a grand strategy, it seems to be oriented toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. At some point, one imagines, that’s also going to have to be the subject of discussion between Iran and its neighbors.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a writer living in Tbilisi.

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