Quiet Before the Storm as Iran Threatens the Caucasus

Last week, I told a group of Georgian journalists that I’d had some of my first interest from international publications in a regional story in a long time.

“You can probably guess what it was about,” I said.

Silence.

They looked at each other and threw out a few suggestions.

“No, not the deal between Georgia and Turkey to refurbish each other’s historic sites – Yes, I know the Patriarch is pissed about it — but no, not that. No, not the latest domestic political nonsense.”

I was quite surprised that it was the first time that Georgia had been back in international headlines and no one in the local media was talking about it.

Last Monday, a bomb was found attached to the private car of a driver for the Israeli embassy in Georgia. The same day, a bomb exploded on an Israeli embassy vehicle in New Dehli, India, wounding the wife of an Israeli defense official, among others.

The same day, Tehran accused Azerbaijan of aiding Israeli intelligence forces in assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist who was also killed by a bomb magnetically attached to his car in early January. At the time, a top Iranian official told a local newspaper that “Iran’s reaction will extend beyond the borders and beyond the region. […] None of those who ordered these attacks should feel safe anywhere.”

Azerbaijan claimed this week it had rounded up another Iranian cell, planning to kill “foreigners” in the country and has long complained of a shadowy Iranian buildup in the country. In a 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev complained to U.S. diplomats of “not only the financing of radical Islamic groups and Hezbollah terrorists,” but also said Iran was organizing violent protests in the country.

Baku seems to see the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan as Iran’s proxy in the country, and has arrested several party members and media figures sympathetic to the Islamists.

Georgia’s rapprochement with Iran over the last two years has always been a bit of a peculiar phenomenon, given that Georgia is also the most enthusiastic NATO aspirant company on the planet. While sending thousands of troops to American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and publicly offering its territory as a location for the European Missile Shield, its officials have also ardently courted Iranian tourists and investors.

The reason this story has gotten very little play on Georgia’s pro-government channels and the government response has been muted is because it reveals a very inconvenient truth about the state of Georgia’s current foreign policy. Over the last decade, Georgia has urgently sought outside allies to support and protect it from its arch-enemy, Russia. Now, Georgia realizes that many of its new friends, in fact, hate each other and it may have just attracted more heat for itself by embracing the interests of both sides.

It was only a matter of time before this paradox would come to a head. Over the past two years, Georgian foreign ministry officials have been splitting time between Washington and Tehran, courting increased American military presence in Georgian territory and pledging to Iranian leaders that Georgia would never do anything to undermine Iran’s security. These two positions obviously run directly counter to one another.

Lincoln Mitchell, a TFT contributor and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs told me in an interview for the Asia Times that Georgia should have seen this coming.

“I may sound like a crazy American, but if you let Iranians come in without visas, this kind of thing is going to happen. Iran has made its views on Israel quite clear, and the notion that some Iranians might come in and do bad things to friends of America and friends of Georgia is not crazy,” he said.

Although there has been near total government silence on the car bomb in Tbilisi, a statement released by the president’s administration ominously called the attack “a serious challenge” to the state. So far, Georgian officials appear to be mulling their options and waiting until the investigation into the foiled bombing runs its course, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already declared that Iran was behind the attacks.

On the other hand, Mitchell said that if Saakashvili plays the situation right, he may be able to dodge American criticism for “pulling a Putin” by returning for a de facto third term on the throne as the country’s prime minister.

“If the Georgian government is smart, then [the current tensions with Iran are] an opportunity to double down on their support for the United States, and if they play it any other way then they are making a huge mistake. Going into a tough two years for himself politically, Saakashvili can cement his indispensability, which is wrong. He’s not indispensable. But it would be very easy for him to say, if there is a war going on, that ‘I have to stay on and be prime minister’,” Mitchell said.

For Armenia, the longer the tensions drag on, the worse it will be for their economy and security. About one-third of Armenia’s trade passes through Iranian territory. Armenia’s only alternatives are land routes passing through Georgia to Russia and the Black Sea, however, heavy snows and avalanche threats regularly close the Armenia-Georgia and Georgia-Russia border crossings.

Iran has also been a key investor in Armenian business and infrastructure, feeding the country natural gas through a recently completed pipeline and an oil pipeline is in the works. Yerevan views these links as key to preventing a near total dependence on Russia for commerce.

In its 2011 report, “Without Illusions”, the Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation said that both the Karabakh war and the supply disruptions caused by the 2008 Russia-Georgia war proved that Armenia’s “only reliable access to the world was through Iran.”

Armenia sent its deputy foreign minister to Iran last week, “reinforcing” its relationship with Tehran “for the sake of maintaining peace and stability”, according to Armenian state media. Meanwhile both Georgia and Azerbaijan have held high-level meetings with Israeli, American and NATO leadership.

The Georgian media may not be talking about it, but a little hammer has begun tapping at the fragile region, and it remains very unpredictable where the first crack will appear.

Nicholas Clayton lives in Tbilisi, Georgia and is the senior editor of Kanal PIK TV’s English Service. Having studied NATO-Russian relations at Hertzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia in 20 ...read more

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