I read an interesting article in The Economist this morning about Georgia’s position in international politics. I’ve talked before about America’s reasons for being interested in Georgia, but I mostly ignored Iran, so I’d like to revisit that topic and then move on to what I think about the whole situation.
Georgia is basically sitting between Russia and Iran. The US was engaged in a cold war with Russia for a large part of the previous century, and although relations have thawed somewhat, Russia is still, at the very least, a strategic competitor in the region. American presence in Georgia thus serves as a regional counterweight to Russian influence.
The US is also engaged in a sort of cold war with Iran. The US does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons or become a greater power in the region. The reasons for this are numerous – from Iran’s enmity with US ally Israel, to Iran’s potential interference with US acquisition of fossil fuels and other raw materials in the area, to US fear of Iran’s backing Islamist anti-US terrorist cells. Since Iran is not Georgia’s direct neighbor (rather, it’s just across Armenia and Azerbaijan) my initial focus was merely on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline which allows the West to get oil out of Asia without going through Iran. However, I’d like to talk a little bit now about trade and the war of ideas and how Georgia fits in there.
The US and Iran have a troubled history. The CIA backed a coup against a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953, which was the beginning of the end for Iran-US relations. Since the US-installed regime was thrown out thirty years ago, Iran has hated and feared the US, with good reason. The US was never interested in the well-being of the Iranian people and has consistently used its power and influence in the region to the detriment of the people who live there. The invasion of Iran by a US-backed Iraq in 1980 didn’t help matters, nor did the sale of chemical and biological weapons to Iraq by the US throughout the 1980s. Now the US wants to ice Iran out of regional and global trade by pushing UN sanctions using the excuse of Iran’s nuclear program. And then there’s the fact that the US military now occupies two of Iran’s neighbors – Iraq and Afghanistan – and then there’s the “bomb Iran” and “Axis of Evil” rhetoric coming from the political right in the US. Let’s just say that of the numerous countries that are fully justified in hating and fearing the US, Iran is certainly at or near the top of the list.
However, now that the neocons are out of power in America, and Obama has attempted to steer towards a slightly more rational approach to diplomacy, and economic woes are topping foreign policy concerns, the anti-Iran rhetoric has dimmed slightly in the US. As the Economist points out, Obama is also moving to improve US-Russia relations. Both of these mean that the US has focused less on Georgia. Georgia also needed a new approach to diplomacy in the wake of the 2008 war with Russia, which was a colossal failure from the Georgian standpoint.
Some commentators have suggested that Georgia’s current strategy is to try to improve the quality of life in Georgia so much that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be enticed to come back to Georgia under their own free will. If this is the case, Georgia is doing a reasonably good job. Georgia has attempted to generate economic growth through trade, which in turn relies on a strategy of market liberalization and the strengthening of ties with both its southern neighbors and with the global West. Currently, from what I see in the country, Georgia’s import products come mostly from Turkey, Russia, the Ukraine, and Germany, with a few Iranian products like the hilariously named Barf laundry detergent.
The Economist mentions Turkey’s strategy of befriending both the Middle East and the West, but ironically they leave out the more important Turkish strategy that Georgia is emulating – the Turkish AKP (Justice and Development Party) platform of joining the EU and the European regional trade associations and the corresponding market reforms that boosted the Turkish economy in the earlier part of this decade. Despite being, at heart, an Islamist party, the AKP saw unprecedented success in Turkish elections due to their success at improving Turkish economic and trade conditions.
Georgia is basically doing the same stuff. Georgia has asked to join the EU and implemented market reforms to stimulate the economy. Georgia is also, as the Economist points out, trading more strongly with Iran. These policies are good for Georgia for many reasons. One, the more Georgia trades with other countries, the more incentive those countries will have to promote stability in Georgia. Two, the more Georgia trades with other countries, the more economic growth Georgia will see. Three, if the EU takes Georgia’s bid to join seriously, they will probably insist on a diplomatic solution to the Abkhazia/South Ossetia situation which means they may decide to put some real pressure on Russia to withdraw its forces. Four, if given a choice to either join the EU and share in Georgia’s prosperity, or live with a constant Russian military presence, the people of the breakaway regions might reconsider their desire for independence from Georgia. Five, in order to join the EU, Georgia will have to assuage fears of human rights violations and restrictions on freedom of speech and political activism. Some critics of the current administration accuse them of wrongdoing when it comes to dealing with political dissidents, and if the charges are true, then coming closer to the EU will have the side effect of steering Georgia away from those kinds of policies.
In addition, these policies may also be good for world diplomacy as a whole. The more conduits there are for the free exchange of ideas and goods between Europe and the Middle East, the more stable the entire region will become. Georgia could be a place where Americans, like the TLG teachers, could meet and talk to Iranians who come for business or vacation. I personally know several TLG volunteers who would like to go to Iran and are looking into the complicated political situation, but friendship between Iran and Georgia might make that process easier. Direct flights from Tbilisi to Tehran and Georgia-Iran visa deals could bring Iranians to a Georgia that is rapidly Westernizing and newly full of American teachers and other English speakers. I doubt Iran will trust America any time soon, but perhaps Americans could learn a little more about a country about which they are woefully ignorant and constantly misled by the media.
Of course no one knows how America will react to a Georgia that is strengthening ties with its neighbors – including Iran – but with Obama in office and the current toned-down rhetoric and the fact that most Americans barely know Georgia exists, perhaps Georgia’s role in regional politics will not raise too many eyebrows in America.
Finally, the more mutual friends that the EU and Iran have, the less inclined the EU and other UN powers will be to follow America’s lead in sanctioning and isolating Iran.