Regional Politics

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.

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20 Responses to Regional Politics

  1. Charlotte says:

    To illustrate the ties between Georgia and Iran, an Iranian consulate opened in Batumi last week…two doors down from the cafe where a lot of the TLG volunteers go.

  2. loe says:

    That’s what Ge’s deputy foreign minister said on Georgia-Iran visa-free agreement- “Georgia and the US are strategic partners. During relations with any third country, first of all the strategic partnership is considered, moreover when it comes to the US, it is no secret that we greatly depend on the support of the US, and skepticism that we are putting our strategic partnership in doubt is completely baseless.”….. So, I guess the statement speaks for itself. This type of counterbalance policy could be good for Georgia at some point, as it reduces risks of georgia getting totally crushed in case of some major clash between two powers, and from economic point of view, as you mentioned, it seems to be quite beneficial. But I still think it’s a troublesome path and requires very smart planning and spoton decisions to avoid mischievous results, but one should start questioning Ge government’s capabilities when it comes to strategic planning.
    On the other hand, I sometimes believe it simply to be an attempt to take revenge on US reset policy, which I think is nothing but a naive miscalculation that is based on wishes under condition of the total ignore of realpolitik, that is the ultimate determiner of kremlin policy, imo. Anyway, let’s see what outcome we get, still early to judge. Interesting post by the way.

  3. Mark says:

    It was hard for me to stomach the author’s decidedly pro-Iranian bias in his analysis of “regional politics”. I can’t help noting the glaring ideological inconsistency with previous posts i.e. discussions regarding women’s rights, religious tolerance, etc.

    While it would certainly be disingenuous to ignore the US and Europe’s significant policy blunders regarding Iran it’s unconscionable to overlook the fact that the Iranian government is a semi-theocracy that considers stoning a woman for adultery just, does not have truly free and democratic elections, and is hell bent on developing weapons of mass destruction.

    These observations are not the product of US based right wing media hype – they’re widely acknowledged facts that are regularly reported in the international media and documented by the UN and assorted human rights groups like Amnesty International.

    If any country deserves to be isolated from the world community it most certainly is Iran and anyone who thinks otherwise is either naïve or just plain foolish!

    • loe says:

      So you’re saying the reason US contradicts Iran is the latter being fundamentalist islamic state that violates human rights. Okay. What about US relations with Saudi Arabia then?

    • panoptical says:

      Mark,

      As you have aptly observed, I do not give Iran (or Georgia) a pass on issues like women’s rights.

      However, I am a student of political science. I have studied history, international relations, and comparative politics in the Middle East and elsewhere. This gives me a perspective on these issues that goes beyond the McCain “bomb Iran” platform.

      As I pointed out in my post, the greatest incentive for many countries to make advancements in human rights issues is the opportunity to join the world community, to trade freely, and to share in the economic prosperity that comes from such connections. One thing I did not mention is that countries that are isolated from the world community tend to fall back on conservatism and other policies associated with isolationist, anti-Western platforms. That’s why countries that are connected to the West, like Turkey and Georgia, have made significant advances in human rights issues in the last two or three decades, whereas countries that have been isolated from the West – like Iraq and North Korea, for example – have made significant backwards progress in human rights issues in the same period of time. For example, you may not have known, but Saddam Hussein actually came under fire in the late 1970s from other Arab nations for giving women political rights that they did not have in other Arab or Islamic nations. Since his break from the West, however, he made significant negative progress on human rights issues.

      In Iran, there is a robust women’s movement, and a robust democratic movement. As we saw in the last elections, there were mass protests against perceived irregularities in the elections and there was a great deal of new media usage and contact with the west from Iranian dissident groups. However, as long as the West engages in a policy designed to undermine or destroy the Iranian state, we are also undermining any liberal progress that might be made in the country.

      Basically, no Iranian dissident group will ever take hold as long as the current Iranian regime can point at the US and say “if we show the least hint of weakness, the Great Satan will invade us.” The US has overthrown the legitimately elected governments of not only Iran, but two of Iran’s neighbors. Just like American right-wingers gain power from trotting out 9/11 and terrorist threats, Iranian officials gain power from pointing out how much of a credible threat America poses to Iran. In other words, as long as we are threatening to take over their country, social issues – like fair elections, and women’s rights – will always be on the back burner.

      If Americans really cared about the human rights – women’s rights and civil rights – of Iranian citizens, we would be trying to draw them closer to the West, rather than isolate them. You look at Iran and see evil that needs to be punished. That point of view is obsolete and counterproductive. We need to engage Iran and remove, rather than reinforce, their reasons for being different from the West.

      Any by the way, the US itself is not above critique for those human rights abuses you mentioned. The US has consistently refused to allow UN officials access to elections, which means that no independent organization monitors US elections, even those that are suspect, like both Bush elections. The US not only has, but is the only country that has used weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets. And although the US does not allow stoning women for adultery, the US also did not pass the ERA, which would have made women equal to men under the law, which means that in current US law women are, by law, not entitled to the same protections that men are. Countries in the EU, not to mention countries like Georgia, have laws preventing discrimination against women, gays, etc. The United States does not. Finally, the US does not follow the Geneva Conventions or allow the International Court of Justice jurisdiction over Americans, which means that war criminals like George W. Bush and the soldiers who perpetrated illegal imprisonment and torture of noncombatants in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and other places are allowed to walk just as free as the Iranians who stone women.

      The fact that the US openly and publicly overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran – a move that paved the way for Islamic fundamentalists to take power – is not a “policy blunder.” It is a violation of human rights and international law. The country that truly should be isolated from world politics is the most destructive country in history – the only country to ever actually use WMDS – the only country to overthrow three to five democratically elected governments every decade for the last sixty years – the only country to successfully and continuously exempt itself from international standards regarding torture, war crimes, and human rights – is a country called the United States of America by some, and, more appropriately, the Great Satan by others.

      • Mark says:

        Panoptical –

        I’m ashamed of the inconsistencies that abound in American foreign policy – I’ve literally shed tears – but I draw the line at supporting a government like Iran’s and am deeply offended by the label “The Great Satan” which you apparently relish and for whatever reason identify with.

        While there is much to be ashamed about in our nation’s history, including, but not exclusively, our countries foreign policy, I can in no way support the Iranian government!

        Regarding Truman’s decision to drop the bomb – and make the US “the most destructive country in history – the only country to ever actually use WMDS” – you need to study history – because in doing so perhaps you might understand that life is full of complex and difficult choices – with no pat answers – especially along simplistic ideological lines (Why do you think FOX is evil?) When was the last time you chose to abort a baby? – Or fired a weapon at the man who abused you? (Or any other morally ambiguous but significant analogies I could describe)?

        Do you honestly think that bringing (and I hate to use this word – all I can think of is that idiot Sarah Palin) rogue states like Iran into the fold is the best way to see advances in human rights? It’s just mollycoddling!

        • panoptical says:

          I’m not supporting Iran’s government. Ahmadinejad gets on TV and calls Jews cockroaches who need to be wiped off the face of the earth, so obviously he’s a nut. However, the Iranian people are not the Iranian government. There are backwards, regressive, violent Iranians, and liberal, progressive Iranians. When we support economic sanctions and call Iran “evil” we’re feeding the regressive, violent Iranians and giving the Iranian regime all the excuse it needs to rig elections and abuse its power. Instead, we should be supporting the liberal, progressive Iranians and promoting trade, commerce, and communication with Iran so that the Iranian people can see the benefits of living in a society with protections for women and minorities and so maybe the results of the next election will be too overwhelming to be rigged.

          Also, calling Iran a “rogue state” is already buying into US right-wing propaganda. Again, the US CIA supported a coup against a democratically elected Iranian government – something that no Muslim or Islamist group or nation has ever done to the United States. The US backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran’s sovereign territory and supplied Hussein with chemical and biological weapons to advance his cause – something that no Muslim or Islamist government has ever done to the United States. If there is any country in the world that deserves the status of “rogue state” is is the US, a country that, again, constantly refuses to pay its UN dues, constantly refuses to submit to International Criminal Court jurisdictions, and constantly reneges on its obligations towards prisoners under the globally-agreed to Geneva Conventions. The only reason the US gets away with its constant abuse of the world environment, economy, political situation, and human rights record is that the US has the biggest army and the US populous has no desire to hold the US government accountable for its numerous unconscionable crimes.

        • Mark says:

          Panoptical –

          If you want my liberal credentials – just email me – they’re solid and unimpeachable. Let me make it abundantly clear – I am no supporter of Bush’s war on Iraq!

          The message I’m trying to communicate is that you’re committing the same type of partisan error by grouping me (and the views I expressed re. Iran) with the unthinking portion of America that you are so strongly reacting to.

          I was thinking about an old song (not that old … I was in High school when it was getting airplay ) came to mind. And yes, Panoptical, it comes from an artist most closely identified with fly-over country (I’ll selectively choose to ignore your previous identified bias) – but none the less resonates…

          Note: I tried to find links to a performance but couldn’t post without violating copyright laws – so at least here are the lyrics:

          I’ve seen the Rolling Stones
          Forgot about Johnny Rotten
          Saw the Who back in ’69
          Saw Bobby Seal
          Talkin’ to the Panthers
          Sayin’ just what he had on his mind
          I saw Marlon Brando
          On a motorcycle
          He was actin’ out rebellion
          I saw Rocky Stallone
          In an X-rated movie
          Called the Italian Stallion
          I’ve seen lots of things
          But I have not seen a lot of other things

          CHORUS
          (But I know)
          You’ve got to stand for something
          Or you’re gonna fall for anything
          You’ve gotta stand right up for somethin’
          Or you’re gonna fall….for anything
          I saw Nikita Krushchev
          Kissin’ Fidel Castro
          Saw a man walkin’ on the moon
          I saw Miss America
          In a girly magazine
          I bet you saw that too
          I’ve seen the London Bridge
          In the middle of a desert
          Seen 33 years go by
          I know the American people
          Paid a high price for justice
          And I don’t know why
          Nobody seems to know why
          I know a lot of things
          But I don’t know a lot of other things…Yeah Yeah Yeah

          CHORUS

          Well I’ve been to Harlem County
          And I’ve seen Paris, Texas
          And I’ve spent some time in Rome
          I know a lot of funny people
          In a lot of funny places
          But the Midwest is my home
          We’ve got to start respectin’ this world
          Or it’s gonna turn around and bite off our face

          CHORUS
          Repeat

          (John Mellencam – Scarecrow – 198?)

  4. pasumonok says:

    I agree that U.S. is not as supportive of human’s rights as EU is. But I don’t think that it matters when one compares “the west” to Iran, or even Georgia.
    I see a bit of Messianism in the comments: we need to stop cold war in Iran, we don’t support Iran’s government, etc. But why should you support or not support Iran’s government, as a country? What does average American know about Iran? Why should it be a matter of concern for U.S. (O.K. I acknowledge the threat, but it’s not like Iran woke up one day and began hating Americans out of boredom)?
    Consider this: U.S. is probably 9 on 1-10 individualism scale. It values individualism and privacy. It has all kinds of laws and cultural agreements that protect individualism. It is rude and immoral to judge anybody based on appearance, religion, gender , etc. Yet, when it comes to foreign policy U.S. becomes like that annoying neighbor that complains to the homeowner association about your un-mowed grass. Countries on the other side of the world get judged for what they do and the judgement is based on western values, not shared by those countries.
    It’s like that guy in Avatar, the proverbial white man who came and saved the natives. Why couldn’t natives save themselves?

  5. allentl says:

    Panoptical’s point of view on Iranian politics is spot on. Twenty years of hard-edged politics has resulted in the maintenance of the current Iranian regime just as sixty years of hard-edged politics has resulted in Castro still running Cuba. Three Fs almost always go together: Fear, Fascism and Fundamentalism. Without fear its hard to justify the other two. No people wants to have its liberties taken away, but we’ll all jump at the chance the moment we’re convinced we’re under threat: 911 and the Center for Homeland Security is a case in point.

    As a side note, the invasions of Iraq and Afganistan have demonstrated to Iran the absolute necessity of obtaining nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. Its perfectly rational to want nukes if they are the only thing capable of preventing the invasion of your country!

  6. Amra says:

    “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.”

    Some commentators are doing a bad job. Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not seceede for economic reasons, and suggesting that they would come back to Georgia is if the economic situation in Georgia changes is absurd. For Abkhazians, secession was the culmination of decades old dream of an independent Abkhazian state. After two wars, sacrificing 4% of their population in the war of independence (1992-1993), and nearly a decade long blockade and international isolation, not one person in Abkhazia is interested in joining Georgia under any circumstances. Abkhazians declared their independence from Georgia in 1999 and never looked back. Suggesting they should rejoin it would be the same as asking Americans 10 years after 1776 if they want to rejoin British Empire. It simply cannot happen.

    Amra, Sukhum

  7. loe says:

    Excuse me, Amra, could you please remind me people of which nationality were the majority of population in Abkhazia before the war? What A lovely solution. Seeking for independence? Expel locals who oppose, put up some ridiculous referendum, and there you got it – congratulations. Independence my ass. Based on what? A welcoming hand for Russian ‘liberators’? “not one person in Abkhazia is interested in joining Georgia under any circumstances.” And who cares? If you had some guts and relatively some conscience you would let those displaced Georgians return to THEIR houses and let them participate in – referendum – on whether they also want THEIR (too) piece of land to segregate from Georgia.

  8. Amra says:

    Georgians were the minority in Abkhazia at 45,7% of population. Abkhazian independence is not only the Abkhazian project. In the 1989 declaration at Lykhny all minorites in Abkhazia (except Georgians/Megrelians) voted for independence. Armenian Bagramyan battalion also fought in the war on Abkhazian side, as you may know. Georgians can return, but only those who did not raise arms against us in 1992-1993. Also, we know Russia is not our best friend, but unfortunately it is the only friend, thanks to Saakashvili’s and West’s policy of isolation and “non recognition.”

    Thank you.

    Amra,
    Sukhum

    • loe says:

      That’s the whole point, Amra. It surely was not an Abkhazian project and did no good for anyone. We all perfectly know who’s been aggravating the conflict and who stood behind the scene, do not we? I won’t go in details, I’m done with attempts of proving things, facts lost meaning in this narrow ethnic sensitive discussions long ago.
      Inviting georgians back? Have to express my gratitude, but it certainly is not up to Abkhazians now, and never was. As far as I know ‘the only friend’ of yours likes ‘giving advices’ at times.

  9. geoskeptic says:

    “Georgians were the minority in Abkhazia at 45,7% of population.”
    This is something new 🙂 let me guess.. source: russian state tv?

    “Armenian Bagramyan battalion also fought in the war on Abkhazian side, as you may know.”
    Yeah. They’re well known for their atrocities.

    Btw, how about deporting those abkhazians who used violence against georgians first? Stupid, right? So was your “argument”. 🙂

  10. geoskeptic says:

    Neal, you’ve (probably inadvertently) touched a subject which is even more (is possible) sensitive to Georgians than gender and sex : D
    Congratulations, seems like you’re read even by our brothers and sisters in Abkhazia.

    As for the future of Abkhazia and Georgia – those people are just NOT ready to talk yet. There’s too much animosity and too much freshly shed blood. Pluss both abkhazians and georgians are unfortunately too brainwashed, nationalistic and stubborn, pardon me – often too ignorant too (dear abkhazians, take this as self-criticism, I’ve some portions of abkhazian blood too in my veins after all) to be able to sit down and talk in a calm manner over those issues. Not talking about making any political decisions which would bring those two people together again. This is NOT happening in the nearest future. I’ve been laughed at and called a coward and etc by the largest georgian internet community when I supported some group of people who proposed a formal apology to abkhazian people for the war crimes committed by the georgian side was it done by formal army units or just uncontrolled bandits. I was once again ridiculed when I suggested that signing a non-aggression pact with abkhazian side would be a constructive and positive measure….

    The fears of most abkhazians that georgians would resort to violence once returned to abkhazia is not completely unfounded either.

    On the other side most of the abkhazians I’ve talked to are ignorant to the fact that there were numerous atrocities committed by abkhazian rebels and they’re not recognizing the fact that over 200.000 people were expelled from their homeland prior to the ridiculous and meaningless “referendum”.

    What we need here is to forget the key issues which are the fundamental differencies between the two parts – such as the status of abkhazian state, return of displaced persons, who shot first, who committed crimes and when and just let people talk to each other, have some kind of non-violent contact. let them see that there are no monsters and cannibals on either side. that we’re not so different after all. People need contact, ties and friendship. There can be no talk of any kind of future whether in the same state or as good neighbours until the basic contact is reached. We’ve been unable to achieve even that much 🙂 such a failure of Georgian and Abkhazian nations.

  11. Pegi says:

    When it comes to two great empires existing at the same time I want to say that they can’t live in peace, they can’t coexist. One is regarded as a creator of bloody regime (Nowadays Russia) and other represents a defender of human rights and democratic features (USA). But in fact, both of them try to invade other small countries directly or indirectly, by means of different tools of invasion. Russia always frankly declares what it really needs, it tries to achieve its goals by occupying areas of another country, it prefers military occupation to ideological invasion what Americans have been making since 2003 in Georgia (they began from setting up their own government in Georgia).The truth is that ideological invasion of another country is much more effective although it takes much time. This is a huge flaw to control internal and external affairs of another country. Ideological invasion is like an incurable disease. It takes after metastasis which spreads to distant locations in the body. I don’t accuse USA of invading Georgia; Americans always take care of their country’s glory. it’s up to our government which turned its own people into beggars. Georgia is a country which doesn’t produce anything for exporting its own production abroad in order to make some profit, on the contrary almost all national business initiatives are destructed. The government prevents on purpose national private sector from developing. The Georgian government makes us depend on different foreign funds as poor Africans.

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