Accessibility links

Georgia Walks A Line Between Washington And Tehran

  • Ghia Nodia

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigory Vashadze (right) welcomes his Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki to Tbilisi on November 3.

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigory Vashadze (right) welcomes his Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki to Tbilisi on November 3.

Is it possible to have good relations with both Iran and the United States? This question came to the fore when Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki visited Tbilisi earlier this month.

To begin, we should define specifically what we mean by "good relations" in the Iranian case. During Mottaki's visit, the two countries signed an agreement on visa-free travel and on the opening of an Iranian Consulate in Batumi. Just before the visit, direct flights between Tbilisi and Tehran were resumed. Both sides uttered general platitudes about supporting economic cooperation and tourism.

In the most generous interpretation, Georgia is only just approaching the level of relations that Iran already enjoys with their common neighbors -- Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

But since Georgia is viewed as a particularly close partner of the United States, these developments attracted intense attention.

And, of course, Georgia's leaders know this. That is why they are constantly emphasizing that the activization of Georgian-Iranian contacts has no influence on the country's strategic orientation. In private conversations, officials confirm that no steps are undertaken in relations with Iran without consulting the leading Western governments, all of which view Tbilisi's efforts to improve relations within its neighborhood with sympathy.

But the question remains: why would the Georgian leadership take steps that have the potential to cause problems in its relations with its main allies? I've heard two conspiracy theories to answer this question. According to the first, Washington is encouraging Tbilisi to improve ties with Tehran in order to acquire an additional channel of communication with Iran. According to the second theory, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is blackmailing U.S. President Barack Obama into paying more attention to Georgia. "If he doesn't want to meet with me," the argument goes, "I'll meet with Mahmud Ahmadinejad."

It is always hard to argue with conspiracy theories, but Georgia does have some completely rational reasons of its own for wanting better relations with Iran. The August 2008 war taught Tbilisi two major lessons. First, the political support of the West is absolutely essential for Georgia because without it, the country's chances of maintaining its sovereignty in the face of Moscow's aggressive policies are nearly zero. Second, it is dangerous if Georgia's foreign policy is exclusively oriented toward securing Western support since neither the United States nor the European Union is prepared to guarantee the level of support that Georgia needs for peaceful, independent development. Particularly since both the United States and the EU have improved relations with Russia among their top priorities.

In short, it isn't wise to put all your eggs in one basket. Georgia's strategic orientation toward the West does not exclude conflicts of interest on specific questions. Grown-ups understand these things.

Close, But Not Too Close

It is important for Georgia to strengthen its position on the regional level. Whether the Americans and the Europeans like it or not, relations between Russia and Georgia at present have taken the form of a zero-sum game: any weakness on Georgia's part becomes a means for Moscow (which has not given up the hope of "regime change") to exert pressure on Tbilisi. At least, that's how Georgia's leaders see the situation.

Against this background, tensions in relations with any neighboring country takes on another level of risk. Having bad relations with one's neighbors is bad in itself, of course. But a motivated opponent like Russia can always exploit any weakness against Georgia. That is why Georgia has sharply intensified efforts to strengthen its position in the region since the 2008 conflict, including improved relations with countries that have bad relations with the West -- Belarus and Iran.

Georgia's leaders have to pursue two goals simultaneously. First, they must convince the West that Tbilisi remains a reliable, responsible, and predictable ally. And it must do this by demonstrating an orientation toward democratic values domestically and by coordinating its foreign-policy actions with the leading Western countries.

On the other hand, Georgia must foster good relations with all of the more or less influential countries of the region (and not only with them). Georgia cannot allow itself to become isolated in the a region where -- particularly after the change of regime in Ukraine and the appearance of new foreign-policy tendencies in Turkey -- pro-Western governments are becoming fewer. In order to do this, Georgia must demonstrate that it is not a puppet of Washington, Brussels, or anyone else, and is capable of independent action.

Serious politicians understand all this, which is why it is unlikely that the warming of Georgia's relations with Iran will lead to a cooling of relations with the United States or Europe. The real danger is that politicians who are already bothered by Georgia's policies and problems or who understand them poorly will be handed another bone to chew. But there is nothing that can be done about that -- one reason that we have diplomats and politicians is to deal with such matters.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Show comments