Can Georgia serve again as a bridge between the Muslim and the Christian worlds? The question was at the center of a two-day seminar held over the weekend (21-22 April) in the Georgian capital Tbilisi and attended by scholars from Georgia and France. Participants reviewed the South Caucasus state's historical role in the development of commercial and political links between Persia and Europe and also examined possible future relations between Georgia and Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.
Tbilisi, 24 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Because of its privileged geographical position and its centuries-long historical links with the ancient kingdom of Persia, the tiny South Caucasus republic of Georgia could serve as a bridge between today's Iran and Western Europe.
That was the conclusion reached by regional experts who gathered in the Georgian capital Tbilisi over the weekend for a roundtable organized by the Institute of Oriental Studies of Georgia's Academy of Sciences and France's National Center for Scientific Research, known as CNRS. The two-day seminar was called "Georgia between Iran and Europe."
Located at the crossroads of Christianity and Islam, the kingdom of Eastern Georgia -- also known as Kartli -- lived for 250 years under Persian rule after the shahs firmly established their suzerainty in the region during the second half of the 16th century. In 1801, it was annexed to the Russian Empire but remained a major transit point for goods -- and ideas -- between Persia and Europe until 1921. In that year, the Bolsheviks forcibly put an end to the three years of independence which the country had enjoyed after Russia's October Revolution.
Now, 10 years after Georgia recovered its independence in 1991, many in the country hope it can recover its historical role of what participants to the Tbilisi roundtable described as a "mediator" between the Eastern and Western worlds.
But participants also acknowledged that Georgia's cooperation with Iran today is only modest compared to the firm links it has established with neighboring Turkey, a former suzerain of its westernmost provinces.
Bernard Hourcade heads the CNRS's Iranian World department and was one of the organizers of the Tbilisi seminar. In an interview with RFE/RL, Hourcade said he regards Georgia's economic difficulties and Iran's political uncertainties as the main obstacles that have prevented the two countries from establishing broad economic and political cooperation.
"Concerning relations between Georgia and Iran, there are very few developments now, because neither of these two countries is in a position to do much. But there is certainly an interesting potential here, notably because Georgia and Iran have no dispute of any kind [between them]. And for the Iranians, Georgia could easily become a go-between that could save them the trouble of talking directly with the Turks or the Russians."
Hourcade also said that what he regards as Iran's inability to adapt quickly to the historical upheavals that have shaken the world during the past two centuries may explain the modest level of its economic and political ties with Georgia.
Nugzar Ter-Oganov, a Georgian researcher on contemporary Iran who now lives in Israel, also thinks that domestic problems have played a role in preventing Tehran from establishing mutually profitable economic links with Georgia. But Ter-Oganov told our correspondent that he sees the U.S. policy of containment of Tehran as the main obstacle to an Iranian economic breakthrough in the South Caucasus in general, and in Georgia in particular.
"The prospects for cooperation between the two countries are enormous because Georgia is a kind of a bridge, a link between the East and the West. And when the issue of the relations between Iran and the United States is solved, everything will become clear and Iran will naturally take part in large [regional] projects, because it is a country with big prospects."
Ter-Oganov was referring to international plans -- worth billions of dollars -- to pump crude oil and natural gas resources from Central Asia and Azerbaijan to Western markets. The United States opposes any project that would involve the participation of Iran, which it accuses of supporting international terrorism.
Nevertheless, Tehran is considering exporting natural gas to neighboring Armenia under a multi-million-dollar project agreed on six years ago. Completion of this gas pipeline -- tentatively scheduled for next year -- is seen as crucial in Yerevan, which remains under a Turkish economic embargo imposed after ethnic Armenian troops occupied part of Azerbaijan's territory in 1994.
French analyst Hourcade, however, sees this cooperation as the continuation of Iran's privileged relations with Armenia, not as an element of any long-term strategy in the Southern Caucasus region.
"Concerning Armenia [and Iran], I would say that it is an internal alliance. Armenia is not external to Iran. The Armenians are inside Iran, they have played an essential role in Iran's history, in Iran's society, in Iran's economy, in Iran's relations with the outside world. So everything that has to do with independent Armenia has to do directly with Iran."
While Iran gives high priority to its relations with Armenia, Turkey views Georgia as an outpost in the South Caucasus region, a region where it already has privileged relations with ethnic kin Azerbaijan. Ankara and Tbilisi have developed close military ties, which have raised concerns both in Armenia and in Russia.
Asked whether Iran could eventually "lose" Georgia to Turkey, participants in the Tbilisi roundtable expressed diverging opinions.
Ter-Oganov said he believes Iran's economic potential makes it a better contender for Georgia's favors than Turkey.
"I don't think that Turkey will take Iran's place [in Georgia] because Iran's geographical position provides a link to the countries of Southeast Asia, to China and India. Iran will not lose. In terms of natural resources and economic potential, I think that Iran has a much better chance to turn into a powerful state [than Turkey]."
But Hourcade said Iran may once again miss a historical opportunity by further delaying economic and political cooperation with Georgia.
"Iran can still fulfill the role of a regional power. But the process of political transformation there is so slow -- Iran is a complex country with a population of 60 million -- that when Iran eventually becomes a big power in 15 or 20 years, it will find itself supplanted by Turkey and other countries."
Still, Hourcade believes that Iran's economic future lies largely in its relations with Asian countries such as India and China, not with Europe. But he emphasized that should not lessen the importance of what he describes as the "Caucasian corridor" in Iran's geopolitics.