Iran gambles over Georgia's crisis
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Georgia is one of Iran's "near neighbors" and as a result of geographical
proximity and important political and geostrategic considerations, the current
Russia-Georgia conflict is closely watched by Tehran, itself under threat of
military action by the US and or Israel, which may now feel less constrained
about attacking Iran in light of Russia's war with Georgia.
So far, Tehran has not adopted an official position, limiting itself to a
telephone conference between Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his
Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, expressing Iran's desire to see a speedy
end of the conflict for the sake of "peace and stability in the region".
Tehran's dailies have likewise refrained from in-depth analyses of the crisis
and from providing
editorial perspectives, and the government-owned media have stayed clear of any
coverage that might raise Moscow's objection.
Behind Iran's official silence is a combination of factors. These range from
Iran's common cause with Moscow against expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO), interpreting this crisis as a major setback for NATO's
"eastward expansion" in light of the unabashed pro-West predilections of
Tbilisi's government, to Iran's sensitivity to Russia's national security
concerns. The latter are heightened by the US's plans to install anti-missile
systems in Eastern Europe, not to overlook Iran's concern as not to give the
Kremlin any ammunition that could be used against it in Tehran's standoff over
its nuclear program.
Representing a serious new rift in US-Russia relations, the conflict in the
Caucasus, paralyzing the UN Security Council and igniting Cold War-type
rhetoric between the two military superpowers, is simultaneously a major
distraction from the Iran nuclear crisis and may even spell doom for the
multilateralist "Iran Six" diplomacy. This involves the US, Britain, Russia,
France, China and Germany in negotiations over Iran's uranium-enrichment
program, which some believed is aimed at making nuclear weapons.
Much depends on the scope and duration of the Georgia crisis and, yet, there is
also the obverse possibility that Moscow, intent on polishing its tarnished
image - as a rogue power coercing its smaller neighbors and violating their
territorial sovereignty - may even double its efforts on other fronts to
compensate for the damage to its international standing, given the US's threat
of kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight.
As far as Iran is concerned, the Georgia crisis is not confined to South
Caucasus and has broader implications for region, including Central Asia and
the Caspian area, that are both positive and negative. That is, it is a mixed
blessing, one that is both an ominous development signaling a new level of
Russian militarism as well as a crisis of opportunity, to forge closer ties
with Russia and enhance its chance of membership in the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization, the grouping dominated by Russia and China.
Yet, the immediate gains for Iran may not exceed the net losses in the long run
and Tehran may have blundered by not forcefully criticizing Moscow's violation
of Georgia's sovereignty. Iran and Georgia have strong historical connections:
Iran was in possession of Georgia for some 400 years until the humiliating
defeats at the hands of tsarist Russia in the early 19th century, culminating
in the Russia-Iran Treaties of Gulistan in 1813 and Turkmanchai in 1828. Under
these, about a third of Iranian territory was ceded to Russia, including
Georgia and Armenia.
Then and now, Iran remains weary of Russia's imperial intentions and, more
recently, this was evident seven years ago when in the aftermath of a failed
summit on the division of Caspian Sea, the then-president Vladimir Putin
ordered a massive naval maneuver in the Caspian Sea as a stern message to Iran.
Should Putin, now premier, succeed with his "splendid little war" in South
Caucasus, Russia's neighbors to the east must expect to see more samples of
Russian power projection, again a prospect that simultaneously entices and yet
terrifies Iran and is bound to have contradictory policy ramifications for
Thus, on the one hand, no matter how cordial present Iran-Russia relations may
be, the big neighbor's power and increasing militarism impacts Iran's national
security calculus and may strengthen the arguments of those who are in favor of
a nuclear defense strategy.
On the other hand, there is no doubt Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's
statement that the world "can forget about Georgia's territorial integrity" is
unacceptable to Tehran, which has recently submitted a package of proposals
focusing on international cooperation.
Russia's exercise of power is substantively the same as the US's illegal
post-September 11, 2001, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and, naturally, Iran
cannot adopt one set of standards for one and another for the other,
irrespective of Moscow's legitimate grievances about the US's and NATO's
intentions and actions around it.
Rather, Tehran must demonstrate consistency with its own foreign policy
criteria, otherwise its international prestige and regional standing will
suffer, no matter how the Kremlin may be displeased with a bold, yet
principled, Iranian stance on this neighboring crisis.
What is more, whereas Iran during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami offered to
play a mediating role in the Chechen crisis, today there is a conspicuous
absence of any similar gesture on Tehran's part. This is unfortunate since Iran
can indeed play an effective role in "third-party" mediation.
Mediation in international conflicts requires skilled negotiation and
facilitation of dialogue between the hostile parties and, in this case, Iran
could take advantage of its impartiality and proximity to the warring sides to
act as a successful mediator, perhaps in tandem with other actors, such as the
UN and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), in light
of past Iran-OSCE collaboration with respect to the civil war in Tajikistan and
the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over the disputed territory of
Instead of adopting such proactive steps, Tehran has settled for a quiet
diplomacy, as a passive bystander, thus causing an attrition of its image as a
regional player, which it can remedy by a timely intervention as a mediator in
line with its own foreign policy principles and standards.
Russia's action against Georgia violates the UN charter and causes collateral
damage on the integrity and security of the sovereign rights of Russia's other
neighbors, including Iran, which a mere half a century ago was threatened by
partition when the Soviet red army refused to leave northern Iran at the end of
World War II.
Clearly, as with the collapse of the Doha rounds of negotiations on world
trade, the crisis in South Caucasus reflects a serious erosion of international
law and growing anarchy in international affairs, a sliding back toward the
Cold War bifurcations and the renewal of the big power sphere of influence
politics, albeit rationalized as Russia's own "Monroe doctrine", precisely when
such bifurcations and seemingly defunct doctrines and cliches appear a relic of
a bygone era.
The new post-Cold War era still remains a largely unfulfilled premise, or
rather promise on the part of the big powers, which need to give up their
propensity to use hard power to pursue their imperial intentions. But, old
habits die hard and the US's NATO-led intervention in Russia's backyard has
elicited in essence today's Russia's military gambit inside Georgian territory.
This is a sobering lesson of how that premise still remains simply a potential,
a wishful dream.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his
Wikipedia entry, click here.