Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze (R) and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a joint press conference following their meeting in Tbilisi on April 18, 2017
There are two balancing forces in the South Caucasus region. The Russian Federation serves as the external balancing force of the region, and the Republic of Georgia plays the role of internal balancing force in the South Caucasus. The Russian Federation relying on its traditional influence in terms of culture and language in the South Caucasus region, the establishment of military bases, arms sales, on establishing and strengthening Russian-oriented regional organizations, such as the CIS community, the Collective Security Treaty and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as well as on economic contracts and relations, has always sought to maintain the balance of power in the South Caucasus, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan - the most recent example is Russia’s new arms policy toward both countries.
But the balancing role and position of the Republic of Georgia in the equations of the South Caucasus have received less attention, while this country has special and remarkable features. Georgia has close ties with both countries - Armenia and Azerbaijan - in various areas. In the economic and transit fields, Georgia serves as a linking bridge between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Black Sea, East Europe and the open seas. Due to the fact that Armenia got out of the situation of closing eastern (Azerbaijan) and western (Turkey) borders, and that this country is connected by ground and rail to the Black Sea coast and the borders of the Russian Federation (the Armenian strategic partner), this capacity is of strategic importance for Yerevan. The same situation holds true for Azerbaijan. Georgia is the linking bridge between the port of Baku in the Caspian Sea and the port of Batumi, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, on the Black Sea coast; therefore, it plays an important role in the east-west transit route from Central Asia to the Caucasus and Europe. Georgia also hosts a significant population of Azerbaijanis, especially in the historical region of Borchali, and the Armenian population in Tbilisi, Abkhazia and especially in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, and in this respect, it has ethnic and cultural ties with Azerbaijan and Armenia. The fact that Azeri Borchali and Armenian settled areas are located in the vicinity of the borders of Azerbaijan and Armenia has contributed to the importance of these areas, in particular for the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. That multiple energy transfer lines, such as the Baku -Supsa pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi -Ceyhan pipeline pass through Javakheti region is also considered other aspects of the strategic importance of Georgia in the equations of the South Caucasus region.
It is based on such a capacity that relations between Iran and the Republic of Georgia are not only bilateral, and they affect the totality of Iran’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus region. Georgia as the internal balancing force in the South Caucasus will help further balance the Iranian foreign policy in this region. In other words, defining a balanced approach between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan would not be possible without considering the role and position of Georgia. On the one hand, Iran has diplomatic relations with the three South Caucasus republics, and, on the other hand, Georgia has also close diplomatic relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This allows defining multilateral mechanisms between Iran -Armenia -Georgia and Iran -Azerbaijan -Georgia that, unfortunately, has not been so far used properly.
With the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president in 2013, Konstantine Surguladze, the State Minister of Georgia for Diaspora Issues, took part, on behalf of the Republic of Georgia, in Rouhani’s inauguration in August 2013 - a far lower- level official compared to the levels of officials taking part from other countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus region (President, Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament). During the past four years, diplomatic relations between Iran and Georgia, despite visits of different delegations and resuming the abolition of visa regime between the two countries, were not at a high level. Hassan Rouhani met Irakli Garibashvili, the Prime Minister of Georgia, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2014, and Eshaq Jahangiri, Vice President, met Giorgi Margvelashvili, President of Georgia, on the sidelines of meeting for Turkmenistan’s policy of neutrality in November 2016, but no meeting between the Presidents and Prime Minister and the Vice President of Iran took place in Tehran and/or Tbilisi.
At the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the Iranian Foreign Minister did not visit Tbilisi, though Mikheil Janelidze met Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign ministers of Georgia and Iran on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February 2016, and Janelidze visited Tehran to attend the memorial ceremony of the late Hashemi Rafsanjani in January 2017. In general, numerous delegations from both sides have met each other in the past three years, but none of the senior Iranian officials have so far visited Tbilisi. This shows a significant drop in the level of diplomatic relations between Iran and Georgia compared to the previous periods. With this background, the recent visit of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, to Tbilisi, considered his first visit to Georgia as the foreign minister, is very important in the sense that it could provide the ground for the leaders of the two countries to meet after many years, especially that it was followed by Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s, Prime Minister of Georgia, visit to Tehran.
In recent years, different delegations from the two countries have met, but the importance of the meeting of senior officials of Iran and Georgia, especially at the level of President, Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament and foreign minister, reflects the political will of the leaders of the two countries at the highest political level which can further improve and expand relations between the two countries, and accelerate the process of cooperation between the executive agencies of the two countries. Undoubtedly, the volume of economic/trade relations between Iran and Georgia ($200 million) is not proportionate with the facts and the economic and trade capacities of the two countries. Iran with a population of 80 million and with the access to the open sea through the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea, and Georgia, as a developing country along the Black Sea coast, especially with the best global indicators on the fight against corruption, rent-seeking and creating economic transparency, have an excellent ground for the development of economic and trade relations.
The fact that Iran is in the proper conditions of economic diplomacy after the nuclear deal (the JCPOA), that the abolition of visas for citizens of the two countries provided a very good ground for the development of tourism industry between citizens of the two countries, especially with regard to the presence of thousands of Georgians in Fereydunshahr, Isfahan, and other regions of Iran, considering the capacities and capabilities of Iranian companies in the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants, and also the construction of refineries and port facilities in the port of Batumi, Georgia, the development of Iran-Georgia transit cooperation within the framework of North-South Corridor which connects Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf to the port of Batumi in the Black Sea, synchronizing the electricity network for Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Iran since 2018, and the export of Iranian natural gas to Georgia through Armenia are all considered among the proper fields and capacities for cooperation between Iran and Georgia in the economic and commercial fields. The realization of these objectives requires a new planning and policy-making followed by the leaders and officials of both countries to let Iran and Georgia create new space and conditions for mutual cooperation.
Vali Kaleji, an expert at Iran's Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.
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