Embrace of Iranian Overtures Undermines Georgia’s Counter-Terrorism and NATO Integration Efforts

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 65

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) meets with his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Janelidze, in Tbilisi, April 18

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili recently visited the United States. And the main tangible result of his delegation’s meetings with US President Donald J. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the signing of the General Security of Information Agreement (GSOIA), on May 9 (Civil Georgia, May 9). The GSOIA creates a legal basis for mutual sharing of intelligence between Georgia and the US. Specifically, it is supposed to “strengthen counterterrorism cooperation” between the two countries, as the Department of State elaborated (State.gov, May 9).

The initiation of the GSOIA was prompted by an understood need to boost bilateral cooperation on counter-terrorism intelligence gathering in the country and the region. And in some ways it has confirmed the weak counter-terrorism efforts in Georgia to date, despite the threats the country faces (see EDM, March 29). Moreover, this weighty agreement—along with other measures envisioned by the two sides to further “transform [Georgia’s] military and pave the way for future security agreements between the United States and Georgia” (State.gov, May 9)—appears to stand in blunt contrast with Georgia’s attempts to simultaneously buttress its ties with the most prolific state exporter of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond: the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In recent months, Georgia and Iran have exchanged numerous official delegations at a rapid pace (see EDM, March 29). On April 18, the largest to date state delegation, headed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, arrived in Georgia for a two-day visit, during which about 100 participants attended the Georgian-Iranian Business Forum in Tbilisi (Radiotavisupleba.ge, April 18). Zarif and his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Janelidze, as well as Prime Minister Kvirikashvili discussed tourism, trade and economic cooperation, placing emphasis on the railroad “corridor between the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf.” Azerbaijan and Iran recently concluded a necessary railway link connecting the two countries as part of this broader transit corridor project (see EDM, April 24).

Janelidze was quick to insinuate that Iran is primarily interested in obtaining access to the European Union market, which has become more accessible to Georgia in light of visa liberalization achieved with the EU this year. Given the unabashed interest of leading European countries such as Germany and France to swiftly expand their capital markets in Iran (Parstoday.com, March 1), this intent by Tehran does not come unexpected. However, it is at least as obvious that, as Zarif pointed out, “the low price of transportation gives us a good opportunity to include Iran, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia” in new multilevel interregional cooperation initiatives (Imedinews.ge, April 20). The ultimate goal of this endeavor—to link Iran with Russia by way of increasing its soft power in Georgia—was made explicit once again during President Hassan Rouhani’s recent meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow (TASS, March 28).

The Islamic Republic certainly does not pass up on chances to carve out a deeper area of influence in Georgia. The Tehran Times reported that, during his talks with Kvirikashvili, Zarif “[urged] Georgia to recommit [its] respect for Iranian tourists” (Tehran Times, April 19). The newspaper alleged that “an Iranian Muslim woman has been forced to take away [sic] her hijab by Tbilisi airport security for frisking.” Zarif reportedly raised this issue with Kvirikashvili, who, according to Tehran, “expressed surprise” about the offense and promised an “immediate investigation into the incident.” “I cannot imagine that Muslim women are offended in Georgia,” Kvirikashvili is quoted as saying, seemingly implying a readiness to randomly exempt Iranian Muslim women from standard security procedures at the Georgian border. The government of Georgia did not dispute the reporting on the incident. It merely issued a brief statement that Georgian officers checking travelers “act in full accord with the demands of the aviation security provision program,” thus not explicitly clarifying whether the officials abstain from searching Iranian women wearing hijabs (1tv.ge, April 20).

This episode highlights the multipronged efforts by Iran to gain a heavier soft power footing in Georgia. Yet, Iran—a country that militarily supports the beleaguered Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad—is a hard power adversary of some of the Georgia’s most important allies, including the United States. Tornike Sharashenidze at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs claims that “Georgia does not have the luxury to choose its [regional] partners” (Author’s interview, March 23). This goes against common sense, since potential economic gains from regional neighbors may sometimes be trumped by their anti-democratic stance. And instead of asking about the ways in which Georgia could perhaps become more positively involved with its allies in resolving the Syrian conflict, the commentator Giorgi Khatiashvili simply stated that Georgia’s “support of the [April 7 Shayrat] airfield [cruise missile] bombing by Trump […] should not be an apple of contention, because we do not play any role in Syria.” Georgia is a “small country,” and thus it has to “implement a moderated policy,” Khatiashvili added (Radiotavisupleba.ge, April 18), evoking the post-Communist narrative of national victimhood.

Against the background of such conciliatory rhetoric, Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s subsequent visit to Tehran—with yet another large Georgian delegation in tow, including the ministers of energy, economy, environment, agriculture, sport and foreign affairs—could not have transpired much smoother. After meeting with President Rouhani, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, and Majlis Chairman Ali Larijani, the Georgian prime minister signed memoranda of understanding and agreements focused on “the issue of [the] North–South corridor and connection of the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea through Iran-Armenia-Georgia or Iran-Azerbaijan-Georgia” (Civil Georgia, April 24). Georgia also plans to initially import 40 million cubic meters of natural gas from the Islamic Republic (Bm.ge, April 24), about 2 percent of its annual gas consumption of approximately 2.18 billion cubic meters (Cia.gov, accessed May 15).

Mere weeks before signing the GSOIA with the US to improve counter-terrorism cooperation, Georgia, quietly but vigorously pushed to facilitate Iran’s multifocal efforts to boost its position in the South Caucasus—despite the Islamic Republic’s wide recognition as a state sponsor of terrorism. Since signing the GSOIA, there have been no signs that Tbilisi intends to revoke or scale back its ties to Tehran. Such a friendly posture toward Iran may end up undermining Georgia’s efforts to integrate with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or to become recognized by the US as a “non-NATO ally,” a status the government in Tbilisi is purportedly pursuing.