Georgian officials and pundits are vigorously denying allegations that U.S. officials are in secret talks with Tbilisi about using Georgian military bases and airfields in the event of a military conflict with Iran. The Jerusalem Post (February 20) claims a high-ranking, but anonymous, official from the Georgian government had substantiated their story. Tbilisi and Baku flatly denied similar reports in 2004 suggesting that the United States was testing the waters with Georgia and Azerbaijan on establishing a military alliance against Iran.
On February 21, Colonel Levan Nikoleishvili, chief of the Georgian General Staff, dismissed the Jerusalem Post report, calling the allegation “utterly absurd.” That same day Valery Chechelashvili, first deputy foreign minister, weighed in, saying, “The Georgian Foreign Ministry does not deem it serious to comment on a report in the Israeli media, because this information comes from the realm of fantasy.” Chechelashvili added that Georgia had not held any talks with any country, including the United States, on the use of its facilities in a military operation against Iran. The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi has not bothered to comment on the newspaper’s report, nor has Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Meanwhile, the Russian media pounced on the information, adding their own comments about the likelihood of Georgia’s involvement in any U.S.-led anti-Iran military campaign.
Temur Yakobashvili of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies doubted that the U.S. government would send an official inquiry to Tbilisi about Georgian assistance in this type of scenario. He said that if such a request were made, Georgian territory could be used as a transit base for the U.S. Air Force rather than as a bridgehead for an invasion of Iran. The Georgian government would provide this type of support to Washington only if Iran committed an “outrageous” act against Georgia, he added.
Georgia is situated northwest of Iran and its location could theoretically make it a convenient place both for logistical support and for launching air strikes against Iran. Several Georgian airfields, including the one at Marneuli (in southeast Georgia) could accommodate modern warplanes. Georgia would be a much safer host for this type of operation than tumultuous Afghanistan or Iraq.
The speculation about possible U.S. use of Georgian territory in case of a military campaign against Iran has grown along with American media reports and statements by some U.S. officials about the possibility of a military campaign against Iran because of the failure of diplomatic efforts to thwart Tehran’s potential nuclear weapons program. Recent efforts to strengthen Georgian-U.S. ties, including greater military cooperation as well as visits to Georgia by U.S. President George W. Bush, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other high-ranking officials, fueled these speculations. Avtandil Ioseliani, the former chief of Georgian intelligence, had predicted that deployment of U.S. military infrastructure in Georgia related to Iran might have been on the agenda of negotiations when Bush met with Saakashvili on May 10, 2005 (see EDM, April 26, 2005). Tbilisi has been actively cooperating with the United States in the global war on terrorism.
Now it is becoming evident that the United States is increasingly trying to gain a foothold in the South Caucasus in the wake of Moscow’s weakening influence in the region. This policy is bearing fruit. Georgia is governed by a pro-American leader, Saakashvili, and it is an open secret that Saakashvili’s government counts on U.S. assistance to solve Georgia’s secessionist problems and help restore the country’s territorial integrity. Given Georgia’s heavy reliance on U.S. aid and support, Tbilisi could hardly reject out of hand a proposal from the United States about using Georgian military infrastructure in any potential military action against Iran. Some local experts argue that Georgia’s participation in U.S.-NATO military actions might protect Georgia from the threats coming from Russia.
At the same time Tbilisi is fully aware of the harrowing consequences that participation in an anti-Iranian military campaign could entail for Georgia. The country lives in a neighborhood of Muslim countries and has its own sizeable Muslim community, estimated at around 400,000. Some Georgian politicians and pundits are warning about harsh Iranian military retaliation against Georgia should Tbilisi facilitate any U.S. action against Iran. The Iranian armed forces possess mid-range missiles capable of reaching Georgian territory. Georgia is already at risk of becoming a target of Muslim terrorist groups due to its participation in the coalition forces in Iraq.
Furthermore, Tbilisi cannot ignore that it receives energy supplies from Iran that partly insulate it from Russia’s unreliable fuel deliveries. Bilateral economic links with Tehran are also strong. The deterioration of relations with Iran would leave Georgian energy systems extremely vulnerable. Involvement in anti-Iranian hostilities might also complicate Georgian relations with neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia, both of which maintain contacts with Iran.
Given these circumstances, it is quite easy to dismiss the Jerusalem Post rumors. Why such discussions are being aired in the media at this particular moment is still unclear. The information might have been released as part of an effort to poison Georgian-Iranian relations, which would play into the hands of Russia, which is willing to isolate Georgia at the international level. Yet to a certain extent the news also aligns with the interests of the Western community.
(Resonance, Kavkas Press, RIA-Novosti, Inopressa.ru, February 21; Jerusalem Post, February 20, 21; Kviris palitra, February 20-26; Lenta.ru, February 20; www.georgia.usembassy.gov)