What was the Iranian Delegation doing in Abkhazia?

Sergei Bagapsh

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

On July 16, 2009, Sergei Bagapsh, the leader of the separatist government in Georgia’s Abkhazia region, currently under Russian occupation, gave an interview to the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy.

During the interview he addressed issues ranging from the possibility that Abkhazia, in the future, might become part of Russia through a “referendum of the people” to the supposed international relations his regime has been conducting recently.

Mr. Bagapsh boasted that he is “conducting serious talks with serious states” and to prove his point told Ekho Moskvy that “a few days ago we hosted a serious delegation from Iran, and it seems that we will have economic cooperation with Iran in the future.” He was careful to dismiss the possibility that in order “to avoid complications’ Iran would recognize Abkhazia as an independent state, but stressed that “we will be ready to develop contacts, economic, cultural and human-to-human relations” with Iran.

It is hard to imagine that the Iranian delegation visited Sukhumi without Russian consent since the only access into Abkhazia is through Russian territory. The official website of the “President of Abkhazia”, which usually posts every development in and around Abkhazia, has not posted any information about the Iranian delegation’s visit.

It is difficult to speculate about the purpose of the visit that apparently took place from July 11 to July 14. According to Russian news agencies Rosbalt and Apsnypress, the Iranian delegation was comprised of “experts on the Caucasus” held “talks with the Abkhaz authorities” that were closed to journalists “at the request of the Iranian delegation.” (Apsnypress, July 13, 2009). The delegation whose composition remains secret visited different parts of Abkhazia. According to Rosbalt, “Iran is currently engaged in establishing relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

Such secrecy could be explained by at least two factors. First, Iran has never questioned Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and although it has close ties with Russia, Tehran has not joined Moscow in recognizing Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence.

Second, besides the historical sites and lovely natural landmarks the Russian news agencies claim the Iranian delegation visited, Abkhazia is home to several Soviet-era nuclear facilities, most importantly the Vekua Institute of Physics and Technology (SIPT) in Sukhumi, which remains outside Georgia’s effective control and according to some sources is still operational. Georgia has long requested that appropriate international bodies conduct a comprehensive inventory of the Sukhumi facilities.

Whatever the reason for the highly secretive visit of the Iranian delegation to Abkhazia, the Georgian government might seek clarification from Iran on the purpose of the visit, if it has not already done so. Likewise, the United States and Turkey are likely to take a closer look at Iranian activity in Abkhazia.