Don't Forget Georgia

Why one of the United States' staunchest allies still needs its strong support.

Georgia is heating up once again as opposition forces prepare for a major demonstration against President Mikheil Saakashvili on April 9. A number of opposition figures have been arrested, accused by the government of plotting the violent overthrow of Saakashvili. The fallout from last August's Russian invasion of Georgia, following the state of emergency imposed by Saakashvili in November 2007 and elections early last year, has raised questions about the president's ability to maintain control amid growing unhappiness with his leadership.

Much already has been written and said about the August war and who was to blame, but the challenge before the current U.S. administration is what to do now: What should U.S. policy toward Georgia be? Following the invasion, there was strong bipartisan support for a $1 billion American assistance package for Georgia. The race was on, in fact, between Barack Obama and his Republican rival John McCain to see which candidate could be more pro-Georgian (McCain got out of the starting blocks faster but they ended more or less in a tie).

More recently, however, some analysts have been wondering whether the Obama administration will seek to distance itself from the government in Tbilisi in an effort to score points with Moscow and differentiate itself from its predecessor. Indeed, a clear U.S. focus on resetting relations with Russia, as Vice President Biden said in early February in Munich, raises questions for Georgia. Will Washington sacrifice closer relations with Tbilisi in order to warm up to Moscow? This would be a mistake.

Georgia already paid a price when NATO allies, meeting last April in Bucharest, failed to offer Tbilisi (and Kiev) a Membership Action Plan; that decision was likely interpreted in Moscow as a green light to engage in more reckless behavior within the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and toward Tbilisi.
There is no guarantee that backing off support for Georgia, whether on NATO or more broadly, would lead to improved ties with Russia. The days when U.S. relations with the states in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova) are viewed through a Russian prism should be long over.

In fact, Georgia still needs U.S. help. Over the years, the United States has emphasized support for Georgia's territorial integrity, its integration into the West, and political and economic reforms (though many would criticize the Bush administration for not doing enough on the reform score, especially in light of Saakashvili's November 2007 crackdown following large demonstrations against his government).

Half of the $1 billion assistance package is focused on addressing Georgia's pressing humanitarian needs, repairing infrastructure damaged by Russia's invasion, and restoring economic growth. Indeed, more than half of regular assistance for Georgia in last year's assistance budget goes to political and economic reform. Emphasis should continue to be placed on rule of law, media training, and institution-building programs.

Some 34 percent of the regular assistance budget goes to peace and security designed to train and equip the Georgian military to meet NATO standards and to support contributions to international peacekeeping and security operations as well as to improve the capacity of the Georgian border police and custom service to fight smuggling, increase revenue and improve border control. Georgia has been an important contributor to operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (in fact, at one point it was the third largest contributor to multinational forces in Iraq) as a result of the U.S. train and equip program; it also needs to secure its porous borders as much as possible.

Yes, the United States does need to think carefully before launching a serious effort to rearm Georgia. The obvious yet painful reality is that Georgia simply is no match militarily for Russia, and we should not pretend otherwise. Giving less military support might also reinforce the U.S. message that the military option for resolving the South Ossetia and Abkhazia problems is out of the question.

Supporting Georgia's NATO aspirations, however, is a matter of principle. Last April in Bucharest, the alliance declared, [We] welcome Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. Even while aiming to reset relations with Russia, President Obama has pledged to uphold the principle that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO. For NATO's own credibility, Russia cannot be granted a de facto veto over other countries' aspirations for membership. Nor should wishful thinking of better relations with Russia get in the way of Georgia's aspirations, which the United States has encouraged. Georgia has been a loyal ally and supporter of U.S. efforts overseas; it should expect no less from the United States in return.

Beyond supporting further reform, the West needs to maintain a firm position on Georgia's territorial integrity. The United States was right to condemn Russia's expressed intentions earlier this year to establish bases in the territory of Georgia as contrary to the spirit and the letter of Russia's existing commitments. To this day, Russia has not fully lived up to the commitments it made last summer to French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the status of its forces in Georgia. The United States and the Europeans should continue to press Russia to withdraw their forces to prewar positions, open up the separatist areas to humanitarian shipments, and allow unfettered outside observation, including of allegations of human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict. In addition, as Vice President Biden said in Munich and as President Obama made clear during his recent trip to Europe, the United States must never recognize South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence.

That said, bringing those separatist regions back under Georgian control won't happen any time soon. The hope is that Georgia, through political and economic reform, becomes an attractive place for South Ossetians and Abkhazians to some day want to join. That will take time and patience on the part of the Georgian leadership, not traits often associated with Saakashvili.

Finally, the United States has to fix the international impression that its policy is support for Misha first, Georgia second. It would be a mistake to dump Saakashvili to support any other candidates -- that's for the Georgians themselves to decide. But America should support processes that encourage a level playing field and avoid picking favorites. To that end, the return to Georgia of former U.N. Ambassador Irakli Alasania to join the opposition against Saakashvili has increased the possibility of more effective checks and balances against the government.

The opposition for years has suffered from fissures and feckless leadership; now it is renewing calls for early elections (Georgia held both presidential and parliamentary elections last year following the state of emergency in 2007). Constant elections may not be the answer to Georgia's problems, but development of strong, independent institutions is essential. And it is here that the bulk of U.S. assistance should be devoted.

Much will depend on how the April 9 demonstrations are handled by both the opposition and government forces. Violence would harm not only Georgian-American relations but also Georgia's prospects for democratic development and deeper integration into Europe. Supporting these goals is the best way forward for both Georgia and its allies.

Miguel Villagran/Getty Images


How to Negotiate with Iran

A diplomatic primer for dealing with the sometimes maddening, always challenging Islamic Republic.

The various messages and statements floating back and forth between the United States and Iran since the election of U.S. President Barack Obama signal one of the few moments since 1979 when a real warming of the relationship may be possible.

It's unclear, of course, whether the United States and Iran will sit down anytime soon for public and open negotiations. And the prospect of Obama meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, let alone Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seems very remote. Nor would the mere existence of a serious dialogue at any level guarantee that the many issues that divide the two countries can be resolved satisfactorily. Still, the United States at this moment must think hard about how to negotiate with Iran, should the day come.

During the past 14 years, I've visited Iran more than a dozen times, both to attend conferences as an academic and to take part in diplomatic discussions as a Canadian official. During this time, I've learned some hard lessons about how to negotiate with Tehran, even on sensitive issues such as security. I've also seen the crippling mistakes that many Western countries, including the United States, make in their understanding of the Iranian body politic. Here is my advice -- on the whom, the how, and the what of talking with Tehran.

First: whom. The Iranian political scene is an extraordinarily diffuse beast. There are many power centers and many players, all perpetually locked in intense competition. Western analysts often refer to reformists, traditional conservatives, technoconservatives, radicals, and others. But, in all my time in Iran I have never heard these terminologies used by Iranians themselves. A continuum, akin to the leftist-Democrat-centrist-Republican-rightist one in the United States, is not appropriate. For, in reality, the Iranian political scene is highly fluid, with coalitions continuously forming and reforming. Iranians' understanding of their political universe simply does not accord with Westerners' understanding.

Because a significant portion of the debate over how to approach the Iranians concerns which factions to approach and how to do it, this misunderstanding bears significant consequences. A long process of engaging Iran at multiple levels lies in store if Westerners are to better understand the internal situation. After 30 years of isolation from Iran, analysts and officials in the West have a lot of catching up to do.

Western analysts must also recognize that the president is far from the most important figure in Iranian politics, whatever Ahmadinejad's rhetoric may suggest. Even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is not all-powerful. Rather, he acts to preserve the delicate political balance, while subtly pushing his own agenda. The supreme leader can be difficult for outsiders to reach. Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati runs a foreign-policy machine for the supreme leader, and that might be one avenue of approach. The most direct is simply for Obama to write directly to Khamenei -- from one supreme leader to another.

Second: how. The process of negotiation will surely prove just as important as the substance, at least in the beginning. Discussions with Iranians often take place in an elaborate, formal language, which establishes pecking orders and conveys unspoken messages. Concealment and dissimulation are not regarded as negative behavior, and speaking in broad terms of theory and history is commonplace.

From my own experience, Iranians spend a good deal of time at the beginning of a discussion invoking concepts such as justice and respect and saying that the Western approach to Iran has traditionally lacked both. But Iranian negotiators are very adept at avoiding the need to define these concepts in concrete terms or linking them to specific policy avenues. This tendency gives the conversation a circular dynamic that can be very frustrating. Faced with this tendency, Western negotiators should patiently and firmly, but also politely, insist that they be provided with practical links between these concepts on the one hand and policy issues on the other -- rather than endless rounds of exchanges over their esoteric meanings.

Western negotiators must also recognize that the stereotypical American style of negotiation -- blunt, direct, transactional -- irks and frustrates Iranians. Iranians fear that abbreviated and quick discussions deprive them of the context and the time they need to situate themselves to what is going on. All this argues for a long-term approach and not one that is linked to the need to solve any particular issue according to a unilateral timeline.

Additionally, U.S. diplomats will learn that the Iranians could teach the Chinese a thing or two about Middle Kingdom thinking. The Iranians are, justifiably, very proud of their history and culture. Their worldview flows from a sense of being the center of everything (a feeling many Americans share) due to their thousands of years of history. Iran's history also teaches them, not unfairly, that the outside world is usually a source of danger.

Thus, Iranian politicians and diplomats have enormous sensitivity to any sense of losing, or losing face, in any encounter with Westerners -- and especially Americans. In the vicious world of domestic Iranian politics, walking away from a good deal that makes you look weak is far preferable to accepting it. The United States must learn how to work with Iranians to frame solutions to differences in a way palatable to these sensitivities, even as these solutions address U.S. needs. Track two diplomacy, talks in unofficial channels, could help foster a conceptual and political framework for track one discussions between the governments themselves.

More broadly, both Americans and Iranians must recognize that, even as they seek to address specific issues, dialogue should be about more than political elites making deals. Dialogue, instead, should be about these two great societies coming to terms and developing a real rapprochement. Scholarly, cultural, and sporting contacts will help. Westerners should also bear in mind that it may well be the Iranian leadership that will be most suspicious of these openings, fearing that the revolution could be imperiled by such contacts.

Third: what. Despite the ongoing infighting that marks Iranian politics, a key point for Westerners to bear in mind is that all factions in mainstream Iranian politics support the idea that Iran should have the fuel cycle and a nuclear option. The factions may have differing views on what constitutes an option and what can be traded for it. This may be an area for discussion -- a search for limits to Iran's enrichment program and greater transparency surrounding it.

But U.S. negotiators should be under no illusions. The idea that Iran should have some form of fuel cycle commands broad consensus within its current political system. The reasons why have as much or more to do with a very hardheaded analysis of Iran's security needs as with any ideological questions. It is not a matter of waiting for the present political order to throw up a leader who sees differently. That is not going to happen.

Those on both sides who seek to make the nuclear question the only issue, and who frame it in absolute terms and argue that it must be addressed before anything else can be considered, are not serious. This need to address other matters, even as the nuclear question is discussed, may have the effect of playing into Iran's hands as to the timing of its nuclear program, but it is a reality anyway.

This is not a way of saying that the nuclear issue should be shelved. It is a way of saying that no relationship is one-dimensional. Afghanistan, Iraq, drug smuggling, and others are issues where there can be some common purpose. There are also issues where there will continue to be serious differences, such as Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and other matters. All of these issues will have to be on the table.

This reality suggests that, ultimately, this will be a long process. Spoilers on both sides will try to sabotage it. Each side will have to carry on in the face of such frustrations. Westerners should also recognize that the presidential elections in June mean that nothing too serious will likely happen before then. It is very important for the West to avoid interfering with that process.

And, finally, U.S. officials must realize that real dialogue, improved relations, and broader rapprochement mean more to Iran's elite than a simple thawing of relations. For Iranian hard-liners, all this heralds the end of a central tenet of the revolution -- that Iran must guard against contamination by, and collaboration with, the decadent West, and especially the United States. The Iranian people want a new relationship with the West. They are tired of being isolated. But in many ways, discussions between Tehran and Washington will be more of a watershed for their leaders than they will be for us.