Iran's Near Abroad

Beset by global sanctions, Iran's leaders go local.

TBILISI, GEORGIA -- Road signs along the highway heading east to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, note Tehran -- almost 800 miles away and separated by the entire country of Azerbaijan -- as an upcoming destination. On a recent road trip, a Georgian friend of mine swerved to the shoulder, pointing and laughing, so we could take pictures of it. But, however much the inclusion of Tehran may be a source of amusement, it is also a symbol of Iran's recent efforts to expand its influence in the South Caucasus -- efforts that Georgians have cautiously embraced.

Unlike its rabblerousing in much of the Middle East, Iran's involvement in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan has been guided not by religious ideology, but by pragmatic economic and geopolitical goals. In fact, judging from Tehran's vigorous diplomacy this past summer, Iran may prove to be a decisive stabilizing force in the long-volatile South Caucasus. Some optimistic analysts even suggest that Iran's "good behavior" in a strategically important part of the world could mark the first steps -- baby steps, perhaps -- toward rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

In the past year, Iranian officials have trekked to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to announce a series of investments in bilateral economic projects and symbolic friendship-building, including the unilateral waiver of visa requirements for Azeri and Georgian citizens traveling to Iran, and an offer to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the two countries' longstanding dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist region in southwest Azerbaijan claimed by ethnic Armenians. Tehran also recently announced it would partner with Tbilisi to build a new Georgian hydropower plant.

This summer, Mikheil Saakashvili, the staunchly pro-American Georgian president, made a point of publicly inviting his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Tbilisi, an event that followed reciprocal visits by the nations' highest-ranking ministers. And while Iranian support for Armenia is nothing new, Tehran's proposal this past summer to build a $1.2 billion railroad linking the two countries is seen as a critical economic rescue plan for Yerevan, which has suffered for its economic and political isolation from Azerbaijan and Turkey -- the biggest reminder of which was its exclusion from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylon gas pipeline, which begins near the Azeri capital and runs through Georgia, around Armenia, and ends on Turkey's Black Sea coast. This month, Tehran expressed interest in buying nearly 10 times as much gas from Baku as it did last year, and has repeated its desire to build a 200-mile oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Persian Gulf in the future.

So what's with the Caucasian love affair?

Sheer pragmatism. Other regional powers have made no qualms about exploiting the Caucasus to flex their military, diplomatic, and economic muscle. Russia has become increasingly territorial in the area since its August 2008 war with Georgia. In 2008, Moscow agreed to build Russian military outposts in Georgia's breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and last month, Moscow and Yerevan signed an agreement that will keep Russian troops in Armenia until 2044. Turkey, the other large regional power, has also increased its influence in the South Caucasus in recent years, through economic deals and with diplomatic promises to end the region's frozen conflicts.

Iran, meanwhile, has largely been left to watch its influence decline. Facing these threats to its regional importance -- in addition to a fresh round of EU, U.S., and Kremlin-backed U.N. sanctions, internal unrest and an array of external military threats -- Tehran has chosen to fight back with vigorous diplomatic campaigns in its near abroad. "Iran is trying to contribute in a meaningful way to the security and stability in the South Caucasus in order to impress upon everyone the legitimacy and credibility of its role as a regional player," notes Steven Blank, an analyst at the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute. "It's a pragmatic maneuver above all else."

Iran's primary motivation, Blank said, is to keep other countries, particularly the United States, from getting too chummy on its northern border. For Iran, which borders Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- all wobbly nations with a significant U.S. military presence -- a U.S. military base in the South Caucasus would be a disaster. Iran is calculating that the way to prevent that from happening is through strengthened alliances -- or at least mitigated ill-will -- with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. "The message they keep repeating is: We are friends, we are economic partners, but if you allow a U.S. base on your soil, very bad things will happen to you," says a Georgian executive who spoke anonymously in order not to compromise his relationship with Iranian officials. "They are friendly, but the message is clear."

Iranian-Georgian relations grew cold following Georgia's 2008 extradition to the U.S. of an Iranian citizen on charges of smuggling, money laundering, and conspiracy. In January, however, in a decision the Georgian president called "an effort to keep one's enemies closer," Tehran publicly extended an olive branch, sending a handful of its highest-ranking ministers to Tbilisi. Since then, Iran has deployed its soft power, arranging to send 15,000 Iranian tourists on chartered planes to Georgia's struggling Black Sea resorts, and emphasizing long-standing historical and cultural ties between the two countries. Georgia was under sporadic Persian control from the fourth to the 18th centuries and Farsi words pepper modern Georgian. An estimated 12,000 ethnic Georgians still live in Iran.

With Russo-Georgian relations in tatters, Iran's ambassador to Georgia, Majid Saber, has worked hard to style Tehran as Tbilisi's only reliable friend and ally. "No U.S. help was there when you needed it most," Saber told reporters in Tbilisi in May, citing the George W. Bush administration's unwillingness to defend Georgia militarily during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. "Real friendship is demonstrated in hard times."

In Azerbaijan, Iran has recently renewed its calls for the resolution of regional problems -- like the demarcation of Caspian Sea energy resources and the stubborn Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- by regional, not international, actors. But Tehran's foreign policy there is primarily shaped by Tehran's fear of a separatist uprising among Iran's ethnic Azeris, which make up a quarter of the Iranian population. That fear has served to temper Iran's encouragement of either religious ideology or nationalism in Shiite Azerbaijan. While Iran's offer to mediate Nagorno-Karabakh is likely to be ignored by both Azerbaijan and the OSCE, which oversees the diplomatic mission there, Iran has in the past served as an even-keeled mediator in the conflict zone, prizing stability over Islamic fraternity along its northern border.

The nations of the South Caucasus -- all of which receive U.S. aid, investment and support to one degree or another -- have accepted Tehran's recent overtures of friendship graciously, but cautiously. Georgia alone has received a whopping $4.5 billion from Western funders in the past two years, and can't afford to burn bridges with Washington.

"We're in a kind of Bermuda triangle here. Georgia needs U.S. support, but it needs friendly relations with its neighbors, too," says Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. While the United States has watched Iranian influence in the region closely, it has not yet insisted its allies cut ties with Tehran. "They understand we are a small nation, stuck in the middle. We have Iranian investors, Israeli investors, Turkish investors. We can't afford to alienate anyone. It is in our interest to keep Russia from having all the cards here," Rondeli says.

Above all, Iran's diplomatic overtures are about one issue: energy. Iran, which sits on 18 percent of the world's gas supply, has had its eye for years on becoming a transit route for Caspian Sea oil resources to the Persian Gulf. It has also proposed to extend its gas pipeline, which already runs from Iran to Armenia, further north to Georgia and states in eastern Europe. Georgia, desperate to reduce its dependency on pricey and unpredictable Russian gas, has been amenable to the idea, and Armenia, desperate for economic ties, would benefit from the transit route as well.

The real economic and geopolitical dividends of all this Iranian diplomacy in the South Caucasus are mostly theoretical at this point. For example, an Iranian business community that has developed a taste for the lucrative transit market might act a moderating force on the Iranian government. For another, Iran's willingness to behave diplomatically and encourage stability in the Caucasus could produce a potential backchannel through which Tehran is able to begin to soften its 30-year history of isolation from the West.

Realistically, though, that's not likely to happen any time soon. Iran-watchers caution that Tehran's ambition may exceed its true reach. Another east-west pipeline from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, to Turkey -- from which Iran was deliberately excluded -- is already in the works. Neither Moscow, which currently has a chokehold on the European gas supply, nor Washington, with its policy of containment of Iran, are likely to allow Iranian pipelines to reach Europe. Politics aside, the gas industry hardly sees Iran as a reliable supplier. And despite big talk, real economic partnerships between Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are still small. In 2008, for instance, only about 1 percent of Georgian imports were Iranian.

Even if everything goes Iran's way in the South Caucuses, it doesn't amount to a long-term strategy for the Islamic Republic. Rapprochement with the West doesn't seem to be in the cards, and it's unclear how increased regional trade will counter the effects of international sanctions. If Tehran has a grand strategy, it seems to be oriented toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. At some point, one imagines, that's also going to have to be the subject of discussion between Iran and its neighbors.


The Vote Comes to Afghanistan’s Peaceful Heartland

At the polls in Bamiyan, the anti-Taliban province that's seeing a resurgence of female participation.

BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN -- On the day before Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, Razia Hussaini, 30, one of six female candidates from Bamiyan province, was making a valiant effort to be polite to an American journalist and election observer. Sitting on the floor of her family's humble home in the Hindu Kush, overlooking the old Silk Road, the high-school educated political neophyte had a lot on her mind. Two cell phones in front of her buzzed regularly with updates from campaign workers, to whom she relayed terse directions. Her proud but nervous male relatives sat quietly across the room, serving her guests tea and sweets. If history were a guide, Hussaini, of the ethnic minority Hazara, should have been the one serving. But Hussaini is no victim of history; with these elections, she and other Hazara women hope to write their own.

"I'm waiting and excited," she said. "I just pray that the elections will be peaceful. Afterwards, I pray that I will be able to help my people in the parliament." On E-Day, Saturday, Sept. 18, her first prayers were answered, at least in Bamiyan, the Hazara heartland. It may take a month before the certified count will determine whether or not she will join at least 68 other women, whose seats are allotted by law, in the lower house. Win or lose, she and the other Hazara candidates expressed gratitude to be living in what is today Afghanistan's most peaceful, and in many ways most progressive, province.

Hussaini is not the only female Hazara politician who describes these as Halcyon days for the province. "Today I feel very lucky," said Bamiyan's Governor Habiba Sarabi, 44, on Saturday morning. Sarabi had just cast her vote at the Saed Abad Girls School, which served as a women's polling center here. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Sarabi had fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, with her family and began secretly teaching girls on both sides of the border, in defiance of her country's new rulers. "Ten years ago around this time, I remember being in Pakistan for its independence day. I cried because I could not celebrate my own nation's independence."

In March 2005, President Hamid Karzai made history when he asked Sarabi, then serving as his minister of women's affairs, to return to Bamiyan as the nation's first and only female provincial governor. The place was still broken from the Taliban's harsh rule: they had destroyed Bamiyan's famous stone Buddhas, banned education for girls, and attempted to eradicate the Hazara. Sarabi went to work to repair the damage, and quickly established an international reputation as an environmentalist, winning support for a long-discussed national park which included Bamiyan's five, sapphire, mineral-rich Band-e-Amir ("Commander's Dam") lakes; and as an educational reformer, overseeing a gradual increase in the overall literacy rate of her very poor province. Today, Bamiyan high-schoolers score above national test averages.

Most visibly, Sarabi is known as a staunch defender of women's rights. In solidarity, then First Lady Laura Bush visited in June 2008, an act that brought the improbable governor a minor coup in the realm of Afghanistan's fraught "road politics." Road construction is an indicator of political clout here, and while thousands of miles have been built across Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, precious few have been built in Bamiyan. That changed with Bush's visit, as the government gave Bamiyan's eponymous capital city its first few miles of paved roads-which extended to her precise travel route, and little else.

Today, Bamiyan's women are arguably positioned more favorably than those of any province in the country. On E-Day, Sarabi waved her purple finger as she beamed about the fact that nearly half of all Bamiyan's girls are in school, and that under her watch the province had accepted Afghanistan's first female recruits into the Afghan National Police. Behind her at the polling center, a line of women dressed in everything from traditional burqas to loosely-fit, sequined hijabs, became longer and longer, and eventually unruly, as the women kicked up dust and accidentally broke a window while pressing forward to exercise their suffrage. Bamiyan was Afghanistan's only province where female polling stations outnumbered male ones, yet the Saed Abad Girls School and others still couldn't keep up with demand, and ran out of ballots well before the close of the polls.

"I'm voting for a woman," one eager, middle-aged voter in full burqa told me from a nearby mosque-cum-polling center. "Only a woman understands us, and can help us."

Sarabi's unlikely journey, and that of other Hazara women, reflect those of many in the province. 1,500 years ago, Bamiyan, then predominantly Buddhist, held out against the Arabs for a century longer than did Kabul. But by the end of the nineteenth century, many Hazara were slaves to the Pashtun. Cheap slaves, at that: a healthy Hazara could be traded for just 150 pounds of wheat or barley at the time.

The next generation of Hazara, including Hussaini, also bears the scars of a long struggle. After the 1979 Soviet invasion, Hussaini and her parents fled to Iran, a country whose rulers, like the Hazara, are Shiite. In so doing, she left behind the land that she loved, along with many of her relatives. While in high school in the fall of 1998, desperate for news of her family, she could gather only fleeting, but terrifying, reports about her homeland.

Until that point, the Hazara had held out against the Taliban's campaign, including attempted starvation through blockade. Considered infidels by the Sunni Taliban, the Hazara were doubly targeted because they were socially progressive, at least more so than their Iranian counterparts; and triply targeted as they had resisted the Taliban alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance.

Some Hazara were saved when their defenders, Northern Alliance commanders such as Ustad Akbari, defected to the Taliban. Thousands of others faced a harsher fate in mass graves, the victims of attempted genocide. And Hussaini, along with the rest of the world, watched agape in April 2001 as Bamiyan's new rulers' committed their most infamous act of barbarism: the destruction of the towering stone Buddhas, 1,500-year old icons of its Buddhist past. "Those statues were the history of Afghanistan, not only Bamiyan," she said. Principally, however, she was heartsick for her remaining family, with whom she had no contact. "Once they destroyed the statues, we feared they had wiped out all of my home."

Overjoyed at the fall of the Taliban, she returned shortly thereafter to a shattered province, but one that was rapidly recovering. Inspired in part by Sarabi, she began working immediately on women's development projects in the capital, and created the first women's festival, along with a weekly market, three years ago.

Since 2005, Hussaini and her fellow Hazara have watched nervously as the Taliban insurgency has exploded around the country. In the south, Hazara have fought ferociously with the Afghan National Army, yet until 2009, their homeland remained calm. Recently, violence from neighboring provinces has spilled over. Prior to last year's presidential election, the New Zealand military, which commands the Provincial Reconstruction Team here, up-armored their vehicles. On August 3 of this year, insurgents killed one soldier, the first death of a New Zealand soldier during the war, and injured two others, in a nearby ambush.

The latest Taliban threats did not dissuade Hussaini from stepping into the political breach. After receiving the blessing from local mullahs -- an act reflecting both political shrewdness and the challenges still faced by women in Hazara society -- she ran a vigorous upstart campaign, distributing hundreds of posters, and handing out cards to farmers, government officials, and anyone who would listen to her stump speech.

She backs the governor's agenda, pressing for more funds for girls' education, and calling for the creation of an international airport -- which could further open the placid and mineral-rich province to tourism and investment. (Bamiyan sits on at least $1 trillion worth of iron ore, among other riches, according to a recent study.) She has also called for refilling the niches that loom over the central valley, which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 2003, by cooperating with Japanese and other international partners to rebuild the Buddhas.

Bamiyan boasts stunning topography, featuring dramatic, snow-capped peaks overlooking verdant valleys and spring-fed streams. Yet despite that, and its rich archeological wealth, the province drew just 750 international tourists last year, thanks to the degenerating security situation in other parts of the country. On the day after E-Day, I climbed through the myriad caves, layered with history and art of generations of dwellers that interlace the Buddha niches. The sites official guide seemed genuinely bewildered to see foreign visitors. On a good day, he said, he'll show five people the site.

"I speak to the few tourists that come to Bamiyan, and they say that all they hear about Afghanistan in their countries is violence and killing," Hussaini lamented. "We feel as if Bamiyan is not a province of Afghanistan. This is like a totally different country."

Hussaini's bold pronouncements are not limited to Bamiyan pride: she does not shy away from the hardball tactics needed by any long shot candidate. She says that Safora Yalkhani, the incumbent in Bamiyan's allotted woman's parliamentary seat, "has done nothing for the people, and particularly the women, of Bamiyan. In five years, she has brought just one bridge for the [the province]." She also accuses Yalkhani of corruption.

She leveled particular scorn against Ustad Akbari, the former commander who had collaborated with the Taliban, and is now an influential power broker and member of parliament. Last year, Akbari made international headlines when he pressed for a Shiite personal status law, backed by Iran and rubberstamped by Karzai. The law included retrograde provisions that women submit to their husband's sexual demands, and remain in the home unless accompanied by a male relative.

"The wife of the Holy Prophet of Allah: she can go everywhere!" said Hussaini. "The Prophet, peace be upon him, never said anything like that." She added with a wry smile: "Bamiyan's people follow the example of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Who is Ustad Akbari to speak against him?"

Speaking on E-Day, Governor Sarabi declined to endorse any one candidate, preferring to "give blessing to all of the candidates." She did single out Hussaini for special praise, however: "She represents the power of the young generation of Bamiyan," she said. The power of that generation faces a stern test, regardless of the election's outcome, in managing Bamiyan's tremendous potential in the face of national leadership that can most charitably be described as indifferent towards the province.

Across the country, early reports from E-Day 2010 seemed to indicate that both insurgent attacks, and voter turnout, were lower than expected. The Taliban claimed responsibility for some 150 attacks, significantly fewer than in 2009. At least 16 people, including two British soldiers, were killed. And the initial Independent Electoral Commission report indicated that overall there were about one million fewer votes cast than in last years presidential elections.

In Bamiyan, the trend was in the other direction. As is true on most other days, there were no reported security incidents across the province. And election officials stated that turnout had been so strong that thousands had been turned away from the polls due to insufficient ballots. These people of a peaceful province surrounded by war never questioned if they could afford the risk of voting. They questioned when the goods promised by their democracy will finally be delivered.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images