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."