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CAUCASUS UPDATE

In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008

Iran has proved to be one of the few ‘winners’ in the Georgian war and its geopolitical fallout, on a number of fronts. Its stock has been boosted in both Baku and, more importantly, in Moscow. If it plays its cards right, it may also be able to increase its leverage in the wider region.

Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki headed to Moscow on September 12 and then on to Baku on September 13 (the itinerary of his trip alone indicates Tehran’s priorities). In Russia Mottaki, and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, discussed a wide range of issues, reflecting the multifaceted nature of Russo-Iranian cooperation. As well as stressing the need for ‘regional cooperation to solve regional problems’ - which suggests a joint determination to keep the US and Europe out of regional conflict resolution - the ministers considered economic cooperation, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most tellingly, they discussed Russia’s ongoing assistance to build the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran and progress on legally delimiting the Caspian Sea.

Russia’s policy towards Iran’s covert nuclear weapons programme has for some time been instrumentalised in its disputes with the West. Whenever Russia has been irritated by Washington and Brussels, it has used its support for Iran to undermine Western efforts to diplomatically isolate the Islamic Republic. Although Bushehr is a civilian plant, its technology can be applied for military use; something that the West would rather avoid. In the final analysis Moscow would also rather not have a nuclear-armed Islamic republic to its south, but the short-term goal of confounding the West often overrides this long-term strategy.

Given the current context of increasing hostility between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community, the discussion of nuclear cooperation suggests that the short-term is once again winning out. The fact that Israel, Iran’s implacable foe, had supplied Georgia with arms that killed Russian forces may provide an additional emotional impulse to supporting Iran.

Indeed, Russia may now be calculating that the benefits of a nuclear Iran - a permanent thorn in the side of US efforts in the Middle East - may outweigh the dangers. This is by no means certain, but if relations with the West deteriorate further, and if Iran continues to act responsibly in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow may reward it with further support. In early September Russian analysts were already suggesting that Moscow might proceed with a plan to secretly sell its advanced S300 air defence systems to Tehran in light of the Georgian war. Alongside increased Russian cooperation with Syria, arms sales to Iran are a direct challenge to Western security interests in the Greater Middle East.

Foreign Minister Mottaki then travelled to Azerbaijan to meet with President Aliyev. The Azeri President’s statement after the meeting, in which he declared that regional cooperation would remove the need to involve extra-regional powers is a surprisingly critical reference to Washington from an American ally. President Aliyev also gave strong support to Mottaki’s proposal for regional dialogue, and accepted that Iranian participation was vital for regional stability and energy development.

These moves suggest that Tehran is echoing Ankara’s recent calls for regional stability mechanisms, and it is quite realistic to believe that both are using the uncertainties created by the Georgian war to boost their own regional standing. It is of great importance for Iran not to remain outside any new regional stability mechanism. In this regard, Tehran has made it clear that it is very interested in membership of Turkey’s Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform proposal [see last week’s Caucasus Update]. It is unlikely that either Ankara or Baku would be willing to exclude Tehran, given the obvious need to include all regional actors to any effective regional system.

Washington’s policy towards the inclusion of Iran will be key. If it decides that giving Iran a seat at the table is outweighed by the benefits of regional cooperation (notwithstanding the insurmountable problem of including Georgia and Russia in the same organisation), it may keep its criticism muted. If - and this is the more likely scenario - it declares loudly that Iran’s participation is unacceptable, it will force Baku and Ankara into a corner. They may decide that ignoring the White House is their best option, thus giving Iran the diplomatic clout in the Caucasus it has always wanted. Tehran may not be holding a winning hand, but it has certainly made the most of the situation.



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PREVIOUS ISSUES

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