Between Israel and Iran: Georgia’s Delicate Diplomacy

Few countries in the world have managed to maintain strong ties with both Israel and Iran. The country of Georgia, in the South Caucasus, is one of them.

It’s difficult to imagine two more bitter enemies today than Israel and Iran. Which “side” your country’s leadership chooses is a good indicator of where their loyalties lie. The depth of these divisions are evident in the countries’ rhetoric: at January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Israeli President Shimon Peres called Iran “the center of world terror in our time”, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has remained a vocal opponent of anything that smacks of Iran’s rapprochement with the West. Netanyahu insists that Iran’s promises to curb the development of nuclear weapons is mere lip service, and that the Islamic Republic’s real aim is the complete obliteration of Israel.

Though the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Iran for the first time this month, and President Obama recently stated his opposition to the idea of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, the United States and the European Union have generally remained suspicious of Iran’s nuclear program. They’ve imposed a variety of economic sanctions on Iran and continued to support Israel with military supplies. Very few countries have managed to maintain good economic and political relations with both Iran and Israel at the same time without arousing suspicion or ultimately estranging one of the two. President Obama has struggled to find common ground with his Israeli counterparts regarding a possible restructuring of US policy in the Middle East that would include increased communication with Tehran.

Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. (Photo credit: Travel & escape)
Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. (Photo credit: Travel & escape)

Georgia, however, is one of very few countries in the world that has been able to avoid choosing sides. Currently, nationals of both Israel and Iran can enter Georgia with ease. The country, which is located in the South Caucasus, also has strong economic and political links with Iran and Israel.

Even after Iran was accused of attempting to assassinate Israeli diplomats in Georgia in February 2012, the Georgian leadership demonstrated an almost supernatural capacity for astute diplomacy. Somehow, the government was able to walk the fine line between Iran and the West — something that has remained elusive throughout much of the rest of the world.

Georgia-Iran relations

Georgia inaugurated formal diplomatic relations with Iran shortly after declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Partly due to its proximity, the Islamic Republic has remained Georgia’s reliable trading partner ever since. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that a visa-free travel agreement between Georgia and Iran went into effect. As a result, the number of business transactions between the two countries has skyrocketed.

The Black Sea resort of Batumi.
The Black Sea resort of Batumi.

According to a Wall Street Journal report that sparked concern among analysts that Iranian officials were using Georgia’s lax policies to avoid international sanctions, imports increased by more than 1,590 percent to $99.4 million in 2011, while the number of Iranian businesses registered in Georgia rose from just 84 to 1,489. The same year saw the construction of a new Iranian consulate in the western Georgian beach town of Batumi, and thousands of Iranian tourists began flooding the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and its Black Sea resorts. Georgia is now one of only three countries in the wider region that allow Iranian visitors to enter with ease, the other two being Turkey and Armenia.

What has struck the majority of international observers as most bizarre is the fact that this new era of was presided over by the government of former President Mikheil Saakashvili of the United National Movement (UNM), a politician known for his close connections with the West, and the United States in particular.  This seemingly incoherent policy was driven in part by a desire to reduce Georgia’s energy dependence on Russia following the 2008 war over South Ossetia. Iran is the second largest supplier of gas worldwide, second only to Georgia’s despised neighbour to the north, and the Georgian government considers Iran an ideal alternative supplier of energy. Additionally, the United States’ erstwhile “reset” policy with Russia left Georgia fearing that the West might abandon it.

But although Tbilisi’s outreach to Tehran was reasonable given the political climate and Georgia’s need to diversify its field of cooperation by engaging its larger neighbours, Saakashvili’s UNM appeared to embrace realism with an unbounded enthusiasm that did surprise most.

For example, when Turkey and Brazil brokered the Iranian nuclear fuel swap in 2010, Saakashvili openly opposed the West’s stance and enthusiastically supported the deal. As  with many other instances, Saakashvili’s exuberance left the international community bemused and occasionally exasperated. In 2012 the UNM even went so far as to invite an Iranian defence attaché along to U.S.-Georgia joint military exercises. The image of an Iranian defence attaché calmly mingling with other diplomats as U.S marines prepared Georgian troops for their imminent incursion into Afghanistan, would have made a good scene out of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life if it hadn’t actually happened.

The former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, left, shakes hand with his then-counterpart from Iran, Mohammad Khatami, in 2004. (Photo credit: AP)
The former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, left, shakes hand with his then-counterpart from Iran, Mohammad Khatami, in 2004. (Photo credit: AP)

The Georgian Dream, which came to power after the parliamentary elections in October 2012 and then solidified its hegemony over the government in the presidential elections in October 2013, did little to damage the connections Saakashvili had so carefully cultivated with Iran. And aside from some preliminary warnings by US officials who feared that Ivanishvili might stray from Georgia’s pro-Western stance — a fear it turned out was unfounded in reality — almost nothing has been done to pressure the Georgian government to cut ties with Tehran. While the United States claims to be monitoring the possibility that Iranian businessmen are avoiding sanctions by investing in the South Caucasus, their activities don’t appear to have gone beyond monitoring and blacklisting specific institutions. Meanwhile, an intergovernmental Joint Economic Commission continues to function between Georgia and Iran.

In July 2013 the Georgian government tightened visa rules for Iranian citizens, who had been able to travel to Georgia visa free since early 2011. But even these new visa rules are far from stringent, and the new restrictions didn’t stop Tbilisi from hosting an Iranian business forum shortly thereafter. Today, Iranian citizens can obtain a one-month visa to visit Georgia upon arrival at the border by paying a small sum of $35.

Georgia-Israel relations

 Georgia’s comfortable relationship with Iran has not deterred Israel from considering Georgia a close ally. Diplomatic relations between Georgia and Israel were also established early on, and the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Business has been functioning since 1996. Throughout the years, Israel engaged in extensive military cooperation with Georgia, sending Special Forces and private contractors to train Georgian troops, and selling the small nation both armored vehicles and small arms. Between 2000 and 2008, Israel sold hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and combat training to Georgia, including guns, ammunition, shells, tactical missile systems, anti-aircraft systems, turrets for armoured vehicles, electronic equipment and remotely piloted aircrafts.

Unlike Georgia-Iran relations, however, Georgia-Israel ties were strained under the UNM. Despite maintaining good relations with Russia at the time, Israel openly supported Georgia’s territorial integrity in the wake of the 2008 war with Russia. But in a desperate move to entice Russia not to provide Iran with arms, Israeli halted arms sales to Georgia following the conflict. To rub salt in the wound, Wikileaks documents reveal that Israel provided Russia with the codes to some of the drones it had sold to Georgia, allowing Russian forces to use remote technology to send the drones hurtling to the ground.  Despite a plethora of such incidents that may have caused permanent estrangement between less valued allies, the Georgians and Israelis always managed to bounce back into each other’s arms pretty quickly. The motives behind many of these brief bouts of discord are indicative of the complex economic and cultural ties between the two nations.

Georgian protesters with Israeli flags.
Georgian protesters with Israeli flags.

For example, in 2010, two Israeli businessmen, Roni Fuchs and Ze’ev Finkel, were convicted of offering a $7 million bribe to Georgia’s Deputy Finance Minister and consequently sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The two men claimed that the conviction was a ploy to pressure them into forgiving a debt the Georgian government allegedly owed them. But despite the fact that these accusations were never proven and there was never a deeper inquiry into the case, Saakashvili eventually saw the light. In December 2011 the two men were suddenly pardoned. The Georgian government claimed to have taken pity on them due to their advanced age and fragile health. Then, in late 2011, the two governments opted to salvage their relationship yet again by sidestepping another dispute.  This time the Israeli company Elbit announced that it was suing Georgia for 100 million dollars due to the country’s failure to pay for drones and other weapons it had purchased in previous years. Although the dispute dragged on for over a year, the two sides eventually came to a compromise that allowed the Georgian government to pay a lesser sum of $35 million, and the litigation was swept under the carpet. A new ambassador to Israel, the young and savvy Archil (Abesalom) Kekelia, was appointed immediately after these incidents and charged with the task of mending Georgia’s strained relationship with Israel.

There was one more incident with the potential to sour the relationship between Georgia and Israel, but the Georgian government again opted to steer clear of any open disagreement and to maintain some semblance of good will between the two countries. The issue concerned the ownership of an Israeli-based monastery of special significance to the Georgian nation. An 11th century structure located directly across from the Knesset building was once inhabited by the Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, a man widely considered one of the most important contributors to Georgian literature.  It was here that Rustaveli’s most famous poem, “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, was written. In the late 17th century, however, the Georgian government was forced to sell the church due to monetary difficulties. Greek Orthodox monks have since inhabited the monastery, but in 2011 the Georgian government entered into talks with both the Greek patriarch and Israeli officials in an attempt to win it back.

Shota Rustaveli garden in Holon, Israel.
Shota Rustaveli garden in Holon, Israel.

Numerous misunderstandings and contradictory statements resulted from these talks. Georgian officials claimed that they had spoken directly with Israeli government officials regarding the monastery, but the Israeli government denied that any such discussion had taken place. Then, to ratchet up the confusion a bit more, the Patriarch of Jerusalem went on to publicly denounce Saakashvili for having passed him over to speak directly with government officials instead. After numerous religious officials from various denominations had their figurative panties in a bunch, the Israeli government eventually conceded and admitted to having discussed the issue. To this day the situation has not been resolved, but the Israeli government has washed its hands of the matter, claiming that it is a religious dispute and that it will not take sides. The Georgians, surprisingly, appear to be satisfied with this response, at least for the time being.

On November 17, 2013, Georgian and Israeli officials signed an agreement to lift visa requirements for Georgian citizens travelling to Israel, thus reciprocating the visa-free policy enjoyed by Israeli visitors to Georgia that had been in place since mid-2005. “We know that the bond between the Georgian and Jewish people goes back 2,600 years, when the Jewish people first came to Georgia after the destruction of the First Temple. We attach special importance to the discussions toward a free trade agreement between the State of Israel and Georgia,” stated Georgian Dream Prime Minister Irakli Garibanishvili during his first meeting outside of Georgia since taking office. Georgian officials have also stressed that the Association Agreement that they plan to sign with the European Union will open doors to deeper economic integration with Europe, thus making Georgia a more attractive trading partner for Israel, too.

Uncertain future

While Georgia masters the delicate dance of diplomacy, the other two South Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia, have been unable to orchestrate such astute diplomatic manoeuvres. Azerbaijan, much to the chagrin of Iranian officials, has cooperated with Israel on trade and security matters. Armenia, meanwhile, was supported by Iran within the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict. All of this against the backdrop of successive Georgian governments demonstrating a stark pragmatism, courting foreign direct investment wherever possible and building alliances on every side of the dividing line.

Now, however, Georgia may be more pressed than ever to make the tough decision between Iran and the West, as it remains unclear whether Georgia will be able to maintain its close connections with Tehran in light of growing efforts to seek membership with both the European Union and NATO. While recent statements by President Obama  have made it clear that NATO membership is off the table for the foreseeable future, Georgia is set to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in June. Perhaps as a result, Georgia will drastically alter its visa regulations for a variety of nations the following September. This will likely be a blow to the many Iranians who have settled in Georgia in search of more civil liberties or who are running from persecution. Many poets, artists, journalists, Christians, and members of Iran’s LGBT community, whose way of life are prohibited in their own country, have come to Georgia to live their lives and be who they are, a freedom not easily enjoyed at home.  Meanwhile, this summer will, without a doubt, see an influx of Israeli tourists, known for being fans of Georgia’s picturesque mountain ranges and reasonably priced wines.

Cover photo: Georgian President Bidzina Ivanishvili getting ready for the show. Photo courtesy of Guram Muradov.

 

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Cristina Maza

Cristina Maza is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She frequently writes about media, politics, social issues, technology, and international relations. She's also a project manager at JumpStart Georgia, where she coordinates a variety of data journalism and visualization projects.