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IRAN, GEORGIA: Washington wary of warming ties between Tehran and U.S. ally

November 5, 2010 | 11:00 am

Iran-georgia

In a turn of events that has both Georgian and American diplomats walking on eggshells, Georgia and Iran agreed this week to eliminate visa restrictions and resume direct flights between Tbilisi and Tehran.

This new open-border policy comes at a time when Iran -- facing a fresh round of European, U.S., and Russian-backed sanctions, internal unrest and an array of external military threats -- is desperate for a few friendly faces in its own backyard.

But Iran’s new-found friendship has Georgia -- the United States' closest ally in the Caucasus, and the recipient of roughly $4.5 billion in Western aid in the past two years -- dancing the diplomatic two-step.

Earlier this week, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze saluted Iran as one of the most powerful countries in the region, while stressing -- repeatedly -- that Tbilisi’s relationship with its Persian neighbor is solely about  trade and tourism.

“We largely ... depend on the United States for political support. Therefore, it is absolutely groundless to suggest that we are somehow questioning this strategic cooperation,” she said at a news conference. “We have no under-the-table relations with anyone, especially Iran.”

After ignoring the Caucasus for decades in favor of fellow Muslims in the Persian Gulf and South Asia, Iran has been largely excluded from the geopolitical chess game in the South Caucasus, where Turkey and Russia dominate.

Now, beset by sanctions and with its internal politics in turmoil, Iran is cultivating new relationships with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, hoping to regain its once-potent role as a regional power, explore new trade partners and -- at the very least -- keep the South Caucasus from becoming a base for the U.S. military.

Sometimes building new friendships means opening the pocketbook. This past year, Tehran has offered to help Tbilisi build a new hydroelectric plant, made good on a plan to reopen a long-abandoned Iranian consulate in western Georgia, and sent 15,000 Iranian tourists on chartered planes to Georgia's struggling Black Sea resorts.

Iran also said it wants to buy nearly 10 times as much gas from Azerbaijan as it did last year, and proposed building a $1.2-billion railroad linking Armenia to the Persian Gulf.

“We're in a kind of Bermuda triangle here,” said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. “Georgia needs U.S. support, but it needs friendly relations with its neighbors, too. [The U.S.] understands we are a small nation, stuck in the middle. We can’t burn bridges. We must have relations with both.”

But perhaps that’s more easily said than done. In 2008, Iranian-Georgian relations got put on ice -- really cold ice -- for almost a year after Georgia agreed to extradite an Iranian citizen to the U.S. on charges of smuggling, money laundering, and conspiracy.

“It was very bad,” said a Georgian diplomat close to the case, who did not want his name used due to the sensitivity of the issue. “There was basically no real communication for a year.”

As for the U.S., the Embassy in Tbilisi so far has stayed silent about Georgia’s cozy new relationship with Iran, perhaps because trade between the two nations accounts for less than 1% of Georgian imports.

Last month, Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, traveled to both Azerbaijan and Turkey --  with much more robust dockets of trade with Iran -- to request that both nations scale back their trade with Tehran.

-- Haley Sweetland Edwards in Tblisi, Georgia

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki with his Georgian counterpart Grigol Vashadze in Tblisi earlier this week. Credit: Islamic Republic News Agency

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