In the coming months it will be interesting to watch how the Persian state handles the dynamics between the United States and its former Cold War adversary. Whether Iran will choose a path of diplomacy or one of foment is yet to be seen, saysGitanjali Bakshi
The events that have taken place from 8th August 2008 until today have served as a turning point in Russian foreign policy. After years of political isolation in the global arena, it seems as though the recent conflict over Southern Ossetia has shaken the Russian bear from out of her cave
The independence of Kosovo from Serbia, the establishment of a US anti-missile defence system in Poland and lastly and most importantly – the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia have brought about friction between US and Russia relations and harkened memories of a Cold War era. It could be surmised therefore, that further complications between Washington and Moscow could resurrect old alliances and factions in the Middle East.
However countries like Iran, Israel, Turkey and Syria, once just geopolitical pawns in a game of larger international players, now have a chance to manipulate the relations between these two world powers in order to forward their own regional and national agendas.
Apart from the obvious alliances with the “US” backed Georgian government on one side and the “Russian” supported break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other end of the spectrum, there are more subtly placed Middle Eastern actors on both sides of the Russian-Georgian conflict.
Israel maintains strong ties with the Georgian government – with Israeli troops stationed in Georgia for over 10 years, a well established relationship of weapons sales, military training and a slew of high ranking Zionists in key posts in Tbilisi (including Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili).
Iran on the other hand shares cultural ties with Georgia, spanning over a period of 400 years of Persian rule until the early 19th century. It has previously been instrumental in diplomatic efforts in the Caucasus during the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute and it is also one of the energy giants surrounding the region and thus influences the flow and supply of oil and gas to and through Georgia.
Lastly, Turkey plays a role in the ongoing Russian-Georgian conflict as well. The former Caliphate has become a mediator by default, since it is Russia's biggest trading partner in the Middle East and it shares military and economic ties with Georgia. It is also a member of the much coveted NATO alliance and is one of the three benefactors of the upcoming B.T.C (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) pipeline along with Georgia and Azerbaijan - potentially the second largest pipeline in the world.
In my opinion, the most dynamic player amongst these three Middle Eastern actors is Iran. Its handling of the Russian-Georgian dispute as a diplomatic unguent or a military catalyst will affect the balance of power in the Middle East and have far-reaching repercussions for the international world.
Soviet allies such as Iran and Syria lost their strategic military footing in the Middle East after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Despite the bravado and propaganda about its nuclear and chemical weapons' capabilities, Iran's military prowess is often diminished by the fact that it has outdated equipment and inaccurate missile systems.
The rise of Russia in the international arena, the intended shift in its economic policy towards developing advanced military technology and a possible renewal of Cold War tactics however, might once again tip the balance of power in the Middle East. Syria and Iran have both expressed interest in acquiring the latest Russian military technologies, and the escalating situation between the US and Russia might just be the catalyst required to push the former Soviet power into renewed weapons trading with anti-US forces in the region.
We already see signs of this strategy in Venezuela with the recent arrival of Russian Sukhoi-30 fighter jets, followed by the bold expulsion of the American ambassador to Caracas. We also know that Syria is thirsting for Russia's anti-craft and anti-tank missiles, after the Israeli airstrike of a suspected Syrian nuclear site in 2007. Nevertheless, Iran still stands to gain the most, both strategically and militarily from an alliance with Russia.
Russia is one of the sole supporters of Iran's nuclear program in the Security Council, lending a softer approach of diplomacy than the EU or the US. The construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant - poised for operation in 2009 - is yet another example of Russia's willingness to supply Iran with the military power it requires to become a formidable player in Middle East politics. Iran is also interested in the acquisition of Russian anti-missile systems known as the SA-20 or S-300 missile batteries which would make a US or Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear sites much harder.
Oil and Gas Motivations
One of the most important reasons for Iran to get involved in the Russia-Georgia conflict is so that it can gain a monopoly over oil and gas in the region. Already a country with the third largest proven oil reserves in the world and second largest gas reserves, access to the Caucasus would secure Iran's monopoly over not just energy production but transportation of energy as well. With anywhere between 20-40% of the world's oil supply passing through the straight of Hormuz and two of the primary conduits for Caspian Sea regional oil and gas exports passing through Georgia and the Caucasus, Iran would have untold control over much of the world's energy routes. If Russia was sanctioned into diplomatic and economic isolation by the West as a result of escalating tensions with the United States, there would be a very high probability that Iran and Russia would form a geo-political strategic energy alliance.
Lastly, let us not forget that much like its Soviet ally, Iran too is currently embroiled in a territorial dispute. Iranian support for Russia over its Georgian opponent might in some way gain reciprocation from Moscow for Iran's territorial disagreement with the UAE over the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa. Iran has been accused on many occasions by other GCC nations, including Saudi Arabia, of blatant expansionism. It is in desperate need of an ally in this particular regional scuffle and the recent disagreement over the sovereignty of Georgia could not have come at a more opportune time for Tehran.
Opportunity for Peace
Having said all of this, resorting to an aggressive and 'instigator' approach is not the only way for Iran to gain an influential role in US-Russia relations and consequently international relations. It can also act in the capacity of a mediator. The above mentioned goals can be achieved from a diplomatic footing as well. Mediating or soothing relations between the two former Cold-War powers can help gain the trust of the international community and restore US faith in Iran -potentially leading to a different perspective on Iran's nuclear ambitions
Arbitrating peace between Georgia and Russia can lead to better cooperation with European powers as in the case of the Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute during Khatami's presidency, and change the image of Iran from that of a rogue or revolutionary state to one of a regional diplomatic power. Lastly, an improvement of Russia-Georgia relations may set the ground for a peace pipeline and lead to an inclusion of Russia and Iran in the B.T.C plan thus fulfilling the long desired wish of Iran to extend its supply of oil to the West and not just Asia.
In the coming months it will be interesting to watch how the Persian state handles the dynamics between the United States and its former Cold War adversary. Whether Iran will choose a path of diplomacy or one of foment is yet to be seen. Either way, the approach that Iran will adopt toward the Georgian dilemma will change the nature of Cold-War tactics and have significant consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East.