Tbilisi and Tehran

Why is Georgia cozying up to Iran?

Stung by President Obama’s recent snub at the nuclear-security summit in Washington D.C. and angry over the thawing relationship between the White House and the Kremlin, Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili has begun a new stage in his “beacon of democracy” foreign policy, one that relies on the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Now that the West has officially begun to ease its support for the Georgian president, and refused to sell him defensive weapons, he has turned to Iran and Syria—two of America’s worst enemies—to forge new and dangerous alliances.

In a bid to anger the Obama administration and antagonize the Kremlin, Saakashvili is embarking on a path to win Tehran’s friendship and economic support. Whether he is bluffing or serious, this shift demands rebuke.

We know the facts: The Iranian foreign minister is traveling to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi in June. After that, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to visit Georgia on the invitation of Saakashvili.

In addition, Iran plans to build a hydroelectric plant in Georgia and intends to import electricity from the country. At a forum hosted in Tbilisi, the Iranian Ambassador to Georgia, Majid Samazadeh Saber stated: “We’re getting a good response from the Georgian government on improving ties in our region, and we're ready to do so.”

Iran and Georgia also plan to lift visa requirements between the two countries, essentially making the central Caucus nation a potential haven for terrorists. (The official reason is to promote “trade opportunities.”) The Georgian prime minister is planning an official trip to Tehran amid talks of an Iranian consulate opening on the Black Sea town of Batumi, which borders Turkey.

Observers in Washington believe Saakashvili’s purpose is to demand attention. It’s no coincidence that Tehran and Tbilisi have turned to each other just as Russia is making concessions to the United States on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Just as Obama and other major leaders have agreed on new sanctions against Tehran, the Georgian opposition claims President Saakashvili has been involved in weapons deals with the Islamic Republic.

If the latest accusations from some experts prove to be true, Obama cannot be blamed for putting distance between his administration and Saakashvili, the darling of the neocons during the Bush years.

“Saakashvili is mad at President Obama for not meeting with him during his recent visit to America and decided to get back at the United States by becoming friends with Tehran,” accused a member of the opposition Labor Party. “He buys missiles in Ukraine and sells them to Iran.”

The cozying up of Georgia and Iran is a disproportionate reaction and a personal slap to Obama, which should be troubling to the Georgian people. In doing so, Saakashvili has painted himself into a lonely corner. Is visa-free travel and free trade between Georgia and Iran worth the price?

Georgia has already found itself in trouble with Russia over the purchase of weapons from Ukraine prior to the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008. This time, if the allegations prove to be true, Tbilisi will lose even more support in the West.

In a separate development, Georgian Foreign Minister, Grigol Vashadze,recently metwith Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to discuss bilateral cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the field of economy and tourism. The talks dealt with the situation in the Middle East and the Caucasus.

According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, the Syrian foreign minister stressed that various Syrian ministries also intended to sign similar bilateral agreements with the Georgian counterpart agencies “in the economic fields for building constructive and good relations between Syria and Georgia.”

The other news out of Tbilisi is that the Georgian president just spent $56 million from the state budget on a private Challenger jet. A curious upgrade was allegedly added for $7 million: a personal “ejection seat” for Saakashvili—no doubt hoping he’s over Tehran or Damascus when the turbulence starts.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of the Georgian parliament. He lives in Washington, D.C.