Iran Builds Soft Power in Georgia to Foster Tighter Nexus With Russia

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“I appreciate that Georgia has [a governmental] agency that directly works on religious affairs and with religions. I am very pleased that thanks to the efforts of Georgian government representatives, different religions and ethnic groups peacefully coexist here. That is exactly how it is also in Iran,” said the Islamic Republic’s Ayatollah Kazem Seddiqi—the Temporary Friday Prayer Imam of Tehran—during his recent meeting with the head of Georgia’s State Agency on Religious Affairs, Zaza Vashakhmadze (GPB, March 21). Seddiqi assured local media that the main purpose of his three-day visit in Georgia is nothing less than “to promote the fight against terrorism and violence, and for peace and culture in our societies”—a statement that contrasts sharply with the United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ recent reiteration of Iran’s status as the “number one terrorist state” in the Middle East (PressTV, February 6).
Seddiqi is only the latest in a string of top Iranian religious leaders to visit Georgia since the Iran nuclear deal was reached in 2015. In May 2016, Ayatollah Sayyid Jawad Sahrestani—the Iranian representative of Iraq’s highest Shia cleric, al-Uzma Sayyid Sistani—attended the opening of a new mosque and a hospital for the Shia Islamic community in the southeastern Georgian city of Marneuli. These were largely subsidized by the foundation operating in Georgia under Ayatollah Ahrestani’s name (iPress.ge, May 13, 2016). The Sahrestani Foundation, which cooperates with the Governing Body of All Muslims of Georgia, also actively funds other facilities, events and cultural projects for Georgia’s predominantly Azerbaijani Shia minority. This month, Seddiqi, who came to international renown in 2010 after claiming that earthquakes are caused by women, also visited Marneuli, met with the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church Ilia II, and attended a sponsored conference on “Healthy Family—Healthy Society” (Amag.ge, March 20). For several years now, Iran has been combining a successful strategy of cash infusions to interest organizations with a comprehensive media and charity blitz to accumulate soft power in Georgia. The westernmost South Caucasus country increasingly finds itself one of the focal points of interest in Tehran’s foreign policy in the region.
Last year, the Center for Development of Georgia-Iran Business promised “100,000 new tourists from Iran in 2016” (Commersant.ge, February 10, 2016). Reality outperformed predictions: 147,915 Iranian tourists actually visited Georgia in the past year (For.ge, March 20). This growth was facilitated by Georgia lifting visa requirement for Iranian citizens on February 15, 2016 (see EDM, July 20, 2016). The further 438 percent increase of the number of Iranian entries in January and February 2017, in comparison to the same months in 2016, indicates a strong overall upward trend of cooperation in the domain of tourism (Economy.ge, March 1). Other economic sectors are also looking to catch up. The Georgian-Iranian Technology Transfer Center opened in the Scientific Technological Park of the Iranian city of Yazd in order to attract new, more diverse and innovative investors from Iran to Georgia (Info9.ge, March 10).
Shortly before Seddiqi’s visit, Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania met with the new ambassador of the Islamic Republic in Georgia, Seyed Javad Ghavam Shahidi to discuss joint urban projects between Tbilisi and Tehran (Accent.ge, March 17). Notably, Ambassador Shahidi also met with Minister of Defense Levan Izoria, who underscored that “developing friendly relations with Iran is an important foreign policy priority for Georgia” (Accent.ge, March 16). This may indicate that possible cooperation in security matters could once again resurface on the bilateral agenda. At the same time, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze visited his counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Tehran, in January, focusing on bilateral “regional transportation and energy projects” (Mfa.gov.ge, January 11); the same issues were raised at a follow-up meeting of the deputy foreign ministers in Tbilisi (Mfa.gov.ge, March 20). However, the volume of direct investment to Georgia from Iran has dramatically declined from $92.3 million in 2015. The full extent of this shrinking investment is unclear as Iran does not even appear on the list of the nine largest foreign direct investment (FDI) countries to Georgia in 2016: according to preliminary data, Azerbaijan tops the chart with $578 million in FDI last year, while the ninth-largest country, Cyprus, invested just $38 million (Geostat.ge, March 23).
This drop in Iranian FDI may stem from the general lack of industrial diversification in Georgia’s foreign investment economy, with only 7 percent of overall FDI flowing into manufacturing, while transportation and communications (39 percent) and the energy sector (12 percent) top the list. It seems that Iran, too, is now shifting its emphasis to tourism, education, transportation and energy, especially given the mutual plan with Russia and Armenia to establish the first free trade zone in Armenian Meghri, which would boost commerce of the Eurasian Economic Union with the Islamic Republic (Commersant.ge, March 19). This agreement is expected to be signed during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week (March 28–29) (PressTV, March 28). In light of this plan, Georgia and Armenia’s initially undisclosed aspirations to grant Russia new transportation routes via the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would fit into a larger strategy of forging closer economic and political ties between Russia and Iran (see EDM, March 7). Tehran can use Georgian territory as a corridor to counteract Washington’s efforts to drive a wedge between it and Moscow (see EDM, February 14).
Hamed Kazemzadeh, of the Center for East European Studies, at the University of Warsaw, believes that “Iran does not oppose Georgia’s efforts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]” (Accent.ge, March 13). While Tornike Sharashenidze, of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, views the current developments as part of “normalization” with Iran that, he claims, began already after 2008 (Author’s interview, March 23). Indeed, thus far, the Islamic Republic does not seem to have a reason to go beyond an application of soft power to enlarge its sphere of influence in Georgia; it encounters only fertile soil on both ends of the Georgian political spectrum, the ruling party and the opposition. Yet, the new US administration is apparently seeking to isolate Iran anew. And if, in alliance with Israel and its other regional partners, the US is ultimately successful in undercutting Iran’s efforts at dominance in the Middle East, Tehran may easily counteract by utilizing its accrued soft power in Georgia. The Islamic Republic could then potentially transform this soft power capital into hard power by actively fomenting religious unrest and destabilizing violence among Georgian minority communities.