Iran Worried over Georgian Conflict

In Iran, as in much of the world, the current conflict between Georgia and Russia is viewed as part of a bigger struggle between the West and Russia over influence in the Caucasus region.

Tehran sees Georgia as an important part of U.S. plans to increase its influence in the region -- and fears that such a plan may affect them directly.

These concerns were reflected in an article published in Tabnak, owned by former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai. In an interview with Dr. Mehdi Senai, a politics lecturer at Tehran University, Senai said that Tehran's nuclear program, and the international approach to resolve the dispute surrounding it, may become part of a wider agreement between the U.S. and Russia after the end of the conflict. What worries him is that "Russia's capacity to confront the U.S. is limited."

Iran is concerned that if Russia comes out looking bad in this conflict, it could have two negative repercussions for Tehran.

One is that Iran will lose the influence and support of one of its important allies in the 5+1 group of nations. This influence is very important for Tehran, as Russia recently broke ranks with other members of the group by stating that Iran should be given more time to respond to the recent incentives proposal.

The other worst-case scenario for Tehran is that a weakened Russia, seeking a deal over Georgia, could give the U.S. the green light to launch a military operation against Iran's nuclear facilities. "In the dealings between international powers [i.e., Russia and the U.S.], Iran has to be very careful," warns Dr. Senai.

There are also cultural reasons why Iran would want the Russian-backed South Ossetians to emerge victorious, as their local dialect is very close to Farsi, Iran's national language. Many of the province's citizens have Iranian heritage, as a number of countries in the Caucasus used to belong to Persia before Russia annexed them in the early 18th century.

There are other angles of this conflict which could concern Iran, notably the Israeli connection.

According to the Israeli news site Ynet, Israel has had a seven-year military relationship with Georgia. A wide range of sophisticated weaponry, including remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and training programs for Georgia's special forces, were sold to Tiblisi.

One important person in the Georgian government who helped Israel get these contracts is Davit Kezerashvili, Georgia's defense minister and a former Israeli citizen who speaks fluent Hebrew.

What could cause worry in Tehran is that Jerusalem is trying to use its influence over Georgia as potential leverage to prevent Russia from selling advanced weaponry to Iran in the future.

Israel hopes to achieve this through its recent declaration that it will no longer sell weapons and systems which could be used for attack purposes to Georgia. This means that instead of selling rifles or RPVs, it will confine its sales to defensive equipment such as communication devices.

This move is likely to win new friends and allies for Israel in the Kremlin. Even if Russia doesn't immediately reciprocate, it might do so in the future. The Georgian experience will serve as a good personal example for Russia's leadership and the threat they pose by supplying sophisticated weapons to another country's enemy, especially Iran, which Israel sees as an existential threat, something far more serious than the Georgian threat poses for Russia.

For now, it seems that Ahmadinejad will be doing his utmost to widen Iran's circle of friends. One notable effort is his upcoming trip to Turkey scheduled for August 14. This has already proven to be controversial. Initially, it was declared as a state visit. However, soon his administration realized that all politicians who are on state visits to Turkey must visit the mausoleum of Ataturk, who is considered to be the founding father of secular Turkey.

To religious Iranian revolutionaries like Ahmadinejad, Ataturk represents everything they oppose. The iconic Turkish leader removed religion from government; Ahmadinejad wants religion to be the center point of government. In order to avoid the mausoleum pilgrimage, he changed the title of his trip from a "state visit" to a "working visit," which means he will only visit Istanbul and not Ankara, where Ataturk is buried.

To make matters even stickier for the Iranian president, Israel waded into the story by protesting to Turkey about Ahmadinejad's visit. While the Iranian government described the letter as "lacking value," Iran's decision makers are aware of Turkey's close relationship with Israel, especially when it comes to the recent peace talks between Jerusalem and Damascus.

It is very likely that Ahmadinejad will use Iran's importance as a supplier of energy to Turkey as leverage to convince Ankara to reduce its support for Israel. Unfortunately for him, he will most likely fail. Like the Russians, the Turks are far more interested in boosting their own regional position than in President Ahmadinejad's friendship.