Iran plays the mediator in Caucasus
As Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad prepares to travel to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, his country role as mediator in the Caucasus provides an edge in public diplomacy. Such image and mediation not only contradicts the US declaration of Iran as a rough state but also allows Tehran to counteract a diplomatic expansion of Turkish influence in the Caucasus.
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi. Contradicting the United States' negative image of Iran as a rogue state threatening its neighbors, its foreign policy machinery is churning out proactive initiatives aimed at de-escalating tensions in the region, with particular focus on the Caucuses and Central Asia. Tehran's role as a mediator is taking shape as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad prepares for his visit to New York to attend next week's annual United Nations gathering. But a hostile reception is guaranteed there as demonstrations planned against him will be bolstered by the presence of Republican vice presidential hopeful Senator Sarah Palin..... The nation's recent diplomatic interventions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia and Georgia, are an enlightening indication of Iran's capacity to act as a "main pillar of regional stability", to paraphrase Ahmadinejad in his latest interview. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced during his visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, on September 17 that Iran is prepared to assist with "finding new ideas that can help the region exit from the present [Georgia-Russia] crises". In his meeting with Mottaki, Georgia's embattled President Mikheil Saakashvili also admitted that Iran had a "big place in the region". Mottaki hinted at Iran's readiness to mediate between Tbilisi and Moscow, but added, "The absence of a declared position means that decisions on this matter have not been made yet." In addition to its physical proximity and historical ties, Georgia is also important for Iran because of the planned north-south energy and transport corridor which will traverse the Caucasus. Iran and Georgia are exploring ways to improve bilateral commercial and energy relations. With a nod from Moscow, as well as from the European Union, Iran could play a catalytic role in mediating the explosive conflict. But to play this role optimally, Iran must enhance its security dialogue with Europe - which is why Mottaki also visited Germany as part of his whirlwind diplomatic efforts to tackle the crisis - and break some ice with the US, as Washington may still seek to block Iran's efforts if it misperceives them as an adjunct to Russia's diplomacy. Iran is keen to harvest any windfall from the new US-Russia tensions, as already seen in Moscow's impending sale of a new anti-aircraft system to Tehran, but such a misperception about Iran by the US is not helpful. It would be folly to ignore Iran's concerns about Russia's ambitions, which Tehran University political scientist Elaheh Koolaye described as an effort to "restore hegemony". Most Iranian political analysts do not anticipate any new shift in Iran-Russia relations, and if anything Mottaki's meeting with Saakashvili - declared a "political corpse" by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev - indicates that Iran is not intent on blindly following Moscow's script, particularly if Moscow continues with its anti-Iran measures at the UN. From Tehran's vantage point, ruling Russian nationalists are capable in the long run of mischief even nearer to Iran's borders, which is why Iran is presently committed to a dual containment strategy with respect to the US and Russia. However, the United States' escalating pressure on Iran may soon translate into it increasingly siding with Russia to counter a common US threat. But with Iran and the United States enjoying a pool of shared interests in the Persian Gulf, it would be wrong to attribute Iran a "Cold War lens", when Iran operates as a regional power based on its own independent calculations. Iran has embarked on new and energetic efforts to mediate the territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and that was a main message delivered in the Armenian capital Yerevan by the visiting Mottaki before his trip to Georgia. Armenia's Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was also told by Ahmadinejad during a previous visit to Tehran that "there is no need for NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] for the resolution of regional problems". Iran's new conflict-management momentum is partly due to its fear that regional tensions could adversely affect its own national security interests, and partly born by Tehran's determination to offset Turkey's attempt to form a Caucasus alliance which would exclude Iran. In his recent historic visit to Armenia, Turkish President Abdullah Gul proposed a Caucasus alliance comprising Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the US and Russia. But given the new Russia-Turkey tensions in the Black Sea - which resulted in Russia's stunning move to ban Turkish goods - any such talk of an "alliance" is viewed with suspicion by Moscow and Tehran as an indirect bid by Washington to move the geopolitical pieces against both Russia and Iran. "For now it looks like a football match with the US and Turkey on one side and Iran and Russia on the other, and that is why Moscow needs Iran more than ever before and cannot risk taking any action that would alienate Iran," a Tehran political analyst told the author. He emphasized the need for Russia to show goodwill by finishing the Bushehr nuclear power plant and giving Iran "some of the sophisticated arms, such as tanks" that Moscow has refused until now. But what about Moscow's own misgivings about Iran's peaceful nuclear program, which have caused Moscow to back three rounds of UN sanctions on Iran? The Tehran analyst dismisses those misgivings and points out that Iran's Defense Minister Amir Mousavi has flatly denied new allegations by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has attempted to redesign its Shahab-III missiles to carry a nuclear payload. According to Mousavi, Iran's missile program is for defensive purposes and has no nuclear weapon components. Such assurances by Tehran undoubtedly go a long way in addressing Moscow's concerns, thus paving the way for Russian arms sales to Iran. An important issue is how Washington will react to these developments. In an interview with IRDiplomacy, Mousavi indicated that a number of Arab states in the region "have entered the scene and various efforts are underway ... to forge some diplomatic understanding between Tehran and Washington". Even in the US, in light of a recent letter to President George W Bush signed by five former US secretaries of state urging the White House to enter into direct negotiations with Iran, there is a great deal of sentiment in favor of reaching a modus vivendi with the Islamic republic. Unfortunately, as reflected in Palin's ill-advised decision to speak against Ahmadinejad at a Jewish rally in New York, the mood in the US is dominated by pro-Israel forces, who are apt to geopolitical reductionism and constant demonization of Iran for the sake of Israel's narrow interests. In his latest press conference, Ahmadinejad promised "some good news" after returning from New York, and there are unconfirmed reports of an Iran-"Iran Six" meeting on the sidelines of the UN gathering to discuss the Iran nuclear standoff. A first step by Washington to acknowledge Iran's role in regional stability is still missing though, and one should not expect any reference to it in Palin's speech at the planned anti-Ahmadinejad rally.