The Caucasus that for centuries had been under strong influence of the Persian Empire, and sometimes even a part of it, today is again returning to being a subject of interest of Iran. This is happening after bicentennial break, during which Russia incorporated this strategically important Caucasus region into itself.
The collapse of the Soviet Union made Iran face necessity to deal with new sovereign states that emerged on post-Soviet space. First of all these were Armenia and Azerbaijan, that have common borders and influential community in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Azeris, moreover, account for no less than the quarter i.e. 16 million (according to other estimation up to 30 ml) of the population of Iran and fully control several provinces.
The danger of separatism in Iranian Azerbaijan, division of the Caspian Sea, proximity of Karabakh and other natural factors contributed to pursuance a quite intense policy of Tehran in the Caucasus. So what allows us to speak about activization of Iran in the Caucasus only now, after two decades after the disappearance of the Soviet Union?
Until recently, Tehran "worked" with its immediate neighbours – Yerevan and Baku - and this relationship was well within mainstream of natural interaction, which usually occurs between the neighbouring states. Iran showed no desire to become a regional player in Georgia - a key constituent of the region. Iranian presence has been virtually nonexistent until now. For all these years what reminded Georgians of the country that left a deep trace in Georgian culture, Georgian language, Georgian mentality, and with which, finally, many bloody and heroic pages of Georgian history are connected? Probably just an impressive mansion of the Embassy of Iran, built relatively recently in front of Russian diplomatic mission, and television programs about Georgians living in Iranian province of Fereidan.
But now Islamic cultural and educational center "Aalyul Beit" was added to the above list. It has been in the capital of Georgia for several years now and has branches in Marneuli and Gardabani and until recently was almost unnoticeable. But a month ago a new building of Aalyul Beit was opened in Tbilisi. And they are already engaged in training local Azerbaijanis in working with computer. Judging by equipment of the centre and its start (on this below) Tbilisi office of the Iranian network Aalyul Beit promises to be quite active. And if we look at the political agenda, recent days have seen a sharp increase in intensity of Georgian-Iranian contacts at intergovernmental and public level.
On January 18th, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia paid a visit to Tehran, where he was received at the highest level and discussed strategic issues related to stability and security in the Caucasus. During this visit, Grigol Vashadze received an advice from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to seek NATO membership. Vashadze also praised "a balanced and principled" position of Iran on regional development and expressed readiness of Tbilisi to broaden consultation with Iran.
On January 26th government delegations of Georgia and Iran, headed by Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki were in Yerevan. Seemingly they were there independently and with regards to separate issues but at the same time and in one place. On the same day fairly representative delegation of Iranian clergy arrived in Tbilisi to participate in a round-table discussion on "Christianity and Islam about terrorism". Despite informal nature of the visit, the fact itself is interesting as Iran's clergy is not separated from the state but, rather, controls the state and represents the state.
Guests arrived to discuss at a round table peacekeeping capacity of religion and its role in the fight against terrorism. They did not hide the fact that organization of this meeting was due to the warm relations existing between Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II and the head of the Inter-religious Rapprochement Committee of Iran, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri (immediate organizers of the event were Georgian non-governmental organization Center for Ethnic and Religious relations "Sherigeba" ("Reconciliation ") and the Iranian embassy in Georgia with support of the center of relations with the religions of the Patriarchate of Georgia and the Iranian Organization of Inter-religious Rapprochement).
The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church personally received the Iranian delegation at his residence, paying particular attention to a brother of the powerful ayatollah - Dr. Mohammed Mehdi Taskhiri. Then participants of the round table went to the center "Aalyul Beit", where they were reading reports and exchanging views with representatives of the Georgian Patriarchate, theologians, scientists and experts for the entire day. The meeting aroused big interest among journalists. Apart from Georgian television stations that day the centre was visited by representatives of Azerbaijani television, Turkish press and the Iranian English-language channel PressTV (film crew of which began working in Georgia on a permanent basis after the August war with Russia).
Interesting examples and parallels, calls to join forces and to oppose religion foundations to violence and to lead people to dialogue and peace – the parties uttered many words, befitting the theme of the meeting. Moreover, representatives of Iranian theocracy have demonstrated tolerance and ability to talk about uniting postulates of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, that could have been envied by the most ardent European liberals.
During the break, Dr. Mohammed Mehdi Taskhiri answered questions of the Club of Experts:
- Why is a round table on this theme held in Tbilisi? Is there some hidden meaning?
- We participate in dozens of international conferences - mostly in those countries where there is the most severe crisis and the most difficult situation. Tbilisi in this context is the most tranquil city. I believe that the Orthodox faith in Georgia is represented in its best form, that it is more elevated than in Russia. I believe that conferences of this type should take place in places just like this where there is more faith and goodwill. Of course, this too is a reason. This is the environment and the attitude that we will not find in other countries - that is connected with the Orthodox faith. There are ancient Orthodox monuments here. Where culture has deep roots, it can have a major impact on people. We do not feel any opposition here - we see warm, sincere attitude and people with deep cultural roots that support them in their faith. Another reason why the conference is held in Tbilisi is warm relations between Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and Ayatollah Taskhiri. I think that the Patriarch is a great force, and he could have a great influence and play a very important role not only in Georgia but also in future relations between nations and religions.
- Despite the fact that Tbilisi is a quiet place, we are in a tense region. We have territories that were occupied by other country and there are constant tensions in the neighbouring North Caucasus that many consider to be the real war. At the round table it was noted that it is often very difficult to distinguish between terrorism and liberation movement. Russia says it is fighting terrorism in the North Caucasus. One part of North Caucasians considers it national liberation fight, while others are speaking about jihad under the banner of Islam - again, in order to achieve freedom. What do you think about this in Iran?
- One thing is a general view of terrorism. Another is a subjective attitude to this phenomenon. All over the world it is discussed how to deal with such terrible phenomenon as terrorism, where is the line, how it can be stopped, what role religious leaders can play ... These questions are present and remain relevant always. There is another side. Attitudes of people in these regions to events that are happening. For example, people in Iraq believe they are fighting against occupants. In Iraq there are terrorist groups whose victims are Iraqi people themselves. So there are two groups, one of which is fighting against invaders, while actions of the other group cause people's suffering. The same situation is in Afghanistan. There a victim of some people is Afghan people, and others are directly fighting against occupants. We all know that we are dealing with such things. This is happening in Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, the Maghreb, and Palestine – in the entire Middle East. Palestinian land is occupied, local population is expelled. There are groups that are fighting against this violence and are leading liberation struggle. There are groups that cooperate with the regime, and those who are struggling with the regime. You can look at South America, Venezuela, Northern Ireland, etc. There are many groups. If one considers this globally, but subjectively, one will never find a way out. People must know themselves whether they are fighting against the truth or for the truth. I communicate more with clergy of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and you are more familiar with the region and better know local clerics. If I do not know well what work they do, then I cannot say what they are fighting for. If you are interested in political position of Iran on this issue, it is a prerogative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- We are interested in attitude of Iranian society, but it seems that this issue is not urgent in Iran?
- Yes, we're not very familiar with events in this region. I know more about the events in Afghanistan than in the Caucasus. But there are experts who are working on these issues, and they are certainly better informed. However, we must bear in mind that sometimes the experts are wrong and give wrong information to the leadership of those states that later carry out occupation, and then are faced with strong opposition in the occupied countries where there are serious conflicts after that. This means that in such large countries as the United States, there is no correct information. That happened in Iraq, where they expected to receive people's support.
- Does this conference mean that we will see Iranian delegation in Georgia more often, and contacts between the two countries will become more intense?
- I can not say exactly what will happen. But this is our goal and this was reason behind the round table, which is a sign that it should be like this and that our relations should be expanded. And not only in the context of combating terrorism. We can discuss common issues in Islam and Christianity, human values, which are incorporated in both faiths. We can share with each other our culture, our values. Such contacts may lead to contacts in other spheres, for example, political, economic... People of goodwill are always ready to hold such meetings.
Today hardly anyone would undertake with all the responsibility to assert that the activization of contacts between Georgia and Iran heralds major changes on the geopolitical map of the region. But all processes begin with something, and today opening of cultural centres, beginning of informal dialogue are as much a necessary part of building bilateral relations, as political contacts at the governmental level.
If we accept hypothesis that Tehran has decided to develop Iranian-Georgian relations, it clearly indicates intention of Iran to take a definite niche in the Caucasus. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain desire of the Islamic Republic of Iran to spend time and resources on strengthening ties with a country, with which currently almost nothing connects Iran. Which, at that, is a strategic partner of the United States and has friendly relations with Israel. These are two states of which the first is perceived in Iran as the worst enemy, and right of existence of the second was even denied by President Ahmadinejad.
Regional ambitions of Iran – are they good or bad for Georgia? Definite answer to this question could be given with time, when Tehran will mark its interests and will give observers more food for analysis and conclusions. At the level of speculation it is worth mentioning that Georgia could become a channel for dialogue of Iran with the West, in particular, with the United States. And Iran can assist Georgia in a conversation with Russia, which has traditionally close ties with Tehran (what is worth at least a factor of Russia in Iran's nuclear program). Another promising direction is involvement of Iran in a regional gas transportation and oil transportation network, which will deliver Iranian oil to external, and first of all European, markets. But whatever the goals and aspirations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, one can predict in advance that it will act in oriental style - delicately, quietly, without attracting undue attention and putting on display as little as possible.