If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Georgian capital Tbilisi this year, he might feel somewhat uncomfortable as his motorcade speeds down the main road from the airport to the city centre – it’s called George W Bush Street. Named after the US president who gave financial and moral support to Mikheil Saakashvili’s 2003 Rose Revolution, the road name symbolises Georgia’s subsequent pro-western and pro-Nato political trajectory.
Just two years ago, a visit by the Iranian president to this outpost in the South Caucasus would have been unthinkable. But the idea is now being seriously discussed, as one of the more surprising bilateral partnerships in the region begins to blossom.
Already last year, the Iranian foreign minister visited Georgia twice, signing a range of trade agreements. The Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze said in November that bilateral trade was up 63 per cent in the past year, while the number of Iranian tourists grew by 173 per cent. That figure should boom even further next week when a visa-waiver agreement comes in to effect on 26 January: citizens of the two countries will be allowed bilateral visa-free travel.
Tbilisi hopes that lifting the visa requirements will stimulate a huge wave of Iranian tourists to the country, especially to the Black Sea resort of Batumi. Iran has recently opened a consulate in the city, and Saakashvili wants to turn it into the region’s biggest tourist hub. Direct flights between Tbilisi and Tehran have also been initiated for the first time in over a decade, as well as flights from the Iranian capital to Batumi. The Iranian foreign minister has also spoken about developing a new transit route from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea, via Iran, Armenia and Georgia.
There are many geopolitical nuances behind this strange alliance between a staunchly pro-American and pro-Israeli Georgia and an Iran steeped in anti-western rhetoric. Not least is Tehran’s irritation at Moscow’s recent tougher stance on its nuclear programme, prompting them to retaliate by courting Moscow’s biggest enemy.
Foremost among Georgia’s reasons for the unlikely liaison, however, is simple realpolitik. “The cooperation between Georgia and Iran disproves the cliché that has taken hold both in Russia and the West that all post-Soviet republics follow either a pro-Russian or pro-western foreign policy course,” says Sergey Markedonov, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In reality, these small countries, which are not rich in either natural resources or military capacity, pursue policies that I call ‘national egoism’, or simply putting their own interests first.” As the president of a small country surrounded by big neighbours, Saakashvili needs all the friends he can get, whatever their views might be on the Holocaust, or his beloved George W Bush.