Vol. 1, No. 21 (December 1, 2008)

Is Iran the main beneficiary of the Russian-Georgian war?

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

During and immediately after the conflict, some commentators in Moscow and Tehran speculated that the Russian government had intervened in Georgia in order to prevent the United States and Israel from attacking Iran.  Whether there was any truth to those suggestions is unclear, but it is certainly the case that Iran has benefited from that conflict more than almost anyone else, exploiting the war to increase its role in the South Caucasus, ties with the Russian Federation, and gain greater freedom of action not only in the Middle East but in Europe and Asia as well. 

Because of the disruptions the Russian-Georgian war caused in the transportation networks in the Caucasus, Iran became a more attractive route out for Caspian basin oil, with Azerbaijan and other countries now willing to consider using it despite continuing American objections.  Baku has announced that it will ship some of its oil via Iran in the future, something that gives Tehran added influence not only in the Azerbaijani capital and in Central Asia but also in the capitals of European countries who want to buy that oil.

Moreover, because the so-called five day war shook to their foundations existing geopolitical calculations in the region, Russia and Armenia used its aftermath as an occasion to press for Tehran’s involvement in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.  Those two countries also sought to push for Iranian inclusion in Turkey’s proposed stability platform, something the US opposes but that some in Ankara are now ready to consider. 

Even if Moscow and Yerevan are not successful in either case, Iran is acquiring a new status as a country many in the region want to have on their side.  That will mean that its leaders and their representatives in the region will have a greater role first informally and then later more formally, whatever Washington may do.  And as a result, in the South Caucasus, Iran is certainly a big winner from the conflict. 

From Tehran’s point of view, an even more important consequence of the conflict is yet another increase in ties between Iran and the Russian Federation.  First, as part of its continuing efforts to draw Iran to its side, Moscow continues to supply Iran not only with nuclear technology but with some of its most advanced military equipment, moves that some in the region think may be a prelude to a request by Moscow to set up military bases in Iran.  That is highly unlikely, but the very fact that it is being mentioned suggests just how close the relationship now is.

Second, Moscow is pushing for the formation of a “gas OPEC” that would allow Russia and Iran, the two leading natural gas producers in the world, to restrict production and raise prices in much the same way as OPEC had been doing with oil, and would reinforce Russia’s effort to promote a north-south transportation and communications network between the Russian Federation and the Persian Gulf.  That would not only tie Iran to Russia but would also increase Russian influence in the Caucasus while reducing or possibly even blocking American and European efforts to promote east-west ties from Central Asia through the Caucasus to the Black Sea and beyond. 

And third, the Russian government in the wake of the conflict in Georgia has stepped up its efforts to promote the idea that Iran should become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and that that grouping should become a security counterweight to NATO and other Western institutions.  If that happens, Iran’s role by virtue of its size and location would be immense, and it is entirely possible that Tehran would end by having a potentially greater influence over Moscow than Moscow over Tehran.  At the very least, Iran’s role in this region will grow, and that is yet another way it has been a beneficiary of a war it did not start or participate in. 

But perhaps the most important consequence of the Russian-Georgian war lies elsewhere.  By distracting attention from Iran’s nuclear program and by reinforcing the growing divide between Moscow and the West, the conflict has given Tehran far more room to manoeuvre.  No longer is every Iranian action considered solely in terms of its nuclear efforts and no longer is it viewed by many as the outcast it had been, a change that has been underscored by statements of US President-elect Barak Obama that he is prepared to talk to the Iranians without preconditions.  

If the Americans are willing to do so, few others – except for the Israelis – are going to feel under any continuing constraint not to.  That is especially likely to be the case with countries like China and the Central Asian states whose regimes are now often classified as “authoritarian capitalist,” a rubric developed over the last few years in order to avoid employing an older and harsher term to the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin.  Iran’s involvement with them, an involvement in which power politics and economics rather than democracy and human rights will be the central themes, will at least for a time increase the chances for Iran to be accepted and have influence where it was earlier treated as an outcast. 

In that way too, Iran is the big winner of this war, even though it was not a combatant and even though it did not even clearly chose sides.  But that reality raises another question, one that as yet has no clear answer.  Will Iran’s rising influence lead it to become a more traditional type of regime, swearing off such activities as support for international terrorists and other sub-state actors?  Or will it lead Tehran to believe that it can now use these things with far greater impunity than in the past?

There are compelling arguments for and against each, but again, the fact that such questions are now being asked represent the clearest possible confirmation that Iran has so far taken advantage of the war in Georgia far more successfully than anyone else and that it is set to play many roles as a regional and even world power that the United States and Israel unsuccessfully sought to prevent.