In U.S.-Iran Conflict, Georgia Walks Thin Line Between Ally and Neighbor

From foreign policy to private banking, Georgian officials are straining to accommodate America's agenda without putting their country in harm's way.

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Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, left, shakes hand with his then-counterpart from Iran, Mohammad Khatami, in this 2004 photo. (AP)

Georgia is clearly the closest US ally in the South Caucasus, moving in lockstep with American interests on just about every foreign policy issue - except one: Iran. Not wanting to become embroiled in a potential regional conflict, officials in Tbilisi are trying to finesse relations with Tehran, while staying in Washington's good graces.

All the saber-rattling surrounding Iran's secretive nuclear program has Georgians on edge. If the United States, European Union and/or Israel try for a forceful solution of the problem, geography suggests that Tbilisi could easily get dragged into a conflict.

"They [Georgian leaders] want to avoid conflict if possible, but they don't feel in control of the situation," said Thomas de Waal, a longtime Caucasus observer and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.

A series of arrests this year related to alleged Iranian plans for terrorist attacks in neighboring Azerbaijan against US and Israeli targets, and a recent bomb incident near the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, have heightened the Georgian government's sensitivities. And not without cause, noted de Waal. "Georgia and Azerbaijan are ... the closest thing that Israel has to allies in the area around Iran, so that makes them vulnerable to the covert war between Iran and Israel," he said.

To limit the chances of blowback in the event of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Tbilisi has assiduously courted Iran's favor, even as it tries to snuggle in the United States' embrace.

Many heads turned last year when Georgia lifted visa requirements for Iranian citizens and talked trade and tourism expansion with Tehran. In the first three months of 2012, almost 13,600 Iranians visited Georgia; a 91-percent uptick compared to the same period during the previous year, according to Geostat, Georgia's national statistics service. During the Nowruz celebrations in March, neighboring Armenia even complained that it was losing Iranian tourists to Georgia.

Some Iranians in Tbilisi say Georgia attracts them for its relaxed culture and the ease with which business can be done. "This is Europe," said one Iranian man, who came to Tbilisi on a business trip. "Things are easy to do, and it feels very open."

Open to a degree. Conscious of American diplomatic and economic support, Tbilisi can only allow so much official friendship with Iran. US Ambassador to Georgia John Bass commented that Washington is in "an ongoing conversation with the Georgian government on Iran" and has "encouraged them to adopt the sanctions specified by Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012."

Among other measures, Section 1245 authorizes the US president to shut off or restrict access to the US financial system for foreign banks found to have transactions with Iran's Central Bank or certain Iranian financial institutions.

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