Georgia and Iran: A new bridge between the Arabian Gulf and Black Sea?

Fuad Shahbazov

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In the end of April 2017, Georgia and Iran held several join events, and round table meetings aimed at deepening of bilateral strategic cooperation between two regional countries. Even though, there are certain obstacles for growing cooperation, Iranian and Georgian officials have conducted two vis-a-vis meetings in the end of April.

Firstly, Iranian delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Tbilisi on April 18. Simultaneously, on the same day, Tbilisi host the Georgian – Iranian Business Forum, where about 100 companies from both countries were represented. “Iran is a country with one of the most serious economic potentials” in the region, said Minister of Economy Giorgi Gakharia, during the opening ceremony.

Seemingly, by hosting the business forum for a number of Iranian companies, Georgia seeks to encourage them to invest more in various spheres of the country such as tourism, telecommunication, city infrastructure, and so on.

It is not fully clear whether Iran and Georgia will start the implementation of the new transit corridor soon or not, but one point is clear that the project will increase the importance of Iran and the Caucasus region as a safe bridge between East and West.

Fuad Shahbazov

Eventually on April 23, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili paid an official visit to Tehran. Such an unexpected turning point in bilateral relations between Georgia and Iran raises a question, how long will this strategic cooperation last?

During the official meeting both in Tehran, and Tbilisi, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) covering agricultural, industrial production, transport, energy fields has been signed. In addition to the MoU, Georgian and Iranian delegations in Tehran signed a deal for Iran to export of 4 million cubic meters of gasto Georgia. “Iran is ready to export natural gas to Georgia from Iran through Azerbaijani territory”, said Iranian vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri.

Although a wide range of topics were on the table during Tehran meeting, the transport issue appeared to be on the top of agenda for both of sides, since Minister Javad Zarif previously has underlined the necessity of development of cooperation in this field in Tbilisi.

Obviously, Tehran does not hide its intention to launch new transit corridors in order to diversify transit routes. Since 2014, Iran has done a lot to modernize its transportation system, while the volume of goods transiting through Iranian railways has doubled. Yet despite this increasing interconnectivity, Iranian officials say the country is still using only half of its total transit capacity, which is around 10 million tons per year.

Considering the current geopolitical challenges in the region, Tehran has sped up efforts to establish new routes to Europe. Notwithstanding the fact that Iran is directly connected to Europe via Turkey, the recent political challenges in this country had prompted Tehran to seek alternative routes to Europe. For years, Turkey has been the best conduit for the transportation of Iranian goods to reach Europe. Supposedly, the new transit corridor will not minimize the role of trans-Turkish route. Simply to say, Iran seeks for additional routes to increase the volume of trade with Europe.

The Arabian Gulf – Black Sea, which involves road, rail and sea transport would serve as a suitable platform to deliver Iranian goods to European markets through the Caucasus region. The route begins from the Arabian Gulf to the south of Iran, stretches to the north of the country and then goes to Azerbaijan, from where it reaches the Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi in the Black Sea.

Azerbaijan as a reliable partner?

Nevertheless, the problem is that currently there are no direct land connections between Georgia and Iran. Therefore, Iran proposed the construction of a new railway connection between two countries passing through Azerbaijani territory. It should not come as a surprise that the choice of Tehran as a reliable partner has fallen on Azerbaijan. Tehran fully apprehends the importance of Azerbaijan as an important and trustworthy regional player, which also maintains good relations with Russia, unlike neighboring Georgia.

“Iran can serve as a linkage for Georgia and other regional countries to the Arabian Gulf, Sea of Oman and Indian Ocean, while Georgia is able to facilitate Iran’s access to the Black Sea. Today, regional transit has special importance”, said President Rouhani during the press conference with Prime Minister Kvirikashvili. Iran has been negotiating the abovementioned corridor with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Italy and Greece over the past several months. In the case of Armenia, the country authorities are still have not taken any serious steps towards the implementation of early phase of the new transit corridor. Therefore, further participation of Yerevan in this project is under question.

The Arabian Gulf – Black Sea transit corridor gives a number of benefits to participating countries as it enables them to diversify transportation system. Moreover, the project is seemingly beneficial for European countries as well, since it gives a direct access to the Arabian Gulf, which is the shortest route to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Yet it is not fully clear whether Iran and Georgia will start the implementation of the new transit corridor soon or not, but one point is clear that the project will increase the importance of Iran and the Caucasus region as a safe bridge between East and West.
Fuad Shahbazov (@fuadshahbazov) is an Expert-Advisor for the Foreign Policy Analysis Department of Baku-based Center for Strategic Studies.

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