Iran and Georgia's future
20 June, 2013
This past week saw very important Iranian presidential elections. The coverage on the Georigan news was slight, it was treated like the typical international news: Obama said something about something, big shots meet in Switzerland, people die in Syria, some flood in Paraguay or Bangladesh. There wasn't much context, or what this means for Georgia.
Iran is a huge and complex country, poorly understood not just in Georgia but everywhere else. Some things worth knowing: the president is not in
charge. The Ayatollah is in charge. So the importance of these elections is not that the president will be able to do anything or even has that much power but it has great importance as a statement of the public, because since 2009 the religious leadership really worries about public opinion. Because several popular candidates were vetoed in the 2005 election, there was a boycott by the reform oriented voters so Ahmadinejad won. He was successful populist from a small town, not close to the religious leadership, prone to aggressive statement towards the international community. In 2009 the interior ministry stole the election and gave him second term. There were widespread demonstrations about the cheating. This was the most serious damage done to the legitimacy of the government of Iran since the revolution in the late seventies. The Ayatollah runs things and Ahmadinejad was never completely one of his guys.

Several popular reform oriented candidates were prevented from running this time by the Ayatollah, but one was allowed, Hassan Rouhani. He is very educated, has a PhD in law from a university in Scotland and speaks English among many other languages. He was the only cleric among the candidates and has made several statements about transparency related to Iran's nuclear program, freeing political prisoners, and the rule of law. Also ten years ago he was the chief spokesman of the nuclear program so knows it well. The turnout was high and he won over fifty percent of the vote giving him a strong popular mandate.

The international sanctions on Iran are hurting and it is possible but not certain that the government may give up its nuclear weapons program. The negotiations have not gone anywhere for a long time for many reasons, but in part because Ahmadinejad was in the way. Now because of the possibility of a new mood in Iran and because the Americans and Europeans worry about Israel bombing Iran, there is a serious possibility that a deal could be reached. And if there is a deal, that could be very important for Georgia.
Georgia is becoming a very important destination for Iranians that don't want to live full time in the Islamic Republic but want to keep close ties there due to family or business. There are Iranian expatriates in Dubai and Istanbul, Paris and Los Angeles, but for those who want to go back and forth, Georgia is a good choice. Currently due to US sanctions, it is difficult for banks in Georgia or anywhere to do business with Iranians. If there is a deal, it will free up a great deal of Iranian capital that would be interested in investing in Georgia. Rouhani has talked about releasing people from prisons. There are currently thousands of political prisoners and their release or now will be an important test of the intentions of the new administration. But predictably the domestic human rights situation is unlikely to be pushed as much by the Americans as giving up aspirations for nuclear weapons.

Before 1801, Iran was very important in Georgia's history. Very few people in Georgia know much about what happened in Iran after that, for example it's 1906 constitutional revolution, or about Mosaddegh or the Shah. It is worth taking a look at, much to learn with bearing on the region. And the Georigan government should think carefully about its policy towards Iran and be ready to move quickly. So far, as I write, it has said nothing about Iran's presidential election.

When thinking about Georgia and Iran now, I am reminded of those who spent their time learning English in the early nineties when it was dangerous to move around in Georgia. For many of them that decision paid off with a job, since there were so few Georgians at the time who spoke English. In Georgia now, the most important languages are still Georigan, English and Russian. But for those who enjoy studying languages or who look to the benefits that they bring and are thinking about a forth language, the usual choice would be German, French or even Spanish. Consider Persian.

Now is also a good time to visit Iran and to meet and talk to the many Iranians who travel to and from Georgia. Certainly it is a country with an ancient and powerful history and culture. And I suspect Georgians will find more in common with Iranians than they anticipate. In a period when the Georigan Orthodox Church is becoming more and more powerful and involved in Georgia's politics, Iranians can speak with great authority about the consequences of organized religion's involvement in politics and how that has played out in Iran.