TBILISI, Georgia — After two apparent assassination attempts against Israeli diplomats in the South Caucasus, many fear this fractured and strategically important region is being pulled into the rising tensions between the West and Iran.
On Monday, police defused a “magnetic bomb” attached to a car belonging to a local driver for the Israeli embassy in Georgia. On the same day, a bomb exploded on an Israeli embassy vehicle in New Dehli, India, injuring several, including the Israeli defense attaché’s wife.
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The attempted bombing in Georgia came less than three weeks after the government of neighboring Azerbaijan announced it had arrested three men who had been recruited and paid to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan and later attack a Jewish school in the country.
Tehran accused Azerbaijan Monday of aiding Israeli intelligence forces in assassinating Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, an Iranian nuclear scientist who was also killed by a bomb magnetically attached to his car in early January. At the time, a top Iranian official told a local newspaper that "Iran's reaction will extend beyond the borders and beyond the region.”
The official added: “None of those who ordered these attacks should feel safe anywhere.”
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All three countries that comprise the South Caucasus — Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia — maintain important relationships with both the West and Iran. Conflict between these two sides could destabilize the fragile, but strategically crucial peace in the region.
Azerbaijan: Fears of an Iranian invasion
Azerbaijan is a major supplier of both natural gas and oil for Europe, and several pipeline projects designed to reduce the EU’s energy dependence on Russia require Georgian territory and Azerbaijani resources.
The two countries are also key links in the Northern Distribution Network, a transit route supplying ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Since Pakistan closed its borders to NATO air and ground transit in November 2011, this route is now the only means for the alliance to get personnel and materials in and out of Afghanistan.
Since the revelation of the alleged Iranian assassination plot, Azerbaijan and Iran have been furiously trading accusations. Tehran has often threatened Azerbaijan with invasion should it allow Western countries to use its territory in support of an operation against Iran.
Georgia: Caught in the middle
Georgian authorities, meanwhile, have been cautious to assess blame in the foiled bombing in its capital, Tbilisi, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly pointed to Iran in the attacks.
Shota Utiashvili, head of the Georgian Interior Ministry’s analytical department publicly noted the similarities between the descriptions of the defused bomb and the one used to kill the Iranian scientist, and said it was designed to target the car’s passengers.
Other top officials have downplayed the link, however, noting that the bomb was found on the driver’s personal car, not an embassy vehicle. Furthermore, pro-government TV channels have made little mention of the incident in domestic news broadcasts.
Georgia has cultivated close ties with Tehran since its brief 2008 war with Russia, signing a visa-free travel agreement with the Islamic Republic and opening up greater economic, academic and commercial links in various agreements with the country.
However, Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has also placed NATO and EU membership at the forefront of his foreign-policy agenda, sending as many as 1,700 troops to Afghanistan’s most violent province in support of the alliance’s war effort there. Before the war with Russia, Georgia had also deployed 2,000 soldiers in Iraq.
Armenia: Trying to stick close to Iran
The country perhaps most vulnerable to the shifting circumstances is Armenia, which relies on Iran for crucial political support and as a route for about one third of its trade. Due to an ongoing territorial dispute with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey have been closed since the early 1990s. It relies on Iran and Russia — through Georgian territory — for its trade and energy supply.
Analysts in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, worry that a damaged or preoccupied Iran could reopen its on-again-off-again war with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia sent its deputy foreign minister to Iran this week, “reinforcing” its relationship with Tehran “for the sake of maintaining peace and stability,” according to Armenian state media.
The Russian factor
Meanwhile, Russia has announced it will hold military exercises in the South Caucasus this year that are unprecedented in scale, involving not only its units in its own North Caucasus territory, but also battalions stationed in Armenia and the Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia.
Over the past year, Russian officials have often warned that foreign intervention in either Syria or Iran could lead to a "wider conflict" in the region. Viewing the South Caucasus as its traditional buffer zone against the Middle East, observers say Moscow is now reasserting its presence in the region.
Stephen Blank, a research professor at the United States Army War College, told the Asia Times earlier this month that leaders in the region are now worried they will be pulled into an unpredictable conflict.
"They are clearly concerned, as are the Russians, about the fact that they're being dragged into a contingency outside their area that they don't really have anything to say about," he said.