THE BLOG
09/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Georgia Got Wrong: Iran

For all its seeming complexities, sometimes politics can be painstakingly simple.

Take central Asia. For at least a year now, it's been clear that the Bush administration has two priorities in the region.

The first is to contain Iran and curtail its nuclear program. The second is to contain Russia and curtail its expansionism.

Regrettably, Georgia's President didn't get the memo. The violence currently tearing Mickail Saakashvili's country apart owes entirely to his confusion of those priorities.

In short, Saakashvili thought that the moment the first Russian shell exploded in Georgia, the West would have no choice but to rush to his defense. Georgia had made itself into the poster-child of democratic reform, he thought, so surely the West wouldn't risk letting it once again fall under Russia's orbit.

If this were still 2005, the year of President Bush's visit to Georgia, Saakashvili's may have been right.

But a lot has happened since. In particular, the violence in Iraq that same year, together with the fighting in southern Lebanon in 2006, showed the world what Iran could accomplish if it wanted to flex its newfound muscle. And thereafter a panic set in -- both in Washington and Jerusalem -- about what Iran might do if it had a nuclear weapon to protect itself. Almost overnight, the most pressing concern in central Asia shifted from containing Russia to containing Iran.

What the violence in Georgia has revealed is just how extensively Washington has realigned its interests in central Asia. The Bush administration has no desire to let Georgia burn, yet that's exactly what it's doing.

And the reason is that Bush has no choice. There are only two ways to contain the Iranian threat: one is to use Israel as a military proxy -- in essence, to green-light Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear installations. If need be the Bush administration will prove willing to do this, but they'd prefer not to; there would be immediate military fall-out in Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel, not to mention another surge in the energy market.

The only other option is diplomacy. And here Russia comes back into play: since Russian banks and technology are currently keeping Iran afloat, it's the only country with sufficient leverage to force Iran to stop its nuclear program. Without Russian approval, the threat of added sanctions is all but meaningless.

That is why Bush is letting Russia have its way with Georgia. To be sure, ultimately Bush will step in -- in fact, Russia, wary of another Chechnya, seems to be banking on that happening. But full American intercession won't come until Russia feels confident that it has degraded Georgia's military to the point where it neither will nor can risk invading Abkhazia or South Ossetia any time soon.

What remains to be seen in all this is whether Putin will return the favor. At present, the Bush administration thinks it's trading violence in Georgia for potential violence in Iraq and Lebanon.

Hopefully they're right. Otherwise, we're headed toward violence in both.