Georgia denies US 'putting out feelers'

Army head: Post report that US may use Georgia for Iran ops is 'absurd'.

By KSENIA SVETLOVA JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT,
February 20, 2006 00:05
Saakashvili 298 ap

Saakashvili 298 ap. (photo credit: AP)

Following the Post's report that the US was considering using military bases in Georgia as a platform for a possible attack on Iran, the Georgian chief of General Staff denied the claims. "This is utterly absurd," Levan Nikoleishvili, the Georgian chief of the General Staff told Russian news agency Novosti following the Monday morning report. The Jerusalem Post was told that American officials have been quietly probing whether Georgia, situated just northwest of Iran, will be willing to allow Washington to use its military bases and airfields in the event of a military conflict with Teheran. The Americans have been putting out feelers, a high-ranking Georgian government foreign affairs official told the Post, in advance of a possible military strike to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.

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American reports in recent months, speculating about the possibility of a campaign against Iran because of the failure of diplomatic efforts to thwart a potential nuclear weapons program, have suggested that sustained military action, rather than a single strike, may be required given the number of Iranian nuclear facilities, their divergent locations and Iranian defenses. Georgian government officials said that Tbilisi fears harsh Iranian military retaliation against the Georgian republic if US forces were to use its territory as a base for strikes against Iran, but nonetheless may feel obligated to accede to such a request, given the country's heavy reliance on US aid and support. The US maintains its own military bases in Georgia. While the Americans have been testing the waters lately in this direction, the source indicated, no official request of this kind has yet been made. Georgia is also worried about the possibility of civil unrest, citing the strong opposition by its Muslim minority to the country's participation in the war in Iraq, where there is a limited Georgian military contingent.
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Military collaboration with the US would also have "a most negative effect" on relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, which remains strained since the election of Georgia's US-educated president, Mikhail Saakashvili, in 2004. Saakashvili is considered one of the most consistent US supporters in the post-Soviet bloc and enjoys solid American backing. Indeed, Saakashvili is often accused by Moscow of maintaining an "American outpost in the region." The Georgian source added that a similar US request might be made to Azerbaijan, an immediate neighbor of Iran and another close American ally. The close proximity of both countries to Iran makes Tbilisi and Baku desirable partners in a potential alliance against Iran. Rumors of a possible military alliance between Washington, Tbilisi and Baku first appeared in late 2004, when the Azerbaijani press reported on a meeting between President Ilham Aliyev and senior Pentagon officials, in which the possibility of military cooperation was said to have been discussed. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan have denied that discussions on such cooperation took place. "We do not hold any negotiations that concern military cooperation with the Americans," Kakha Imnadze, Saakashvili's press secretary, said last May. Officials in Baku also rejected the reports. Aliyev claimed that he learned of such negotiations from the press. But, it seems, despite the hasty denials, Iran has taken the reports rather seriously. At the beginning of February, Iranian officials implied that any country that helped the US in military action against it would be subject to harsh retaliation. Neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan possesses sophisticated air defense systems to protect their air space from an Iranian strike, the Georgian government official noted. While Georgia would allow the US to use its soil for technical support during an attack on Iran, Temuri Yakobashvili, an expert on Georgian strategy, told the Post that Washington had yet to formally ask Tbilisi for assistance in such an attack. "At this stage there have not been formal requests," said Yakobashvili, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. Georgia, he said, would be more inclined to allow US forces to use its territory in a military offensive if Iran "did something outrageous against Georgia." Georgia, he said, would most likely be used not as the base for the attack but as a stopover for the US Air Force as well as a transit spot to stock up on fuel and ammunition. "The US is preparing for a variety of scenarios," Yakobashvili said. "Georgia can be used as a transit or for stockpiling ammunition." US forces, Yakobashvili said could also use Azerbaijan as the launch pad for their attack. Azerbaijan, which is closer to Iran than Georgia and enjoys strong ties with Israel and Washington, is also home to US radar stations which line its border with Iran. Azeri officials have, however, ruled out the possibility that their land would be used in a military offensive against Iran, warning that their involvement could trigger harsh Iranian military retaliation against Baku. "We will probably not let the US use Azerbaijan to launch a strike on Iran," Azeri Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov told the Post last week, adding that an attack on Iran would destabilize the entire region. US officials stationed in the region said they did not need Azerbaijan's or Georgia's cooperation in an attack against Iran. According to the sources, if the US wanted to attack Iran, it could always use Iraq or Afghanistan, where US forces are already heavily deployed, as its base. Meanwhile, Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei on Sunday warned that any Israeli attack against it would be "stupidity" and provoke a swift response, state-run television reported. Israel has said it would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear capability, and has indicated it might take "necessary steps" if negotiations fail to convince Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program. Last month, Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Muhammad Najjar said if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran will respond so strongly that it would put the Jewish state into "an eternal coma" like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Iran resumed small-scale uranium enrichment earlier this month after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported it to the UN Security Council over its controversial nuclear program. Iran denies US and Israeli accusations that it seeks nuclear weapons, insisting that its nuclear program is intended to produce nuclear fuel to generate electricity. AP contributed to this report.


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