Another U.S. Ally Gets in Bed With Iran
One that sits atop vital oil and gas pipelines. So what’s next?
The answer is obvious: nothing good.
The Republic of Georgia lost 20 percent of its territory in 2008 to Russian invasion, and continues to struggle politically and economically from Russian interference in its domestic affairs.
The ruling Georgia Dream party, dominated by pro-Russian oligarch Bidzia (“Boris”) Ivanishvili, won parliamentary elections last October that the opposition declared were rigged. Since April 19, a new power sharing agreement hammered out by the European Union and the United States, seems have convinced the opposition to rejoin the parliament.
But Georgia’s northern neighbor and election irregularities are only part of the former Soviet republic’s problems. It also sits atop a key pipeline that transports oil from Baku, Azerbaijan, through Georgia to Turkey and Western Europe.
The Iranian regime has long sought to block the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, since it rivaled Iran’s own oil and gas exports to Turkey. Because of this, and because of a succession of weak governments in Georgia, the Iranians have established a powerful commercial and intelligence base inside Georgia that has influenced policies and infiltrated the Georgian security and judicial establishments.
Iran’s infiltration of Georgia and manipulation of Georgian state policy led the U.S. Department of Treasury to expose a network of Iranian sanctions-busting traders based in Tbilisi in 2014. As part of the 2015 Iran deal, U.S. sanctions against them were then lifted. By all accounts they continue to operate in Georgia today with the blessing of Georgian politicians and local banks.
The State Security Service has also established robust ties to its Iranian counterpart, the Ministry of Information and Security.
Under the control of then interior minister GeorgiGakharia, SSS-men raided an Iranian restaurant in Tbilisi in February 2018 and arrested its owner, claiming he was engaged in a dastardly plot to hire an assassin to murder other Iranians in Tbilisi.
The man they arrested, Alireza Soleimane-pak, also known as Hamid Reza Zakeri, was a defector from Iranian intelligence who became a witness in the 9/11 court case against the Iranian regime that ultimately led to a damage award in favor of the victims of over $16 billion. He was also a UN-registered political refugee.
I was involved in the 9/11 case, and have interviewed Mr. Soleimane-pak on many occasions over the past 18 years.Since learning of his arrest, I have traveled to Tbilisi twice to attend court hearings.
The Republic of Georgia’s courts have struggled since the 2003 Rose Revolution to separate themselves from political interference.
Nowhere was that failure more apparent than in the February 2021 court order to jail opposition leader NikaMelia, whose arrest became a cause célèbre in Georgia and compelled the government of President Zourbichvili to send the leader of the pro-Russian “Georgia Dream” party to Washington in April to shore up political support.
But Melia’s case is not alone.
After hearings that stretched over more than a year because of Covid restrictions, a Georgian appeals court ruled on March 18, 2021, to uphold a 17-year lower court sentence against Soileimane-pak, despite relieving the prosecutor a month earlier for ex parte communications with the Iranian regime.
As I learned during my trips to Tbilisi and communications with his lawyer, the case against Soleimane-pak was trumped up from the beginning. The appeals court judges acknowledged that it began with a letter from the Iranian ambassador to Tbilisi, an Iranian intelligence officer named Seyed Javad Qavam Shahidi, to the Georgian foreign ministry, alleging a plot by Soleimane-pak to hire an assassin to kill two Iranians living in Tbilisi.
But even the prosecution never claimed that Soleimane-pakmet with the alleged hired assassin until ten days after the Ambassador’s letter.
Making the case all the more absurd, the lower court fired three translators who refused to confirm wiretap recordings of those alleged conspiratorial meetings conducted by the State Security Service. The prosecutor based the entire caseon a fourth translator who worked for the Iranian embassy.
As Soleimane-pak’s lawyer in the appeal, Tariel Kakavadze, pointed out repeatedly, the lower court never allowed for the Iranian embassy translator to be cross-examined, making that evidence inadmissible. The appeals court should have overturned the conviction on that basis alone.
Both Soleimane-pak and his attorney said they felt that “somebody had gotten to the judges” on March 18, the morning they issued their decision in the appeal. That is not how justice is supposed to work, especially in a country that aspires to join the European Union.
In the Resolution they introduced into the U.S. Senate after meeting with the Georgia Dream envoy in April, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D, NH) and Ron Johnson (R, WI) explicitly called on the Georgia government to “institute systemic reforms… to ensure that the judicial system is impartial and independent and not used for political or partisan ends.”
The outrageous appeals court ruling against 9/11 witnessAlireza Soleimane-pak demonstrates a blatant political interference in the judicial system of the Republic of Georgia.
Soleimane-pak asserts that the chief of the counter-terrorism department of Georgia’s state security service struck a deal with his Iranian counter-part to stage his arrest and prosecution. In exchange, Iran agreed to release six Georgian citizens then in Iranian jails. Iran also agreed to pay Georgian middlemen a 25% cut on black market sales of Iranian oil, then under U.S. embargo
In an interview that aired on Jan. 13, 2020, on the opposition TV network, Mtavari Arkhi. Then prime minister Gakharia admitted that he had worked with Iran to arrest and prosecute Soleimane-pak while he was minister of interior in 2018.
A lawyer in the Iran-9/11 case, Timothy B. Fleming, wrote a letter to Georgian President Zourbichvili in December 2019, asking for her to intervene in the case. As president, she has the power to pardon Suleimane-pak, who committed no crimes on Georgian soil and is not even accused of carrying out material acts in the bizaarconspiracy concocted out of whole cloth by Iranian intelligence.
In addition to Senators Shaheen and Rische, a bi-partisan Georgia Caucus, led by Reps Gerry Connoly (D, Va) and Adam Kinzinger (R, Il) continues to champion U.S. investments in Georgia.
But if the Georgian government cannot protect the rights of a political refugee, how can anyone expect them to protect U.S. investors? Indeed, in a detailed interview with me last year, the owner of a Texas oil company, Steve Nicandros, detailed the obstacles raised by Georgian officials to his efforts to develop Georgia’s oil and gas reserves.
It’s time for Congress to hold the Republic of Georgia accountable for its abysmal human rights record, and its extra-legal actions against U.S. investors. Put simply, the United States cannot partner with a government that holds political prisoners at the behest of a terrorist regime, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, and puts U.S. investors at risk.
The case is currently under appeal to Georgia’s Supreme Court.