OPINION - Iran poised to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Iran’s full membership as an active country in the Middle East will allow the SCO to increase its influence in the region and counter-balance pro-Western interests

Bijan Tafazzoli  | 24.09.2021 - Update : 24.09.2021
OPINION - Iran poised to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Koc University, Istanbul.


Disillusionment, calculation, and desperation resulted in a series of policy shifts, leading to Iran’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, Iran should not overestimate its new position.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) evolved from the “Shanghai Five” format, which included a series of meetings in 1996-1997 between China, and its neighboring Soviet successor states, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Following Uzbekistan’s accession in 2001, the SCO was formally established, with the goal of fostering security, economic, and cultural cooperation in order to combat the “three evils,” namely terrorism, separatism, and extremism. The SCO is best described by Chinese scholars as “a cart with two wheels”, referring to the equal importance of security and economic cooperation. Since 2004, the organization has been open to interested countries and has begun to grant observer and dialogue status. Since its beginning, however, the SCO has kept its distance from Western powers and rejected the US request to participate in some meaningful way in the SCO. Even before Iran, India, or Pakistan’s membership, some, such as David Wall, dubbed the organization’s approach “an OPEC with a bomb.”

Currently, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and (now) Iran are full members of the SCO. Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia have observer status, while there are six dialogue partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. During its annual Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in July 2021, the SCO also agreed to grant Egypt and Saudi Arabia dialogue partner status.

Iran joined the organization as an observer member, along with India and Pakistan, and while India and Pakistan became permanent members in 2017, Iran could not become a full member until its status upgrades at the September 2021 SCO summit in Dushanbe. Although the SCO agreed to upgrade Iran’s status to full membership, Iran’s accession may take some time, as it did for India and Pakistan, which took two years.

Policy shifts toward Iran’s membership

Despite its observer status, Iran encountered difficulties becoming a full member of the SCO. At the 2010 Tashkent summit, the SCO decided that aspiring member states should not be subject to UN sanctions, making clear that the current member states were not ready for Iran’s full membership. Iran’s membership came to the forefront with the removal of the sanctions through the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, upgrading Iran’s membership status was delayed for several years due to a variety of issues, such as its problems with Tajikistan, the US sanctions, and China’s reservations about its membership. Moreover, the SCO’s institutional design is based on unanimous agreement among all members, and even Tajikistan, for example, could derail Iran’s membership.

The tension between Iran and Tajikistan was an impediment to Iran’s full membership. The two countries’ relations deteriorated when Iran invited Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), to attend the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran in December 2015. A few months previously, Dushanbe had banned the IRPT, accusing Kabiri of masterminding an unsuccessful armed mutiny at home. Tajikistan also claimed that some Iranian economic and financial structures supported the IRPT, and it was particularly irritated by the meeting between Kabiri and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Dushanbe blamed Iran and the IRPT in several cases, including terrorist attacks on Western tourists in the mountains of Tajikistan, even though Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) claimed responsibility and released a video of the attack. Tajikistan was worried that any change in Tehran’s membership status would affect Dushanbe’s position toward the IRPT. However, it seems that Dushanbe and Tehran have finally decided to follow a less ideological and more interest-based approach in their relationship. In April 2021, Iran and Tajikistan agreed to establish a joint defensive committee, paving the way for further bilateral security cooperation. Iran is embroiled in a conflict with the US and has long sought to break free from international isolation. Tajikistan, on the other hand, needs Iran’s transit potential in order to connect to the open waters through Chabahar’s deep-water port.

Sanctions against Iran were a key reason for the SCO’s rejection of full membership for Iran. The US sanctions against Iran, which replaced the UN sanctions, worried the countries in the region about the likelihood of the SCO members becoming involved in Iran’s problems with the US. Although Russia and China’s relations with the US were not warm, the SCO has avoided direct confrontation with the US in the past. The US objection to the prospect of SCO cooperation with Iran could not be more explicit from the beginning. The US was vehemently opposed to Iran being granted observer status, with former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarking in 2006: “It strikes me as passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world: Iran.”

Despite SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang’s quick response to Rumsfeld and rejection of his accusations against Iran, the SCO’s precaution over full Iranian membership persisted in the years that followed. China has been especially wary of Iran’s full membership. It sought peaceful coexistence with the US and avoided confrontations. Considering Iran’s hardline stance against the US, China did not want the SCO to be perceived as an organization that aimed to counter the US. Therefore, China has been hesitant to accept Iran’s full membership, waiting for a more favorable period in Iran-US relations. For some Western observers, China’s reluctance to grant full membership to Iran despite Russia’s support was even an indication of possible division between Russia and China, especially after China’s willingness for considering an application from NATO-member Turkey to join the SCO after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his country could join.

However, the US-China relationship has changed for the worse and blows from the United States continue to fall. From the trade war to the Hong Kong and Xinjiang cases, China sees itself under constant US pressure. Now, as Global Times, a publication close to China’s Communist Party reiterates, while the US continues to “carry out its comprehensive containment of China,” strengthening relations with Iran is not a bad choice, helping to counter-balance or deter the US. As Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out in his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in September, China firmly supports Iran in opposing hegemony and safeguarding its sovereignty, dignity, legitimate rights, and interests. Moreover, as a vital factor, Iran’s geopolitical position interferes with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to build overland routes across Central Asia on an Eastern-Western axis, connecting China to the Black Sea and the Middle East.

SCO countries, especially China, see the SCO as having successfully ensured that Central Asia does not become another Middle East. However, the region faces a number of threats, including refugee, terrorism, and drug abuse issues, particularly in light of the “irresponsible and hasty withdrawal” of US-led Western troops from the region. As China’s state media CGTN stressed, China sees Iran as a powerful and influential state needed to resolve regional security problems, including those that pertain to Afghanistan. The reactivation of the SCO’s Afghanistan Contact Group in 2017 demonstrates the SCO’s desire to play a more vital role in that country.

In China’s view, the current situation in Afghanistan could lead to an outflow of a large number of jihadists from the country, threatening stability in the region. The messy US withdrawal and Taliban takeover have thrown the country into such uncertainty that Iran can now be a part of the SCO plan to handle it. With the Taliban now controlling all borders with Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan, full Iranian membership will significantly boost the SCO’s overall security planning, establishing the SCO as the most important regional organization in relation to the Afghan issue.

Russia used to oppose Iran’s membership in the SCO as well. Its opposition was, in fact, part of a broader foreign policy effort to avoid direct confrontation with the West. Russia saw Iran as a bargaining chip. For instance, there are reports that Russia and the US have reached an informal agreement under which Russia would support UN sanctions against Iran in exchange for the US turning a blind eye to Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the 2008 war with Georgia. However, Russia became disillusioned with the West after the deterioration of the relationship over multiple issues, including Western sanctions over Ukraine-Russia relationship developments. Iran’s full membership as an active country in the Middle East will allow the SCO to increase its influence in the region and counter-balance pro-Western interests.

Does it help?

Iran under Rouhani did not show much interest in having its status upgraded to full membership, keeping in mind two unsuccessful attempts for full membership in 2008 and 2010 under Ahmadinejad. Unlike the Ahmadinejad administration, President Rouhani adopted a Europe-oriented foreign policy and did not express a strong desire for full membership. Iran even sent its foreign minister to the 2017 SCO summit instead of its president, indicating no change in its approach to its current status. In his speech at the SCO summit in 2020, Rouhani made no mention of the upgrade of Iran’s status to permanent membership either, implying Iran’s pessimism on the issue. The failure of the nuclear deal and Rouhani’s unsuccessful attempt to bridge the gap between Iran and the West only strengthened the pessimists, including the supreme leader himself, in their belief that the West could not be trusted and pushed Iran more to the East.

Only a few months after signing the long-gestating 25-year Iran-China cooperation accord, Iran’s full membership in SCO could be seen as another sign of Iran’s policy of looking to the East. Iran’s new membership status in the SCO is a major diplomatic victory for the Raisi administration, which is dealing with complex foreign policy challenges such as the stalled Vienna nuclear talks and Afghanistan’s takeover by the unfriendly Taliban. Tehran’s move should be interpreted as an effort to reverse its international isolation by improving its ties with Russia, China, and Central Asian states. Iran will portray the SCO as the approval of a shift in power balance away from Western countries and toward emerging powers.

The SCO’s non-interference policy towards the regime types of its members is reflected in member states’ domestic politics. As a full member, Tehran can request election monitors and label dissidents as terrorists, extremists, or separatists, while pursuing some stabilization in its domestic and foreign policies. Mehdi Safari, former Iranian ambassador to China and Russia, observes that Iran’s regime believes that with permanent membership in the SCO, the West “will understand that the space for Iran will not be limited.” Some Iranian officials even believe that once Iran is a full member of the SCO, Western countries will be more open to Iran in order to create a counter-balance.

Critics believe that the positive effects of Iran’s full membership in the SCO should not be overestimated. Despite the consensus mechanism, Iran is unlikely to change the decision-making approach of the SCO, as Russia and China are crucial elements of Iran’s look to the East policy. While the two leading countries of the SCO, China, and Russia, share a common interest in removing the US from the SCO region, each is focused on its own expectations from the SCO. China sees the organization as a regional trade and investment facilitator in relation to its Belt and Road initiative, whereas Russia seeks to restore its influence and dominance in Central Asia. The two countries have their own disagreements despite the official policy of economic cooperation. For instance, Russia opposed the creation of a free trade zone among SCO members, fearing the possibility of losing its influence in the region. Moreover, although both China and Russia condemned the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and unilateral sanctions against Iran, it is not clear how the two countries would end or mitigate the US pressure on Iran. After all, they offered no help while the Iranian economy collapsed. And there is the trust issue as well. Previous agreements with China and Russia elicited negative reactions from those Iranians who believe that the two countries are in reality after plundering their homeland. Even prominent figures, including former President Ahmadinejad, have been critical of Iran-China strategic deals. The historic low turnout in Iran’s presidential election in June showed that the Raisi administration should make efforts to gain the trust of the public, the same public that criticizes key SCO players.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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