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Iran Again Fails to Secure Shanghai Cooperation Organization Membership

Richard Weitz

For several years, Iranian officials have sought to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Iran became a formal observer nation at the July 2005 SCO summit, but the country’s leaders have continued to pursue full membership. In April 2007, the Iranian Foreign Ministry submitted an official application to this effect. Even before the seventh annual SCO summit convened in Bishkek on Aug. 16, however, the existing SCO full members announced that they would indefinitely postpone accepting new members.

In the case of the SCO, a primary Iranian objective has been to keep other Eurasian countries from aligning themselves with U.S efforts to isolate Iran or pressure Tehran to change its policies. At the June 2006 Shanghai summit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attending the annual gathering for the first time, called for transforming the SCO into “a strong, influential institution” that could repel “threats of domineering powers to interfere in the affairs of other states.”

Whatever its other economic, political, and security benefits, becoming a full SCO member would help Iran counter the U.S.-led strategy to isolate Tehran to compel the regime curb its nuclear energy program. Many in Washington suspect that Iranian leaders, despite their protestations, are pursuing the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons. In response, Tehran has sought to cultivate ties with the SCO’s Central Asian governments to discourage them from granting the U.S. military access to their territory, airspace, or military facilities in the event that Washington decided to pursue a military option regarding Iran.

Since 2005, when the Uzbek government decided to expel all American military personnel from its territory, Kyrgyzstan has hosted the sole remaining U.S. military base in Central Asia at its Manas International Airport, located near the capital city of Bishkek. The Kyrgyz authorities, under pressure from some SCO members to end this arrangement, have repeatedly stated that they will allow the 1,000 U.S. military personnel at the facility only to support coalition operations in Afghanistan. The Russian Air Force has its own military base at Kant, also located near Bishkek.

Iranian leaders have sought to maintain good ties with China and Russia to advance these interests in Central Asia. All three countries share important mutual interests in Central Asia, including promoting the region’s energy and economic development as an alternative to Western markets, countering Sunni-inspired terrorism, and balancing American influence in the region. Yet, Iranian links with international terrorism movements, Tehran’s support for anti-government groups in Lebanon and other countries, and above all Iran’s controversial nuclear energy program has made Beijing and Moscow seek to keep a certain distance from Tehran.

After the existing SCO members announced their moratorium on new members, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahdi Safari pushed the SCO governments and the SCO secretariat to expand opportunities for observers to participate in the organization’s activities. For example, in a meeting with SCO Secretary General Bolat Nurgaliev in Beijing two weeks before the summit, he proposed allowing observers to assume a more prominent role within the SCO’s network of specialized functional committees. Safari offered to share Iran’s experience “in [the] campaign against drugs, terrorism and extremism as well as its technological know-how.”

At the Bishkek summit, Ahmadinejad launched a major attack on U.S. plans to deploy defenses in Europe against Iran’s growing ballistic missile arsenal. He also called for enhanced cooperation among SCO members and observers in countering various security threats, including the narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan that inundates Iran and other Central Asian countries. In addition, Ahmadinejad reaffirmed Tehran’s interest in helping the SCO to create a regional “energy club.” He offered to host a meeting of oil and gas policymakers from SCO countries to “optimize cooperation in transportation, prospecting, development and refining.”

Last June, then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained about Iran’s presence at the 2006 SCO summit in Shanghai, observing shortly before the gathering that, “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.” This year, U.S officials have largely ignored the Iranian leaders’ travels and statements, as well as the rest of the SCO summit activities, for that matter.

Regardless of Washington’s complaints, China and Russia have solid commercial reasons for maintaining good relations with Tehran. Beijing wants to purchase Iranian oil and gas and sell Iran defense items and other goods. Moscow hopes that Tehran will buy more advanced Russian weapons systems and Russian nuclear technology. Moscow also needs Iran’s endorsement of any multinational regime for exploiting the energy riches of the Caspian Sea. When he met Putin at Bishkek, Ahmadinejad proposed organizing a conference on Caspian Sea issues later this year.

When asked about Western criticisms regarding Iran’s involvement in the SCO, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov argued that the organization could hardly exclude Iranian representatives from its activities: “Iran is objectively present in the region, since Iran is an energy producer and an important transport hub. Iran is a crossroads on the way from South Asia to Turkey and further to Europe, and from Russia towards India and Pakistan. There is a set of distinctive economic interests that underpin interaction between the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and Iran.”

Nevertheless, both the Russian and Chinese governments have made clear they do not support granting Iran full SCO membership, at least while tensions between Tehran and Western countries remain high. For example, when discussing Tehran’s membership aspirations on Aug. 10, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Li Hui said that Iran had “contributed a lot” to the SCO as an observer, a formula that both praises Tehran but weakens the rationale for making Iran a full member.

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