SCO and the Iranian Enigma

Enigma! This perhaps is the best way to describe the continued uncertainty over Iran’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Islamic republic first attended the SCO summit as an observer in June 2005 and in March 2008 it had applied for full membership. Nearly a decade later, certainties continue regarding its admission into the geographically contiguous political body that represents nearly 80 per cent of the Eurasian landmass.

The uncertainties come against the backdrop of continuous and constructive Iranian participation in various SCO meetings as an observer and often the country has been represented by its President, initially Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and later on by Hassan Rouhani. Chinese officials often flag that for a long time Iran had “proactively participated” in the SCO activities and made ‘positive’ contributions to the development of the bloc. Like Russian officials have been sending positive signals over Iran. Despite these, the progress over Iran has been limited. How to read this?

At one level the Eurasian bloc which blossomed from the Shanghai Five founded in 1996 has been slow and careful in expanding its membership. More than two decades later, it has eight full members, four observers, six dialogue partners and four guest attendances. In July 2015 the Ufa summit decided to approve the applications of India and Pakistan and the process was formalized nearly two years later when both countries attended the Astana summit in Astana in June this year. In short, unlike many other regional groupings the SCO is not fond of horizontal expansion to make its presence but rather focuses on the value addition a number would add to the goals and influence of the organization.

For long, the Iranian interest and participation in SCO coincided with the controversy surrounding its nuclear program. Partly to overcome the US-led political campaign, Tehran was eager to court other major players and in this endeavor SCO was an attractive preposition. At the same time, the Russia and China the key players of the bloc were not in a position to antagonize the growing international concerns over Iran issue and hence international sanctions and isolation came handy for the SCO not entertaining Iran’s application for full membership. Though legalistic it was a political prudent for the organization.

Hence, the conclusion of the nuclear agreement between Iran and P5+1 in July 2015 and the gradual relaxation of Western sanctions should have removed the legal hurdles for the Iranian admissions. Key SCO members, especially Russia and China, have been making positive noises regarding Iran’s full membership.

Bilaterally all the major players, especially Russia, China and India, have been pursuing closer ties with the Islamic republic, especially in the wake of the nuclear deal. Their engagements are not only political but also economic. If Russia and China are also coordinating their Syrian policy with Iran, India has been pursuing its strategic agenda by building the Chabahar port. By not joining the Saudi-led war against Yemen, Pakistan is also sending friendly signals to Tehran.

The support at the bilateral level, however, proved to be insufficient to ensure Iran’s membership into SCO. The reason has to be located in the context of the uneasiness between Iran and its Arab and non-Arab neighbors. The nuclear deal ironically is seen some of them as a sign of American shift in the Middle East and a tacit endorsement of the Iran-dominated politico-security order in the region, especially the Persian Gulf. Likewise, Iranian opposition to extra-regional presence in the Gulf is not only directed at the US but also aimed at the possible involvement of other powers, especially Russia. Above all, its direct and indirect role in the tension and conflict in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen has unnerved major players such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

The SCO, therefore, cannot ignore the ramification of Iran's full membership, especially on the bilateral relations of some of its key members like Russia and China. Until recently the nuclear controversy provided an alibi to defer a decision on the Iran file and presently this is no longer possible. The organization has to come up with an innovative answer to the Persian puzzle.

One possible way to circumvent the problem would be to co-opt countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia and thereby reduce the negative fallout of Iran’s full membership. This is easier said than done as SCO has been extremely reluctant for a territorial expansionist approach to enhance its presence. As they say, interesting times are ahead for the SCO. 

Professor P R Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.