Iran’s entry as SCO’s ninth official member can strengthen this organisation’s security foundations and cultural connections and contribute to its economic development. The increased number of ancient civilised states within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can also provide a basis for the formation of Asian dialogues and a development-oriented approach through political, economic, and cultural cooperation, leading in the long run to the emergence of a joint security complex, writes Mandana Tishehyar, Faculty Member at the ECO College of Insurance, Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran, Iran.
When a number of heads of Central Asian countries, together with Russian and Chinese leaders, tried to establish an organisation in the 2000s to expand security and reduce border disputes, perhaps no one thought that the organisation would encompass an area almost as vast as Asia after a couple of decades. As a continental organisation, not only has the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) succeeded in meeting its primary security goals in these years, but by providing a broader definition of the concept of security, it has also tried to expand economic, social, and cultural cooperation among its central members and other partners and benefit from various tools to maintain stability and security in different parts of Asia.
In the meantime, Iran’s official membership in the SCO (which will be finalised in April 2023) can strengthen the three main security goals stipulated in clause 3 of Article 1 of the organisation’s charter, namely to “jointly counteract terrorism, separatism, and extremism”.
Concerning the counteracting of terrorism, Iran has shown in recent decades that it has the ability and motivation to prevent terrorist operations and ensure security within its borders and has emerged as one of the safest countries in the region. It has also been able to expand the strategic depth of its security measures to other neighbouring countries and to confront terrorist groups beyond its borders directly. Iran’s cooperation with the governments of Syria and Iraq to counteract terrorism in large parts of those countries and their success in defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups is well indicative of the effectiveness of Iran’s military and political powers in the establishment of security across the region. On the other hand, Iran’s confrontation with drug cartels and other organized criminal groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in recent years highlights the country’s approach to ensuring peace and social and economic stability at the regional level.
Accordingly, Iranian civil society can provide the newly independent member states of the SCO with an excellent model on which to build their national identities. Moreover, considering the presence of states with common ethnic groups and religions in the organisation, it can be expected that serious steps will be taken in the near future to form a common continental society to strengthen social and cultural ties between the peoples of these countries. Due to its effective ability in the scientific, cultural, and social fields, Iran can play a valuable role in constructing common norms and values and shaping the so-called common society.
In terms of the fight against religious extremism, although in the first years of the Central Asian and Caucasus countries’ independence, propaganda was broadcast to introduce Iran as a revolutionary country intending to export religious extremism to other states, what has actually happened in relations between Iran and the countries of the region during the last three decades is a pragmatism based on the provision of national interests and security through the expansion of ties with secular governments in the region. Not only has Shiite Iran avoided any associations with the Sunni Islamist groups in the region, but also it has been worried, in many cases, about the spread of radical Wahhabi and Salafist ideas by some other countries in the region. Although Iran is still considered an ideological political system with a unique Islamic Republican model, the priority to cooperate with the central governments in neighbouring countries and efforts to establish security and stability at both national and regional levels have all set the fight against religious extremist groups high on the country’s security agenda. Therefore, Iran’s membership in the SCO is expected to help strengthen the organisation’s defence capacities against the radical movements of extremist groups.
In addition, since the SCO also benefits from economic and cultural tools to strengthen its security goals, Iran’s capacities in this area can also be helpful to the organisation. A review of the organisation’s map clearly demonstrates that Iran is connecting at least four central regions of the organisation. Iran neighbours Central Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and the Caucasus. Besides, the two major economic projects of the region (the Belt and Road Initiative and the North-South Transport Corridor) find their pathways through Iran, and the country’s ports, railways, and highways are of prime transnational importance. Evidently, Iran is the main crossroads connecting the organisation’s central member states and partner countries. Iran’s rich oil and gas resources also make the country a fit member to participate in the SCO’s energy club.
In this way, Iran’s entry as SCO’s ninth official member can strengthen this organisation’s security foundations and cultural connections and contribute to its economic development. The increased number of ancient civilised states within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can also provide a basis for the formation of Asian dialogues and a development-oriented approach through political, economic, and cultural cooperation, leading in the long run to the emergence of a joint security complex..