Now that the UN Security Council has blessed the Iranian nuclear deal, Tehran’s chances of becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in coming years have improved, following a decade of rejection. Iranian leaders have long wanted to join the SCO to gain diplomatic, economic, and security advantages. Nonetheless, Iran will need to overcome several major obstacles on its path to full membership, even if nothing goes amiss with the implementation of its nuclear deal.
BACKGROUND: Recent years have seen a sharp juxtaposition of Iranian ambitions with Eurasian realities. Iranian officials have lobbied for full membership since obtaining formal SCO observer status in July 2005, along with India and Pakistan, because they have seen benefits from the enhanced status. Despite Tehran’s aspirations, its government’s links with international terrorism, support for militant extremists in foreign countries, and its controversial nuclear energy program have made the existing SCO members reluctant to incorporate Iran.
The formal obstacle to Iranian entry has been that the SCO members decided years ago that the organization would not allow any country under UN sanctions to become a full member. Although this was a generic ban based on principle, it has in practice applied only to Iran, the sole SCO membership candidate under UN sanctions. The mechanism was a clever way of allowing Beijing and Moscow to disclaim direct responsibility for excluding Iran from of the SCO by pointing to the sanctions, which Russia and China had a critical role in enacting as veto wielding permanent members of the Security Council.
The SCO governments have been wary of the Islamic Republic’s ties to Islamist extremism and combative stance toward the West. When he was president, Ahmadinejad would typically use SCO leadership meetings as occasions to castigate various Western policies. Western governments would have reacted negatively to Iran’s entry into the SCO, which could also have entangled Central Asians in the various deadly Middle East disputes. In 2006, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld preemptively complained about Iran’s presence at the SCO summit in Shanghai, stating 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.” Central Asian governments had no desire to get sucked into the tumultuous regional politics of the Middle East.
SCO governments must have also questioned whether they would really gain major economic and energy benefits from allowing Tehran to join the organization. Iran was suffering heavily under the economic sanctions and its businesses have the reputation of being difficult and demanding partners. While Iran is the world’s second largest natural gas producer as well as a major oil exporter, the SCO has been unable to pursue collective energy projects; those SCO members seeking Iranian energy, such as China and now India, can obtain it directly and have found Western sanctions, not Iran’s exclusion from the SCO, to be the main impediment to deeper energy and economic cooperation.
At the July 2015 SCO summit in Ufa, members invited India and Pakistan to begin the formal membership accession process. The group could fully upgrade India and Pakistan to full membership status at next summer’s summit in Uzbekistan. Whenever that occurs, the two countries will be the first to acquire SCO membership outside of the original six founding members (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). With the entry of India and Pakistan approved and the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, the SCO can now formally consider Iran’s membership application into the organization. Whether the sanctions were truly the only obstacle to Iran’s accession, or merely an excuse for its exclusion from the SCO, will soon become clearer.
IMPLICATIONS: Under the new president, Hasan Rouhani, Iranian rhetoric has become less threatening and its behavior more acceptable to Central Asian leaders. When he attended his first SCO leadership summit last August, Rouhani reaffirmed his government’s commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons and to a diplomatic settlement to the Iranian crisis. He also joined the SCO governments in calling for a negotiated peace settlement between the Syrian government and its opposition and welcomed the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile without foreign military intervention. The current Iranian government has found common cause with the SCO governments and called for joint measures against the Islamic terrorism, political extremism, and narcotics trafficking emanating from Afghanistan.
Rouhani met with leaders from Russia, India, China, and Belarus to discuss regional security issues and the prospect of normalizing economic relations following the lifting of sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. Before the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that existing SCO members had “reached consensus to raise Iran’s position in the organization after its nuclear issue is solved.” Though the summit only offered India and Pakistan full membership and did not act on Iran’s application, leaving Tehran’s status unresolved, Rouhani was a “Special Guest” and delivered a keynote address at the summit meeting. He also took part in the BRICS summit in Ufa and termed the meeting of SCO-BRICS heads of state an important and effective mechanism. The summit’s new counterterrorism focus on countering the Islamic State has played into the Iranian line that Tehran opposes terrorism, at least by Sunni extremists.
The Iranian rhetoric, even if not always backed up by action, combined with the July 14 nuclear deal and agreed sanctions relief has softened opposition to Tehran’s becoming a full SCO member. Russia is trying to tie Iran towards Moscow by concluding deals that position Russia as Iran’s leading partner in arms sales, civil nuclear cooperation, and other areas. China, which likely vetoed Iran’s SCO application in the past, is eager to use Iran’s transportation networks in support of its New Silk Road Economic Belt plans. Meanwhile, the decision at Ufa to allow India and Pakistan to become full members has likely renewed Iranian hopes to join shortly thereafter. Economic ties among Iran, India, and Pakistan should increase even before Iran becomes a full SCO member as the three expand their energy trade and build new north-south transportation networks that could also encompass other SCO members.
Although Russia and China are the most important SCO members, the organization formally operates by consensus. Of the other four members, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon reportedly expressed support for Iran’s candidacy at the Ufa summit. The Iranian news agency IRNA reported that Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has also declared support for Iran’s full membership. Kazakhstan’s government has been less vocal on the issue, but Iranian-Kazakh ties are growing and Astana strongly supports regional integration and the SCO.
The most serious obstacle might be the possible opposition of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, who expressed caution about allowing any new country to join due to the potential disruptions and the degradation of Uzbekistan’s relative status. The existing members would also have to share development funds, SCO posts, and other institutional benefits with any new members. As with Iran, the SCO currently offers Uzbekistan its most important regional institution, so Tashkent wants to maximize its leverage over the organization’s development. Since Uzbekistan chairs the SCO until the next summit, real progress on Iran’s application might not occur until after that.
CONCLUSION: One wild card regarding Iran and the SCO is whether the organization will remain an important player in Eurasia. On paper, it has enormous assets. For example, the organization already includes some of the world’s largest countries in terms of size, population, and economic activity. But the SCO has always been less important than the sum of its parts due to its structural weaknesses and membership divisions. And the organization faces new competition from Moscow’s Eurasian Union, the BRICS development bank, and other competing projects. Another uncertainty is how the addition of India and Pakistan affect the organization. If this wave of membership expansion goes well, then the prospects of Iran’s future membership increases, but if their entry adds little to the organization’s effectiveness and increases its internal divisions, then Tehran’s SCO membership troubles will multiply.