Iran’s Accession to SCO: Conflicts and Threats

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Interview with Bahram Amir Ahmadian
Tehran University Professor & Political Affairs Analyst 

Although Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a highly potentiated regional organization and Iran’s accession to the organization can be very beneficial to the country’s national interests, many analysts maintain that membership in the organization will be in conflict with primary principles of Iran’s foreign policy and even the country’s Constitution. On the other hand, possible imposition of China’s and Russia’s decisions on Iran is another threat which will be posed to Tehran in case of accession. To shed more light on various aspects and consequences of Iran’s membership in this organization and on the occasion of Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in Kazakhstan, which was attended by President Ahmadinejad, Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS) has conducted an interview with Dr. Bahram Amir Ahmadian, an academic from University of Tehran. The following is an excerpt from the interview:

Q: Dr. Amir Ahmadian, what have been the main achievements of Iran’s presence in Shanghai Cooperation Organization during the past few years? Has that presence been really successful?

A: Naturally, we must not expect much from Iran’s observer status in Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As the name denotes, Iran is just an observer; that is, it has no voting right and cannot influence final decisions. As to whether that membership has been effective in any way or not, I should remind you that Iran’s application for permanent membership in SCO has been turned down. This issue can be studied from various viewpoints. Firstly, accession to SCO where security and military issues matter most, will be at odds with the Iranian Constitution and certain policies of our foreign policy. For example, it is incompatible with Iran’s obligations toward the Non-Aligned Movement. Perhaps, this is why Iran did not try to press its request.

Secondly, I believe that permanent members of the organization are not willing to take in new ones. This is a nascent organization which has been set up for special purposes one of the most important of which is to control member countries’ borders. Another important point is absence of direct geographical continuity between Iran and the organizations. An important feature of regional organizations is geographical continuity. Iran cannot be directly connected to SCO’s geographical expanse because Turkmenistan stands between Iran and that expanse. On the other hand, Afghanistan is also a barrier. As current trends have proven, there are major and even chronic problems among permanent and observer members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization which has made convergence in the organization quite difficult. Examples include the existing tensions between China (permanent member) and India (observer), between India and Pakistan (both observers), among Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (all observers) and even problems facing Mongolia as an observer member. Therefore, Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a collection of conflicts and this has been a major reason why it has failed to achieve its goals thus far.

Q: There are different and even conflicting views on accession to SCO in Iran. Some views are positive and consider Iran’s membership as benefitting regional convergence while others believe that it will be of no use. What is your opinion?

A: Supporters of Iran’s membership in SCO should note that the first area of rivalry between Russia and Iran is energy followed by presence in the Central Asia and Caucasus. Therefore, Iran’s presence in the organization will not increase synergism given fierce rivalry with a major member. In fact, it will only serve to wear off both sides’ energy. For a regional organization to be successful, all members should strive toward the same goal and work for the protection of common interests. Iran, in view of its foreign policy principles, will never be able to transfer some of its obligations to regional organizations.

Members of regional organizations usually delegate part of their political will to the relevant organization in order to avail themselves of common decision-making process. The Iranian government, on the other hand, is an ideological one, and is not interested to rely on a common political will to solve its problems. Therefore, permanent membership of Iran in Shanghai Cooperation Organization will cause problems and incompatibilities. A case of incompatibility is opposition of member states to radical and political forms of Islam as most of them are currently suppressing radical Islamist figures that are opposed to central governments of those countries. Examples to the point include developments in Chechnya in Russia or in China’s Xinjiang province. Therefore, having such different viewpoints, Iran will not be practically able to work with this organization. I think in its present state, Shanghai Cooperation Organization fares much better than when Iran is a permanent member.

Q: Possible imposition of political views of China and Russia on Iran, in view of their control over SCO, will be a potential threat to Tehran after membership. What is your opinion?

A: I agree with that. Both of them are big powers with veto right in the United Nations Security Council. Therefore, their legal status is no match for Iran. Both Russia and China have, thus far, voted positive for four anti-Iran sanctions resolutions. Although some say that Moscow and Beijing have bargained with the western countries to take some edge off the sanctions, in reality, the subsequent sanctions have slowed down Iran’s economic growth and development. Under such circumstances we have indicated our willingness to become member of SCO. Another important point is that assimilation of new members will greatly increase bureaucracy and expand areas of interest, which will also entail more problems for members. Under such conditions, member states are sure to have problems with each other. At present, four members are subservient to two influential members (Russia and China). Therefore, the organization is practically unable to assure equal rights for all members.

It should be noted that some members such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have no resources to even pay the membership fee and help the organization to operate like other counterparts. On the other hand, Russia and China have a lot of resources to spend on the organization. (For example, establishment of the United Nations in the United States has helped Washington to make good use of its potentials.) Therefore, since the lion’s share of the SCO’s costs is paid by those two countries, they sway the greatest influence on its decisions and on other members. As to why Iran is interested in accession to the organization, I think that Iran is getting increasingly isolated in its foreign policy and this is why it has applied for membership in SCO.

If that problem did not exist and Iran could be a member to other powerful organizations, it would have certainly preferred not to be a member of SCO. Iran is currently member of another regional organizations; that is, Economic Cooperation Organization, which is practically bankrupt. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has been stalled by many conflicts among its members. Therefore, accession to Shanghai Cooperation Organization which is surrounded by inefficient regional organizations, can be a noteworthy option for Iran.

Q: Russia and China have recently implied that they respectively supported full membership of Pakistan and India in Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Both of them, on the other hand, have indicated their opposition to membership of Iran. Regardless of advantages and disadvantages of Iran’s accession to SCO, can this development be construed that they are not reckoning on Iran as a regional ally?

A: I believe that revising Iran’s foreign policy is a necessity and our country’s diplomatic apparatus should change in proportion to regional and international developments. If we failed to attune to those developments, it would be quite natural for us to lose our position. For example, although Turkey has promoted relations with Syria in recent years, Ankara has not hesitated to lambaste treatment of street protestors by Damascus and has even opened its borders to Syrian refugees. Therefore, I believe that we should change our approach to regional issues. If Pakistan and India were assimilated as permanent members through support of Russia and China, both of them would probably oppose Iran’s membership in the future.

On the other hand, I believe that Iran should not show too much enthusiasm for permanent membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Tehran should wait for an invitation from other members because Iran enjoys high potentials to play in all kinds of regional games. As I said before, we must make changes to our foreign policy in order to make optimal use of those potentials. We must behave in a dignified manner before other member countries of SCO, so that, they would not find it in themselves to reject Tehran’s request for accession or abstain from voting. Therefore, when setting off to take part in SCO summit, President Ahmadinejad should be accompanied with seasoned experts and seek their advice on all related issues.

Source: Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS)

Translated By: Iran Review

*Link for Further Reading: Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Practical Capacities for Iran By: Mohsen Shariatinia

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