Iran-Russia “Cautiously” Interacting within SCO

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Alireza Noori
Ph.D. Candidate, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russian Affairs

There is no doubt that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) enjoys many potential “capacities,” but these “capacities” will have no impact on regional and international relations, unless they lead to a “result.” Under the present circumstances, the cycle of converting “capacity” to “result” in this organization is, for a host of reasons, vicious. Abortion of many decisions and inability of the SCO to show effective reactions to developments in its sphere of responsibility, including lack of any strategy and practical effort on the part of this organization in the face of escalating threats from Afghanistan, are good evidence to the SCO’s inefficiency. Therefore, despite its huge capacities, the organization has yet a long way to go before turning into an effective institution.

Nonetheless, Russia’s approach to this organization and its summit meeting in Ufa (July 2015) is a “special” approach. The reason is enhanced pressure by the West, which has “forced” Moscow to opt for Eurasian theory and look to the East in its foreign policy despite its own will. Therefore, Moscow has decided to strengthen the SCO and the BRICS – an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – with the goal of establishing new institutions in the face of the West’s network of power. Meanwhile, by making effort to prove this organization effective and highlight its own role within the SCO, Russia has been trying to activate its foreign policy, on the one hand, while on the other hand, seeking new positive and negative tools in order to lessen the West’s pressure on Moscow. At the same time, officials at the Kremlin have emphasized time and again that the SCO does not pursue any anti-West goals.

This very approach has been the main determining factor for “cautious” interaction of Moscow with Tehran within this organization. Therefore, although Russia has shared views with Iran on the existing threats and opportunities within the geographical sphere of the SCO, especially in Central Asia, and although it knows that this geographical sphere would not be complete without Iran, when it comes to regulation of Moscow’s interactions with Tehran within this organization, Russia has always preferred international considerations, especially its own relations with the West, to advantages of regional cooperation with Iran.

For this reason, Moscow has been always doubtful about Tehran’s permanent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and has made it conditional on the removal of international sanctions against Iran, though there is no apparent “meaningful” connection between these two issues. This precondition is, therefore, just an “excuse” and an intermediate solution to reject “permanent membership” of Iran in the SCO while letting continuation of its “limited membership.” Russians, on the one hand, believe that “permanent membership” of Iran in the SCO will transfer the existing challenges in Tehran’s ties with the West into the organization and turn it into an anti-West body. On the other hand, Russian officials have admitted that Tehran can play an important role in the realization of the important goals of this organization, especially realization of its long-term stability and security, and resolution of the organization’s problems without any need to foreign intervention. This is especially true under the present conditions when the SCO is facing increasing threats from Afghanistan, while the possibility of further expansion of the ISIS’ activities in Central Asia is on the rise.

However, under the existing circumstances when Russia is following a pragmatic approach by avoiding escalation of tensions with the West, it prefers the first aspect of this binary to its second aspect and is sure to maintain its “cautious” approach to Iran within the SCO. Moscow will do this because it is aware of the depth of Tehran’s differences with the West and knows that even if a comprehensive nuclear deal is clinched by the two sides, elimination of tensions between them could not be pulled off easily. In addition, Moscow fears that despite some shared views, accession of new members to the SCO, including Iran (but also India, Pakistan and others), will not increase efficiency of the organization because of different interpretations of the organization’s concepts and trends by new members, and may even cause problems for the current order that governs this international body.

On the other hand, Tehran is aware of the “limitations” facing its “active” participation in the SCO and in interaction with China and Russia through this organization. Therefore, Tehran’s approach to this organization has been “cautious” although it has shown interest in “activating” its role in the SCO with the goal of diversifying its foreign policy tools, giving renewed impetus to its foreign policy, meeting regional security and geopolitical needs, and especially taking advantage of the capacities of Moscow and Beijing. Tehran pays attention to the realities of this organization, including the instrumental approach taken to the organization by China and Russia, weaknesses of other member states, and different interpretations of member states of some concepts including security, threat, and collective measures. Tehran also knows that key members of the organization – that is, China and Russia – do not believe in regional convergence, will never give up their dominant position, and will not allow other members, including Iran, to gain influence within the organization.

In the meantime, some say that Russia supports Iran's membership in the organization in order to balance China’s influence. However, first of all, no major actions take place in this organization to need balancing act. Secondly, Iran is in no condition to balance China’s limited economic actions. And thirdly, the assumption that Tehran would necessarily take sides with Russia and stand in the face of China is, at best, dubious. On the other hand, Iran is well aware that it should avoid unnecessary and fruitless involvement in Moscow’s rivalry with China and also in Russia’s rivalry/encounter with the West, which could turn Tehran into a bargaining chip for Moscow.

In view of the above facts, Tehran is sure to take a “limited” approach to membership in the SCO at the present juncture even in case of permanent membership, and its expectation of the benefits of that membership are “relative,” as a result of which it does not consider any exaggeration in this regard as “realistic.” Iran is simply trying to make the most of the political advantages of membership in this organization, especially the capacities of Russia and China, not simply within this organization, but also in other fields, including in bargaining with the West.

Key Words: Iran, Russia, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Capacities, China, Permanent Membership, Limited Membership, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

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*Russia and the Challenge of Iran's Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement:

*Incentives and Impediments to Iran-Russia Military Cooperation:

*Photo Credit: Global Research

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