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SCO, A Springboard for Iran

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hassan Beheshtipour
Central Asia and Caucasus Expert

During the 10th summit meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was held last week in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana, issues related to fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, separatism, factors fostering terrorism, as well as industrial and agricultural cooperation among member countries and legal solutions for assimilating new permanent members were on the meeting’s agenda.

The meeting, which coincided with the 10th anniverasary of the organization, was attended by presidents of member countries and observers as well as the president of Afghanistan as guest. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are six permanent members of the organization in addition to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, and India as observers.

Importance of SCO to Iran

Since Iran needs to be member of a security and defense organization in order to play its regional and international roles, SCO can be a good option for membership. On the one hand, prominent members of the organization are the main international rivals of the United States and accession to SCO will increase maneuvering power of Iran against the west. On the other hand, Iran will be able to expand its defense and security relations with the Central Asian countries which share commonalties with Iran.

From an economic viewpoint, Iran has been already expanding cooperation with the Central Asian states within framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization. However, Shanghai Cooperation Organization also provides good grounds for defense and security collaboration with member states topped by Russia and China, though both of them are major rivals of Iran in the Central Asia.

In addition, Iran can greatly increase SCO’s clout in political developments of the Persian Gulf and West Asia as well as in international energy markets. Iran is a bridge connecting the Central Asia to the Persian Gulf and West Asia.

Therefore, it is of high strategic and military importance as a result of efficient modes of transportation which will serve trade in goods and energy.

The sole serious problem with this organization is absence of uniform leadership which will practically make subsequent interactions among, Iran, China, Russia, India and Pakistan somehow difficult. Experts maintain that for an organization to achieve useful cooperation in the long run, they should either accept a model for collective leadership or reach an agreement and leave leadership to a single country. In that case, common interests will take shape among member countries and organizational goals will be achievable.

Such meetings also provide Iran with a good opportunity to forge bilateral or multilateral agreements with regional states. On the sidelines of the meeting, President Ahmadinejad met with his Russian counterpart, Medvedev. Analysts maintain that the meeting was of special importance to both countries. In addition, there was a significant trilateral meeting among heads of state from Iran, Russia and Kazakhstan. During that meeting, three presidents agreed to take issues of interest very seriously.

For example, they reached a general agreement on rail transportation in the Caspian Sea, which is a very important project. If a railroad were built across the Caspian Sea in the future, it would be followed by considerable developments in rail transportation of goods and passengers across the region. As put by Salehi, the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, a railroad connecting Iran to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will be inaugurated in the current Iranian calendar year (started March 21, 2011). The railroad will further strengthen cooperation among regional states. In his meeting with the Iranian President Ahmadinejad, the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his country’s willingness to join a transit line which connects five countries: Oman, Qatar, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. A five-sided meeting on the transit line was also held recently in Ashgabat.

Outcomes of the Meeting

A glance at the final statement of SCO Summit will show that the participants have, as usual, emphasized on improving security, economic and cultural cooperation in the region. Hu Jintao and Dmitri Medvedev, presidents of China and Russia, and other leaders of SCO member states also noted that the organization provided an important mechanism for deepening cooperation and promoting good neighborly relations among member states. They also predicted that the organization will be facing hard times in the coming years. They announced that they will continue to combat all forms of terrorism, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, drug smuggling and illegal immigration.

Member countries of Shanghai Cooperation Organization further noted that the United States’ proposed missile defense system was a threat against international stability and opposed it. They stressed that building a defensive missile system unilaterally by a single country or a group of countries will damage strategic stability and security of the international system. The position was taken in line with Moscow’s policy which is trying to show that all members of SCO support its policy of opposing the American unilateralism. The president of Russia pointed out that the organization was established in 2001 to achieve its special regional and international goals. He added that the organization will gradually come up with effective mechanisms to oppose security threats and to bolster stability in the region. Medvedev also noted that stability and elimination of threats will pave the way for further cooperation and all-out expansion of ties among regional countries.

The Russian president announced that Afghanistan has been accepted as observer member to Shanghai Cooperation Organization and added that fighting drug smuggling was a major mission of the organization. He stated that necessary strategy to implement the organization’s plan for combating drug trafficking will be approved for the period between 2011 and 2016.

Meanwhile, Nazarbayev also addressed the audience to single out the main roots of production and distribution of narcotic drugs.

He said, “We must conduct an international investigation about those who are involved in drug smuggling, so that, people and organizations that are involved in this inhuman crime could be held accountable. The basis of our activities in the past 10 years has been to fight terrorism, extremism and separatism. Today, the international trade in narcotics is no less severe threat than terrorism. During the past 10 years, production of heroin and other narcotic drugs has increased ten times in Afghanistan and its causes transcend the borders of that country.”

Nazarbayev, thus, alluded to the past ten years when the American and NATO forces have been in charge in Afghanistan. While production and distribution of narcotics was supposed to fall in the presence of NATO and the American forces, it has practically increased 10 times compared to the period when Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

China’s president, whose country will preside over the next year’s meeting, explained about future prospects of the organization by emphasizing that bolstering security will promote cooperation. Hu Jintao added that there were many challenges in international and regional levels and reminded the audience that the next 10 years will be a time for growth and development of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He mentioned commitment to good neighborly relations, increasing capacities of SCO in the face of threats, endeavoring to realize economic integration of regional countries, especially in areas of trade and investment, strengthening human cooperation for continuation of sustainable relations as well as expanding sports and tourism cooperation to help regional peoples know one another as the most important issues for the organization in the future. He added that china welcomed further expansion of regional cooperation.

India is the most important observer at SCO. With a population of about one billion, it is a serious rival for China and possible agreement of China to India’s accession will improve bilateral relations. India, however, is at odds with Pakistan, another observer member which is also reckoning on China’s support for full membership.

The representative of Iran posited 22 questions which had been given to him by President Ahmadinejad in order to give a more political charge to general atmosphere of the meeting, on the one hand, and gain support from member states for Iran’s anti-American policies, on the other hand. Although member states of SCO are generally opposed to US policies, they have no interest in direct confrontation with Washington and prefer constructive interaction.

It seems that Shanghai Cooperation Organization is still looking for new ways to define “common interests” in order to both have a greater influence on global developments and come up with a single identity for all member states.

At present, two influential members, that is, Russia and China are much more powerful than other countries. Therefore, full accession of India, Pakistan and Iran can bring about a new balance in the organization and increase its efficiency.

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