Shanghai Cooperation Organization: India and Pakistan Become Members as Iran's Status Still in Doubt

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Mohammad Hossein Dehqanian
The 17th summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was held on June 8 and 9 in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana to mark the 15th anniversary of the founding of the organization. During the meeting, India and Pakistan, which had attended the organization’s previous meetings as observer members since 2005, were promoted to full membership. Membership at the SCO can save Pakistan from regional isolation and further reduce its reliance on the United States. However, in order to take advantage of the benefits of the SCO membership, Pakistan must respond to objections raised by its neighbors, especially India and Afghanistan. Getting close to China and Russia, taking part in the joint war on terrorism, as well as financial and trade concessions are among major advantages of the SCO membership for Pakistan. On the other hand, membership at the SCO can facilitate India’s access to Central Asia and it can also help curb the extremism that comes from Pakistan through collective support of the organization in its fight against terrorism and extremism. China’s support for membership of India and Pakistan has been relatively for this reason, because Beijing knows that membership of these countries at the SCO will help contain extremism and terrorism and will also encourage India and Pakistan to take steps to achieve peaceful resolution of their differences.

Before the meeting was held, it seemed that Iran's membership at the SCO would be also on the agenda and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had conducted intensive consultations with heads of state and foreign ministers from member countries. However, the SCO remained silent on Iran's membership during the summit. Before the summit, hope had raised about Iran's membership through support of Russian and Chinese officials. Russia, of course, had already supported Iran's membership in the previous meeting of the SCO and a number of Russian officials have even underlined Moscow’s support for Tehran’s membership. Yuri Ushakov, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin on international affairs; Igor Morgulov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister; and Sergey Lavrov, the country’s foreign minister have already voiced their support for Iran's membership at the SCO, noting that conditions are ready for this purpose. In past years, China was the main party opposing Iran's full membership at the SCO, but now it seems that Beijing is no more opposed to Tehran’s membership. China’s ambassador to Tehran, Pang Sen, explained China’s position on Iran's membership at the SCO in his latest press conference, noting that rumors about Beijing being opposed to this issue were made up by the Western media. His remarks were also reflected in the Iranian media outlets. Pang noted that both during a visit to Iran by China’s President Xi Jinping, and recently by the country’s deputy foreign minister, Beijing had voiced its support for Iran's membership at the SCO. Of course, he advised Iran to consult with all the SCO members, because the organization’s decisions were made collectively. The remarks by China’s ambassador to Tehran showed that there was still opposition to Iran's membership among the SCO members.

Since Iranian officials, especially Foreign Minister Zarif, have paid frequent visits to Central Asia in past months, but none of them visited Tajikistan, it is possible that Tajik officials are the main opponents of Iran's membership at the SCO. During his visit to Astana, Zarif met and conferred with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres; presidents of Kazakhstan and Afghanistan, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ashraf Ghani; as well as foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Of course, as has been the norm during past years, he had no meeting with Tajik officials. Among heads of member states who delivered speeches, only Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev stressed the importance of accepting new members to the organization, of course, without mentioning Iran by name. It seems that one of the main topics of Zarif’s talks with the opposite sides had been Iran's membership at the SCO. The statement, which was released at the end of the Astana summit, put emphasis on the need to expand list of the SCO members by accepting membership of India and Pakistan to further bolster potentialities and development of the organization. The statement however remained silent on Iran's membership and simply urged further deepening of useful cooperation with observer members and other negotiating partners of the SCO.

Perhaps, the reason behind opposition of smaller members of the SCO to Iran's full membership and the silence of China and Russia, which do not want to convince them to agree to Iran's membership, is increased tensions between Iran and the United States under President Donald Trump. Members of the SCO are not willing to put themselves in a position where they would have to take anti-American positions in any possible crisis between Iran and the United States. In addition, Iran's regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia are sure to instigate smaller members of the SCO against Iran's membership. Participation of the presidents of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan along with the foreign minister of Turkmenistan and deputy prime minister of Kyrgyzstan in the Riyadh summit on May 21, 2017, can be construed along the same lines.

Now, following full membership of India and Pakistan, the SCO’s influence within the international system will increase and the organization will account for about three billion of the world’s population and an area of more than 35 million square kilometers. This is an important step taken by China to shape a multipolar international system, which will not be based on a unipolar foundation anymore. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin addressed the SCO summit noting that increasing the member states of the organization would undoubtedly boost its power and influence in political, economic and humanitarian fields.

Putin also stated that his goal was to unify various convergence projects in Eurasia, including the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the SCO, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and China’s One Belt and One Road initiative.

Chinese president, Xi Jinping, for his part, stressed the need to turn the SCO into a global community of countries with a common future outlook and also underlined the necessity of introducing a new form of international relations based on win-win interaction. He also put emphasis on the need to increase convergence among China’s One Belt and One Road initiative, the Eurasian Economic Union, and other national projects.

For China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a catalyst in Beijing’s move toward a multipolar world system free from any US hegemony, and this goal justifies increasing its members by accepting India and Pakistan. Membership of these two countries will most probably make the decision-making process within the organization more complicated, but it must be noted that increasing the SCO’s efficiency is not the foremost goal of China as Beijing relies on bilateral agreements in order to go ahead with its projects. On the other hand, the caution exercised with regard to accepting Iran's membership is because member countries do not want to have to oppose the United States and want to make sure that tensions between Iran and the United States will remain limited to a bilateral level.

Iran's full membership at the SCO will certainly increase the organization’s political weight due to Iran's power and strategic position. Joining the SCO, on the other hand, will help Iran become a partner to an increasingly growing transnational organization, thus, getting rid of pressures mounted on it by an international system, which is under US domination.


*Photo Credit: Sputniknews

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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