Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Practical Capacities for Iran

Monday, May 23, 2011

Interview with Mohsen Shariatinia
Expert on Asia & Faculty Member, Institute for Trade Studies and Research

A recent meeting of foreign ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization wrapped up in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on May 14. Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is among important regional organizations to which Iran has not acceded yet (for a variety of reasons) though accession could have many outcomes for Iran. Although experts maintain that Russia is bent on assuming leadership of the organization, the recent meeting provided the Iranian diplomats with a good opportunity. Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS) has conducted the following interview with Dr. Mohsen Shariatinia, an expert on Asia and faculty member of the Institute for Trade Studies and Research to review practical capacities that SCO offers our country.

Q: As Shanghai Cooperation Organization has expanded its activities in various fields from security to economics and politics, what aspects and capacities of the organization can help Iran meet its national interests in a better way? Does the organization enjoy efficient capacities in this regard?

A: I think that after a decade, Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a possibility for future activities. I say this because the organization has remained largely indifferent to regional crises which have affected Iran’s foreign policy one way or another. I think that SCO is an organization with limited scope which is heavily under political influence of China and Russia. Therefore, the first point about the organization in view of Iran’s national interests is that the agenda of the organization is vague. Throughout all regional crises that have broken out since 2001, Shanghai Cooperation Organization has been passive, or in better words, impartial. Therefore, the organization has been inactive, at least, in security sphere. Thus, it would not be logical to assume that membership in the organization will benefit Iran’s national interests.

As for why the organization has remained passive in such issues, it is mostly due to the influence that China sways on the organization because Beijing does not want SCO to have an identity based on security matters, especially an identity which would be construed as being anti-west or anti-American. Therefore, in view of 10-year track records of the organization, I don’t think that it would be possible for Iran to pursue its national security interests through SCO because establishment of anti-American alliances is a major security matter in Iran’s foreign policy while the organization has proven to be unable to do this. You cannot talk about the future because many scenarios are possible. However, as long as the foreign policies of China and Russia follow the existing agenda, the organization will not incline toward anti-American positions.

Iran has also economic interests in Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Once more, China and Russia determine economic orientation of the organization and although their economic interests sometimes overlap with Iran’s, they are also Iran’s rivals in certain areas. China is one of the most important rivals for Iran in the Central Asia and its increasing influence in that region can be a source of threat for Iran. On the other hand, Russia is competing with Iran on energy and the more Iran is marginalized in energy matters, it would serve Russia better. Therefore, there are no remarkable common grounds for economic cooperation between Iran and countries running SCO (China and Russia). This does not mean that Iran should stay out of the organization. Membership in SCO will be useful to Iran, but our expectations should conform to the realities on the ground. Therefore, if we assumed that membership in that organization would serve our strategic interests that would be an erroneous assumption.

Q: Given your emphasis on that fact that Iran cannot pursue its interests through SCO, why our country’s officials have applied for accession?

A: You should ask that question from those politicians, but I believe that presence in international organizations, especially those close to Iran’s security and economic environment, is a must. As I said before, it is very important to have realistic expectations from those organizations. There is no problem with officially applying for membership, but obligations which will ensue membership and our expectations are two important points to be born in mind. India, which is a close ally to the United States, is also a member of SCO. Therefore, membership, per se, is no problem. At least, we would be able to prevent damage to our national interests due to decisions made by the organization. We can also protect our interests in such areas as fighting terrorism. Therefore, I see no problem with membership in that organization. However, the most important consideration is obligations that would be imposed on Iran and the main purpose of membership. These considerations should be taken very seriously before actual membership.

Q: Apart from transregional issues and the fact that SCO is supposed to be an anti-American block, another important issue is security along Iran’s eastern borders which has regularly concerned Tehran. Presence of such terrorists as Abdolmalek Rigi in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan should also receive due attention. As Iran defines terrorism in a different way from SCO member countries, do you think that the two sides can cooperate on terrorism?

A: As I said, Shanghai Cooperation Organization can hold promises for the future. In reality, the organization has not been so far active in regional security crises one of the most important of which is terrorism. Using leverage of SCO, Chinese officials tried to prevent entry of terrorists to China during Beijing Olympic Games. They call this a success. Meanwhile, neither China, nor Russia is in a position to help Tehran with terroristic threats. Terrorism which threatens Iran is rooted in Pakistan and other countries which help anti-Iranian terrorists. Therefore, SCO can do nothing to help Iran with its terrorist concerns. NATO is, in fact, the sole entity which is dealing with terrorism in our region, not SCO. Therefore, when SCO has nothing to do with terrorism and cannot establish a common military force, it cannot do anything helpful. It would be unrealistic to expect the organization to help Iran with security challenges that it faces along eastern borders. Of course, Iran may be able to use the organization in the future.

Q: Since SCO member states including China and Russia, are more interested in bilateral (instead of organizational) economic interactions and as SCO’s economic activities overlap with other regional organizations in Asia, including Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), how effective economic cooperation between Iran and SCO can be?

A: A large part of Iran’s economic cooperation with China lies outside SCO. I mean, Iran’s economic interactions in the context of that organization are mostly bilateral, not multilateral. China’s domination over the Iranian economy is increasing, but this has not happened through Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Therefore, despite economic cooperation between Iran and China and between Iran and other member states, that cooperation is mostly bilateral. Therefore, at this stage, we cannot claim that SCO has done anything useful to help with economic interactions among member states. There have been proposals from member countries, but regional convergence as a result of those proposals will not take place in the short run. There is clear definition for economic convergence and successful examples have been seen in Europe and Asia. You can see totally institutionalized convergence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) whose free trade agreement has consolidated economic interactions among members. A similar trend, however, cannot be observed between Iran and SCO. Therefore, as I said before, economic interactions between Iran and other member states of SCO are usually done in traditional form and are bilateral. Even if China manages to get total control over the Iranian economy, which is not impossible, this would not happen through SCO, but will take place in a totally bilateral way.

Q: Iran has frequently indicated its willingness to become a full member of the organization in recent years, but the offer has been rejected by such influential members as Russia and Kazakhstan. How China has reacted to possible membership of Iran?

A: Although China has never openly opposed Iran’s membership in SCO, but I think that it is not interested in it too because Iran’s membership will redefine the organization as an entity willing to take in reformist members. Therefore, to prevent such a change in the identity of the organization, China is not willing for Iran to become a full member and has been trying to appear impartial in regional and international issues. They are willing to introduce SCO as an organization which has nothing to do with international security. Therefore, Iran’s accession can foster anti-west sentiments in the organization and I believe that the position of China cannot be very different from Russia or Kazakhstan.

Q: You said that the outlook of SCO is vague and it is mostly controlled by Russia and China. Now that Iran has applied for full membership, will it have to wait for membership framework to be defined by Beijing and Moscow or is there enough latitude for Tehran in SCO?

A: I personally believe that we must be cautious about the membership because asymmetrical distribution of power is a major feature of this organization. In fact, Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s main agenda is set by China and Russia and there is little room for other countries, including Iran, to play a decisive role. Iran should abide by the obligations that it will undertake and balance them with the freedom of action that membership in SCO will offer it to be active in the Central Asia and other strategic areas. Thus far, no latitude has been defined for Iran in that organization and it has been mainly passive toward problems that Iran has been facing in its foreign policy. Therefore, despite the prevailing understanding in Iran, I believe that we should pay special attention to the costs of membership. That is, we should be wary about accepting obligations which may cause future problems. Therefore, my main concern is about obligations to which our country will have to comply with after full membership in SCO and the way that national interests of China and Russia are going to overshadow our country’s interests. When a country enters a regional or international organization which is largely controlled by big powers, it will have little room to play. Therefore, big powers, especially Iran’s powerful neighbors, are trying to impose their desirable agenda on other members.

Historical experiences with Iran’s membership in regional treaties will show that Iran has never benefitted from membership in arrangements which are led by big powers and has just been burdened with obligations. On the other hand, once accepting those obligations, Tehran will have to follow suit. In short, we must pay due attention to threats that membership in SCO may pose to us. The prevailing idea in Iran is that Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an anti-American organization where we can easily pursue our goals and interests. However, ten-year of the organization’s track records show that it is not an anti-American organization and is dominated by China and Russia. Therefore, we must first see to what extent our interests in the Central Asia and other areas overlap with those of China and Russia before trying to realize those interests through membership in SCO.

Q: Can you bring an example about the threats and costs of Iran’s membership in SCO?

A: As for the expansion of SCO’s future agenda, for example, we must note that the agenda is a function of the interests of Russia and China. Perhaps, those countries will be willing to enter other areas that are not in line with Iran’s national interests. If Iran accedes as a full member, it will only clear the way for the promotion of the interests of Beijing and Moscow and Tehran will not be able to promote its own interests through SCO. Another potential threat is Iran’s definition of terrorism which is quite different from the definition that other member countries have in mind. If something happens in the region and Shanghai Cooperation Organization adopts a statement (when Iran is a full member), Iran’s name will be also mentioned as an undersigned. Although Russia and China have not announced openly, they are wary about Iran’s approach to terrorism and their positions on this issue are different from Iran.

In addition, although China and Russia are rivals in the geographical expanse of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, they are not willing for other regional countries, including Iran to play a role in their areas of influence. Therefore, it would be quite realistic for Russia and China not to allow Iran to follow an independent agenda in SCO. They will only allow Iran to follow suit with the agenda set by Moscow and Beijing. In short, Iran can develop no independent agenda because it does not share the same interests with Russia and China in the geographical sphere of SCO. In reality, Iran’s interests in that geographical sphere are more at odds with those of Russia and China than being in common. Therefore, I reiterate that our approach to Shanghai Cooperation Organization should be very cautious.

Source: Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS)
Translated By: Iran Review

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