Why Iran Should Not Be in a Hurry for SCO Membership?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Hassan Beheshtipour
Expert on International Issues

Heads of state from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are to meet in Uzbekistan’s capital city of Tashkent on June 23-24, 2016. Last year, India and Pakistan were admitted to the SCO as two observer members through approval of six SCO members and they will become full members after relevant documents are approved by the two countries’ parliaments. Recent reports indicate that during the upcoming SCO meeting, a decision is to be made on full membership of Iran, another observer member of the organization.

The following article represents an effort aimed to show that from the viewpoint of its legal status and national interests, it would be better for Iran under the present circumstances to remain an observer member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As long as suitable conditions for the realization of the country’s long-term interests do not exist, Iran’s full membership at the SCO would not meet the interests purported by proponents of its accession to this organization.

A) Legal discussion

1. Paragraph 16 under Article 3 of the Iranian Constitution says one of the Iranian administration’s goals is to “regulate the country’s foreign policy on the basis of the Islamic norms, brotherly commitment toward all Muslims, and unbridled support for the oppressed people across the world.

According to this constitutional paragraph, it is clear that Iran’s priority in foreign policy is to establish relations with Islamic countries on the basis of brotherly ties, and also to support the oppressed people all across the world. Of course, this is not at odds with the country’s membership at a non-Islamic organization. However, the important issue is that according to Islamic norms, no Muslim person can give in to domination of non-Muslims, especially when there is no necessity or compulsion to do this.

2. Article 9 of the Constitution says: In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the freedom and independence and unity and territorial integrity of the country are inseparable from one another, and their preservation is the duty of the government and all individual citizens. No individual, group, or authority, has the right to infringe in the slightest way upon the political, cultural, economic, and military independence or the territorial integrity of Iran under the pretext of exercising freedom. Similarly, no authority has the right to abrogate legitimate freedoms, not even by enacting laws and regulations for that purpose, under the pretext of preserving the independence and territorial integrity of the country.

As you see, this constitutional article emphasizes importance of preserving the independence of the country along with the national unity and territorial integrity. Here, the question is could it be possible for countries to pass over part of their independence for the sake of membership at a collective organization in order to take advantage of the benefits of its collective movement? The membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will undoubtedly restrict part of Iran’s independence when it comes to meeting the country’s independent interests. Will accepting such restrictions in return for military, security, political and economic cooperation with this organization not harm the country’s independence?

3. Article 152 of the Iranian Constitution says:The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based upon the rejection of all forms of domination, both the exertion of it and submission to it, the preservation of the country’s independence and territorial integrity in all respects, the defense of the rights of all Muslims, non-alignment with respect to the hegemonic superpowers, and the maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with all non-belligerent States.

According to this article, establishment of all kinds of relations based on negation of domination or being dominated has been emphasized. Now, we must see whether membership at the SCO would lead to any commitment for Iran in the face of the hegemonic powers or not. In this state, wouldn’t it be easier for Iran to seek expanded bilateral relations with China, or Russia and even India in order to pursue its interests without undertaking commitments sought by the SCO? The past history of such military, security and political organizations show us that we would either have to totally accept commitments put forth by such organizations, or say goodbye to full membership in them.

B) Analyzing reasons given for Iran’s membership at the SCO

1. Fighting against terrorism and extremism

One of the main axes of all meetings at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization since 2001 has been the fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The problem, however, is that examples of terrorism and extremism are different from viewpoints of Iran and the SCO. What Iran considers as religious extremism is mostly related to Wahhabi and Takfiri groups, which is quite different from what Chinese and Russians and most other members of the SCO believe in this regard by considering all Islamist groups as extremist.

2. Countering unilateralism of the United States and its allies

In its statements and communiqués, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has time and time again announced its opposition to unilateralism of the United States at international level. The SCO, however, is by no means considered an anti-American and anti-NATO organization because, first of all, countries like China and India have the highest volume of trade and investment relations with the United States. Secondly, in such cases as Russia's faceoff with the West over Ukraine and Crimea, the SCO did not provide the least amount of direct support to Russia. Even during voting at the United Nations, which aimed to defend territorial integrity of Ukraine to detriment of Russia, most member states of the SCO abstained from voting. When Russia is treated as such by the SCO, the fate of a country like Iran is clear. In fact, it is very likely that in case of a conflict between Iran and the United States, the SCO members would take sides with Iran.

3. Expansion of economic cooperation with Iran

Following conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it has become possible for the Islamic Republic to establish mutually-beneficial relations with world countries. Under these conditions, it seems that if, instead of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Iran becomes a member of the BRICS group of developing countries – which is an economic union comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – it would be more beneficial to the country. Iran can only expect the SCO to extend it an invitation for full membership when, firstly, it has achieved a more stable situation in economic terms. Secondly, it must succeed in solving problems in its economic relations with other countries of the world, including the member states of the European Union. In that case, Iran would be able to meet its interests in a better way compared to membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

4. Importance of regional cooperation in a multipolar world

It may seem that if Iran became a member of the SCO, it would be able to promote its regional standing. However, if Iran could further strengthen the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), sign a cooperation agreement with the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] and enter Iraq into this game, it would be more beneficial for the country. This is true because in this way, Iran would be able to maintain it axial role in the region. In the meantime, Iran can hope that following the end of the crisis in Syria and Iraq, a quadrilateral union could be formed among Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria and even with the participation of Jordan in West Asia.


Without a doubt, the possibility of establishing a new version of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the participation of the Persian Gulf littoral states and four countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria is not unlikely. Perhaps, in view of the currently critical conditions governing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, this viewpoint would seem too optimistic and unrealistic. However, it must be noted that there are many potential fields for cooperation among these countries, and if the existing interests are recognized properly and forthcoming changes in Arab countries move in the expected direction, achievement of the aforesaid goal would not be out of reach.

Last but not least, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani should take part at the Tashkent meeting, so that, after more than a decade, Iran and Uzbekistan would have a good opportunity to discuss and solve the existing problems between the two countries at the highest level. Of course, this measure would also send a clear message to the government of Tajikistan in Dushanbe. It would also prove that bilateral or multilateral games are possible at any place, be it Riyadh, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, or Tehran.

Key WordsIran, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Iranian Constitution, Uzbekistan, Tashkent, India, Pakistan, Observer Members, Full Members, Legal Status, National Interests, Proponents, Accession, Terrorism, Unilateralism, United States, Economic Cooperation, Regional Cooperation, Multipolar World, Hassan Rouhani, Beheshtipour

More By Hassan Beheshtipour:

*The Organization of Islamic Cooperation: Opportunities and Threats:

*Lessons and Opportunities Resulting from Iran's Elections:

*Non-Nuclear Obstructionism against Nuclear Agreement:

*Photo Credit: Press TV, Kathmandu Post