The 16th Meeting of the Heads of State Council of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on June 23-24. There are certainly many important agendas regarding this meeting. One of them should be the issue of Iran’s entry into the SCO.
Both China and Russia, the two major leading actors in the organization, are positive regarding Iran’s entry. Judging by this, Iran’s entry should be a question of sooner-or-later, not a yes-or-no. And this move will lead to a win-win outcome for the SCO and Iran.
Iran, in addition to its Middle Eastern identity, is a Central Asian country. It is seen as Middle Eastern partly because of its Islamic attachment and partly because of its deep political involvement in the Middle Eastern region. But Iran is also an integral part of Central Asia not only geographically but also historically, culturally, economically and politically.
Throughout most of history, Central Asia either used to be part of the Persian Empire, or part of a dynasty in the region together with Iran. And quite a large population in Central Asia speaks Farsi, and they share the Persian festival of Nowruz. Iran is also a close economic partner of Central Asian countries in terms of investment, trade and infrastructure connections. At the end of 2014, Iran, together with Kazakhstan, celebrated the opening ceremony of the railway linking the two countries via Turkmenistan. Iran also regards Central Asia as relevant with its political stability and social security.
Iran also had very constructive relations with the SCO. In 2005, Iran expressed very clearly its intention to join in the SCO as a full member. And since then, Iran attended all the SCO summits at the head of state level though the country is just an observer of the organization. Unfortunately, despite Iran’s enthusiasm, Iran’s request was not responded to positively. According to Dr. Behzad Khoshandam, an Iranian expert, it is mainly because Iran was under UN sanctions for the nuclear issue. And the SCO declared that the organization cannot accept the countries under UN sanctions as full members.
Therefore, signing of the JCPOA (Join Comprehensive Plan of Action) in July 14, 2015, and the removal of UN sanctions as Iran implemented the deal in the end of 2015 should be new momentum that Iran has gained for its efforts to enter the SCO. Or to put it another way, the Iranian nuclear issue was major obstacle of Iran’s SCO entry.
Iran’s entry should benefit both the SCO and Iran. Iran’s entry will politically strengthen Iran’s standing in the global arena. It has already been 37 years since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Though it has been well accepted by the world at large, the West, particularly the U.S., has not accepted it politically as many U.S. decision-makers and scholars still regard Iran as fundamentalist Islamic state and condemn the country for its human rights issues. In particular, the U.S. and the West also regard Iran as a potential threat for its nuclear program.
The entry means formal acceptance of Iran as a normal state by a significant proportion of the world, not only in terms of territory but also in terms of population. The SCO by itself also commands a big influence in the Euro Asian continent. This will certainly enhance Iran’s position in the world.
The economic benefits as a result of the entry will enhance Iran’s position not only economically but also politically. As the SCO is increasingly focusing on economic issues, Iran will hopefully gain easier access to a larger market, more investment and science & technology cooperation as a result of further integration with the Central Asian region. These will enhance Iran’s economic bargaining strength against the West and reduce Iran’s reliance on the West and its Arab neighbors.
On the other hand, the SCO will also benefit from Iran’s entry. Iran is a nation with a population of 80 million, and is a geopolitical center of the Shiite Muslin world. An enlarged SCO with Iran will be more representative and more legitimate as an influential international organization.
Iran’s entry will also enhance the SCO’s capability in fulfilling its missions. The SCO regard the fights against terrorism, drug smuggling as well as the elimination of poverty, the prevention of foreign intervention and the promotion of global multi-polarity as its major tasks while Iran is closely relevant and commands strong capacity in all these areas. Therefore, Iran’s entry will greatly enhance the capability of the SCO in all these areas.
In one word, Iran’s entry should benefit not only Iran but also the SCO as an institution.