Iran’s changing approach to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was established in 2001 on the basis of three main goals of fighting terrorism, secessionism and extremism. Member states of this organization account for a population of about 1.5 billion, that is, almost one-fourth of the world’s population, and if the population in observer countries is added to the above figure, it would amount to almost half of the world’s total population. Regardless of whether this institution has been successful or failed in achieving its goals, it seems that the quality of Iran’s full membership in this organization, which has always been on the table during the past decade, has turned into a major question for analysts inside the country. Of course, it seems that this organization will face various ambiguities and complexities in the future, which are sure to reduce the value and strategic necessity of becoming a full member of the SCO at least at the present juncture. This article tries to lay out some of the complex issues, which must be taken into consideration when looking upon this organization:

1. The first issue, which must be taken into account with regard to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is that although it has been introduced as a multilateral organization in the common political literature, it is more of a bilateral organization with the two countries of China and Russia determining the nature and content of the SCO. Central Asian countries, which are members of this organization, are neither able nor willing to shape and set the direction of this organization.

2. The different approaches taken by China and Russia to this organization constitute another issue, which has reduced potential of this organization and will continue to further whittle that potential down in the future. While China has focused its strategic concentration on economic issues, Russians are trying to define security and international dimensions for this organization as well. Therefore, one can claim that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization lacks enough potential and ability to simultaneously cover the goals and concerns of both China and Russia. Since the Chinese introduced their “go global” strategy in 2000 and reduced investment restrictions for the Chinese companies in line with this strategy up to 2005, almost 1,000 Chinese companies entered Central Asia. As a result, the volume of China’s trade with countries in Central Asia has increased almost 30 times from 2000 to 2010, and the rise has continued up to the present time with some statistics denoting that China currently accounts for 20 percent of Central Asian countries’ trade. Apart from proving China’s domination over geoeconomy of this region, this issue could be translated into increased political influence as well, and it would be natural for Russians to show resistance against such changes in the political identity of regional countries as a result of which the intensity and scope of bilateral differences between Beijing and Moscow will increase.

3. It must be noted that reciprocal perception of threat by both China and Russia has been one of the most important obstacles to further deepening and more activity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In historical terms, China’s most important security threats have been posed through the country’s western borders and at some junctures, swathes of land in this country were occupied by the former Soviet Union. Existence of such an attitude among Chinese decision-makers and increased concerns on the part of Russians, especially in recent years, about increasing influence of China in Central Asia, have done away with or reduced the possibility of China-based initiatives to reach necessary maturity. Perhaps, this issue and awareness about regional and transregional resistance has been one of the reasons why the Chinese officials have been moving toward large-scale and long-term plans.

4. It seems that existence of current differences between China and Russia within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will push both countries toward parallel games outside the order and framework of the SCO. Increased sensitivity of Russian analysts and academic circles in this country and their frequent warnings to policymakers in Moscow about marginalization of Russia in Central Asia have prompted this country to bolster the Eurasian Economic Union and make efforts to strengthen solidarity within this union. On the other hand, it seems that certain worries, especially in recent years, about China’s successful strategy in Central Asia have been raised in this country as well, and some Chinese analysts have been talking about the necessity of reviewing the country’s policies in this region. In other words, these analysts maintain that China’s economic aid strategy has not been so far able to change the behavior of actors in this region and, therefore, efforts should be made to do certain revisions in this strategy. Raising a proposal in some Chinese media about the need to form an anti-terror group by China, along with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, could perhaps be considered as part of efforts undertaken by China to get involved in parallel games.

5. The policy of making effort toward full membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has been started and followed by the Islamic Republic of Iran since about a decade ago was mostly aimed at taking advantage of this organization as a balancing factor in the face of the West and the United States. Although this issue is still among long-term goals of the Islamic Republic of Iran, due to the following two reasons, there is no more need to intensify this effort for full membership in this organization at the present juncture:

a. This organization has not been able, or basically has shown no willingness to play a balancing role in the face of the West and the U.S., and

b. Achieving a temporary strategic agreement with the P5+1 group of world powers in the form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has resolved part of Iran’s problems with the West and has somehow reduced strategic value of the aforesaid goal in the future outlook of Iran’s foreign policy, at least temporarily.

6. Realities and developments in China’s regional and international policies and the country’s willingness to move toward more externalization have increased the country’s strategic need to have strategic allies and Iran can be naturally looked upon as one of the important links in this Chinese policy and strategy. Therefore, it seems that the present situation of Iran within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as observer member will meet Iran’s interests better and also provide the country with more maneuvering room in the future compared to the time that we would be totally under China’s umbrella within the organization and easily give up our bargaining tools.

On the whole, monitoring China’s policy in Central Asia — which has two pillars, including the SCO and the strategy of Silk Road economic belt — and taking advantage of opportunities that arise from this policy as a result of the rivalry among China, Russia and India, on the one hand, and their efforts to take parallel measures, on the other hand, is among important tasks, which can increase the need for Iran’s involvement in regional equations while meeting the country’s interests in a better and more optimal way.

This article was written by Mohammad Zare’ for Iran Review on July 2,2016. Mohammad Zare’ is Researcher; Foreign Policy Department of ‏The Center for Strategic Research, Iran.