Held under the chairmanship of Russia, the 20th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – a Eurasian alliance focused on economic and political stability across the region – took place virtually on November 10. In addition to the original founding member countries – China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – new members India and Pakistan participated in this year’s forum proceedings as well.
Represented by President Rouhani, Iran also attended the conference as one of the observer states. Having attained observer status in 2005, Iran officially applied for membership twice, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, but it is still waiting to be inducted in 2020.
Even though long-term strategic partnerships are currently being negotiated with both Beijing and Moscow, Tehran has still not been given SCO member status after more than a decade. Addressing the SCO gathering, this time Rouhani notably avoided mentioning any prospective upgrading of Iran’s SCO status to that of a permanent member.
According to the basic ethos of the group, a complete consensus between members is required for most decisions. Nevertheless, the approval of the two largest founding members, Russia and China, carries more weight. Serving as SCO chair between 2008-2009 as well, when Iran began seeking membership, Russia initiated the adoption of some amendments in the SCO statutes in 2010.
Announcing the changes at the 2010 SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev stated that, “countries experiencing legal issues cannot apply for SCO membership. This is particularly related to the states under UN sanctions.”
However, Russia has no objections now.
This February in New Delhi, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that, “Iran is an observer and we are supportive of the Iranian request for full membership.” He also added, “And most of the [SCO] countries support this request.”
Indeed, in September, the Russian president’s special representative for the SCO, Bakhtiar Hakimov, further expressed the country’s support for Iran’s official membership in the bloc, during his meeting with the Iranian Ambassador to Moscow, Kazem Jalali.
It is Beijing’s stance that remains indecisive now, and there are several factors that have kept China undecided about Iran’s SCO status.
When Iran first applied for membership status in 2008, the request was not approved as it was under UN sanctions and that was against the rules of the SCO charter.
When Iran first applied for membership status in 2008, the request was not approved as it was under UN sanctions and that was against the rules of the SCO charter. Once those sanctions were lifted in 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping did announce his support for Iran’s SCO entry during a state visit to Tehran the same year.
As luck would have it, U.S. sanctions replaced the UN restrictions as President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in 2018. Consequently, the SCO backed off again from approving Iran’s inclusion in the alliance; the leadership did not want to get into a new controversy and complicate relations with Washington, as trade issues had also started.
China has remained committed to the implementation of the JCPOA and its first preference would be to revive the deal. In the meantime, even though Beijing has continued some energy trade with Tehran, its volume has significantly decreased. Basically, it helped Iran survive financially as it could trade in the Chinese yuan when it was cut off from the global financial system.
Another impediment has been China’s thriving trade relations with Saudi Arabia – a major Iran adversary – and the other oil rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Trying to maintain a balance in ties with Iran and avoid getting caught up in this regional rivalry, Beijing has had to delay Tehran’s entry to SCO membership as it would be compelled to include Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as well. And in that event, any friction between the two rival nations could seriously affect the credibility and image of the SCO. In 2017, Beijing had even offered to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran but was unsuccessful.
Fresh debate about Iran’s delayed membership has started again this year when the draft of a prospective 25-year strategic partnership between China and Iran was leaked to the media. Possibly as a pro-active step, the SCO matter was mentioned in the joint presidential statement about the agreement. It is stated that China “supports Iran’s application for full membership [in] the Organization” but no details on achieving this were disclosed, leaving the matter somewhat ambiguous.
Even though China-Iran ties are on an upward trajectory, Beijing cannot jeopardize its long-term plans in the Middle East.
It is safe to assume that even though China-Iran ties are on an upward trajectory, Beijing cannot jeopardize its long-term plans in the Middle East by being associated with this regional tiff. Presumably, China would hold off from approving Iran’s full membership until U.S. sanctions are lifted, the JCPOA is revived, and Saudi-Iran ties improve.
Now with a new administration about to assume power in Washington, it appears as though President-elect Joe Biden is not averse to reviving the JCPOA deal. If this happens, it seems likely that U.S. economic sanctions would be lifted, and Iran would be able to swing back into global trade. Hence, the main hurdle in the way of Iran’s SCO membership would be removed.
Moreover, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East could also change Saudi Arabia’s stance and it does seem more inclined towards rapprochement in the region these days. Therefore, Saudi-Iran ties could also improve and another obstacle in the way of Iran’s SCO membership would be removed.
But at that point, it is not certain that Iran would still like to join the SCO.
If Tehran gets the JCPOA deal back on track, it might not wish to “look East” after all once the doors to Western trade re-open. Even previously, when the JCPOA was signed in 2015, Iran had focused on improving ties with European countries and adopted a multilateral approach to foreign policy.
If Tehran gets the JCPOA deal back on track, it might not wish to “look East” after all once the doors to Western trade re-open.
The SCO group has remained more like a regional bloc even though the forum’s planned role was initially more global. Undecided whether to prioritize its security role or highlight economic development under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) umbrella, the SCO is not completely functional yet even as it still needs to clarify and establish its geostrategic role.
Somehow, the SCO has also avoided widespread comparisons with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) even though it has been called the “NATO of the East” at times. Having started out as the “Shanghai Five” in 1996, the SCO functions more like a shared community on the basic principles of the “Shanghai Spirit.”
According to the first clause of the SCO Charter, the group’s main goals are to jointly counter separatism and terrorism in all manifestations; enhance regional cooperation in politics, trade, economy, and defense; and work together to prevent international conflicts and achieve peaceful settlement.
After Uzbekistan joined in 2001, the Shanghai Five group was renamed the SCO and since the inclusion of Pakistan and India in 2017, the organization now represents a geographical region of 60 million square kilometers (23 million square miles) and a population of 3 billion.
Yet, if presumed shifts in U.S. foreign policy towards Iran present greater economic options for the Islamic Republic, it may turn out that in its current capacity, the SCO can provide no significant advantage to Iran.