Iran officially joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in September, marking a landmark moment in Tehran’s growing relationships with China and Russia—the Eurasian pact’s two leading powers. Although there are limits to what SCO membership will provide the Islamic Republic, there will be certain political, diplomatic, economic, and security gains for Iran. Perhaps most important is the fact that Tehran’s position vis-à-vis the West could strengthen, particularly regarding the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna.
The SCO’s precursor was the Shanghai Five (comprised of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan), which was formed in 1996 as a mutual security, political, and economic organization. The Shanghai Five became the SCO when Uzbekistan joined in 2001. The multilateral organization’s purpose was to monitor developments in the wider region while combatting the “three evils,” specifically “terrorism, extremism, and separatism.” Today, members of the world’s largest regional organization make up one-third of all land on earth and 40 percent of the global population.
By 2005, Iran became an “observer member” of the SCO. Previous Iranian efforts to become a full-fledged member—begun in 2008— failed because of UN sanctions against Tehran. Another factor was Iran’s problematic relationship with Tajikistan, which accused the Islamic Republic of backing the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan.
In 2016/2017, when all signatories to the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were in compliance with the accord, both China and Russia declared their support for Iranian membership in the SCO. Even after the US withdrew unilaterally from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, Beijing and Russia maintained their positions in favor of bringing Iran into the Eurasian pact.
Iran will be joining with non-Western countries in ways that can help partially compensate for Tehran’s unfavorable standing with Washington.
By starting the process of becoming a member, Iran will be joining with non-Western countries in ways that can help partially compensate for Tehran’s unfavorable standing with Washington and other Western governments. “In recent years, Iran has always tried to show to the United States that political, economic, and diplomatic pressure cannot isolate Iran on the international scene, and that Iran has alternative options,” explained Dr. Hamidreza Azizi, a Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), in an interview with Inside Arabia.
What is clear is the desire, not only from China, but also Russia, to forge a deeper partnership with Tehran. After all, Iran could have gained full membership in the SCO only with the greenlight from Beijing and Moscow.
“In light of the statements and pledges made by Iran’s previous leadership and the speech by Iran’s new President, Ebrahim Raisi, that Iran was prepared to open and share with the SCO all of its potential capabilities, there are very serious reasons to believe that it will be very useful,” according to Bekhtiyer Khakimov, Moscow’s special presidential envoy for SCO affairs. “The SCO member-countries made the corresponding decision on the basis of thorough analysis of the entire combination of factors. In this sense we see eye to eye with our partners,” Khakimov went on to say. He added that Moscow is pleased with “the prospects for Iran’s involvement in such activities as [the] struggle against terrorism, drug trafficking, and the work for stability and security in the region and on a wider scale.”
Experts maintain that Russia’s growing interest in further strengthening relations with Iran is related to the new administration in Tehran. “Russia seems more comfortable deepening ties with Iran after Ebrahim Raisi’s election,” Sina Toossi of the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) told Inside Arabia. “The previous administration of Hassan Rouhani focused on improving Iran’s relations with the West. After the JCPOA was struck, Iran prioritized giving contracts to Western firms over Chinese and Russian ones.” As former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explained in a leaked interview that Iran International released earlier this year, Russia was not genuinely supportive of the JCPOA because of Moscow’s fears that Iran’s relations with Western powers would grow at the expense of Iranian-Russian relations.
“With Raisi in power, Russia no longer worries that Iran will pivot to the West at its expense,” said Toossi. “Raisi firmly reflects Ayatollah Khamenei’s worldview when it comes to Iranian foreign policy. After the US reneged on the JCPOA, Khamenei explicitly said Iran should prefer the East over the West in its foreign relations.”
Moreover, Iran becoming an SCO member will help boost Iran’s position in regional trade. By increasing Iran’s interconnectivity and interdependence with its neighbors and other Asian countries, the Iranians would be advancing as the country’s President and Supreme Leader desire. As Toossi stated, “Raisi’s self-professed foreign policy priority is deepening ties with Iran’s neighbors, not restoring the JCPOA and improving relations with the West.”
China has strong bilateral relations with all states in Central Asia. But the SCO is China’s most important platform for discussing regional issues that need to be addressed in a more multilateral manner. Today, Afghanistan is one of those key challenges. Beijing will probably turn to the SCO as an intergovernmental organization to address problems in the war-ravaged country that threaten to push Afghanistan into a bloody civil war which China and all SCO members fear.
With most of its members being neighbors of Afghanistan, the SCO will likely be important to its future. This is especially so because Afghanistan has been an SCO observer state since 2012. Of course, there are certain political differences between members of this Eurasian pact when it comes to Afghanistan. For example, there is Pakistan, which is the neighboring state closest to the Taliban, and Tajikistan which is the regional state supporting the anti-Taliban resistance. Notwithstanding such differences, all SCO members have essentially the same concerns about post-US Afghanistan’s landscape. SCO membership “will allow Iran to engage in security coordination with its fellow Asian countries on regional issues in a more structured way which is especially important right now regarding Afghanistan,” Ali Ahmadi, a Tehran-based geopolitical analyst, told Inside Arabia.
Afghanistan is set to be the first major test for post-1979 Iran in terms of functioning within a major regional bloc.
Even under the best circumstances, however, the volatile and tense situation in Afghanistan will pose immense challenges to the SCO. The risks of Afghanistan’s instability spilling across the region trouble all SCO members while raising the stakes for each of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Now that Iran has obtained membership in the Asian security body, Afghanistan is set to be the first major test for post-1979 Iran in terms of functioning within a major regional bloc and addressing a situation that is extremely delicate and dangerous.
Experts agree that this will not be easy for Iran, nor the SCO. “There is no consensus among [SCO] members…on post-American Afghanistan,” explained Dr. Azizi. “While countries like China and Pakistan are already trying to consolidate their influence in the new Afghanistan, India – as a close ally of the former government in Kabul – has different interests. For this reason, there are doubts about the SCO’s actual ability to influence the situation in Afghanistan.”
Implications for the JCPOA
Despite SCO membership, Iranians will still pay prices for life under Washington’s pressure. “The US is still a much [more] valid actor on the global economic scene and most countries, even Eastern powers like Russia and China, have their limits in establishing and maintaining any effective anti-sanctions mechanisms—and this is going to be the case for the foreseeable future,” stated Dr. Azizi. “The experience of the US’ ‘maximum pressure’ policy proved that even the most remote countries of the world prioritize their economic interests in having ties with the US over conducting trade with Iran. As a result, Iran’s SCO membership cannot immediately affect Washington’s potential to pose economic pressure on Iran.”
Iran joining the SCO will not be a substitute for a timely revival of the JCPOA.
Ultimately, it is safe to conclude that Iran joining the SCO will not be a substitute for a timely revival of the JCPOA. Having just started the process of becoming a full-fledged member, Iran will need to wait years before it becomes one. “So, the [SCO] victory does not have short-term practical consequences for [Iran’s] economy,” explained Bijan Khajehpour, an economist at the Vienna-based strategic consultancy Eurasian Nexus Partners. Furthermore, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist remains an issue for Tehran, which SCO membership will not overcome.
“To maximize the economic benefit it will gain by joining the SCO, Iran needs the JCPOA and the normalized international banking relations that come with it,” argued Toossi.
Looking ahead, although the US will continue being able to punish Iran economically, Tehran’s SCO membership will undermine Washington’s ability to isolate the Islamic Republic diplomatically and geopolitically. Sanctioned heavily by the US, Iran has moved east geo-economically and sees its future in a Chinese- and Russian-led order in Asia. As Dr. Azizi put it, Iran’s SCO membership means that Tehran has entered into a “concert of non-Western great powers,” which will give Tehran some new forms of leverage vis-à-vis the West. This will come with important ramifications for the stalled JCPOA talks, as Tehran is now probably less likely to sway on demands and concessions at the negotiating table.