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Iran, China, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The new secretary general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Muratbek Sansyzbayevich Imanaliev, said at a news conference in Beijing earlier this week that the conflict in Afghanistan and expanding the SCO’s members to include Iran and Pakistan were the top issues on the SCO’s agenda in 2010.  Certainly, these issues are likely to dominate preparation for the SCO’s annual summit, which will take place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan sometime this coming summer.

The SCO was founded in 2001 by six original members: Russia and China along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.  Formally, the SCO was created to institutionalize the founding members’ ongoing cooperation on border security, counterterrorism, and fighting extremist and separatist activism, as well as for economic cooperation.  More broadly, the SCO has established itself as an increasingly important factor in Central Asian affairs, Sino-Russian relations, and the formation of an international “coalition” — loosely organized around Beijing and Moscow — opposed to what its members see as excessive U.S. unilateralism. 

In 2004, Mongolia became the first state to receive observer status in the SCO; in 2005, Iran, India, and Pakistan were also granted observer status in the SCO.  If one includes the populations and territorial extent of the four observer states along with those of the six core members, the SCO has become the world’s largest regional security organization, in terms of the number of people and the amount of territory it covers.  Among other things, the inclusion of Iran, India, and Pakistan as observers significantly expands the SCO’s already considerable latent potential to exert influence over the development and marketing of Central Asia’s oil and gas resources.

Over the past three years, Russia has pushed for Iran to be accorded full membership in the SCO.  China has quietly resisted this push.  In public, Chinese officials say only that the issue needs to be studied, as a formal mechanism through which the SCO can bring in new members does not currently exist.  In private, Chinese officials say that including Iran would change the character and function of the SCO in important ways.  In particular, Iranian membership would make it harder for Beijing to insist, as it regularly does, that the SCO is not an alliance directed against any specific country — e.g., the United States.

It is not clear that Beijing is ready to endorse full membership for Iran in the SCO.  But, as Andrei Ibanov, a Russian analyst, wrote this week in China’s Global Times, Beijing’s heightened strategic standing “allows it a more direct role in advancing its national interests faster than ever.”  And, as we have pointed out repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, since 2007, China has become more assertive in advancing its perceived interests vis-à-vis Iran, even as U.S. pressure on Beijing to take a tougher line against Tehran intensifies.  We certainly expect that trend to continue.

In this context, Ibanov argues that

China’s best move, particularly as the leader of the SCO, would be to encourage and facilitate the acceptance of Iran’s membership into the pact quickly before a new round of sanctions are imposed.  Doing so would not only add strength to China’s ability to access Iran’s energy sources, it would also very seriously dampen any unilateral moves, whether sanctions or missiles aimed at Iran and its nuclear facilities.

Two years ago, a general in the People’s Liberation Army intelligence branch told us in Beijing that China would agree to full Iranian membership in the SCO “only if the United States forced its hand.”  Given the Obama Administration’s gratuitous antagonism of China, over Iran and other issues, it will be interesting to see whether Beijing is more open to the prospect of full SCO membership for the Islamic Republic.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This is an excerpt from an article first published by The Race for Iran on 5 February 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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