By Hassan Beheshtipour
The 12th summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was held in China’s capital city, Beijing, on June 6-7.
The organization was born in 1996 out of an economic agreement among Russia, China, and three Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in a meeting in China’s port city of Shanghai. Uzbekistan joined the group during the Moscow summit in 2001 in which the group was promoted to an organization. Since that time, in addition to economic cooperation, the SCO has focused on security and military issues as well. The organization has gradually expanded its activities, including by accepting observer members. During the recent summit, Afghanistan was accepted as a new observer, thus increasing the number of the organization’s observers to five, which include Iran, India, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The Beijing summit coincided with major global developments including the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s third term in office as the president of Russia, which is an important member of the SCO. As a result, international analysts were focused on the summit and its positions. Iran was also able to use the summit’s opportunity as a tribune to give voice to its positions on various issues.
During the meeting, Iran offered four proposals, which were not welcomed by member states as Iran’s proposals have been consistently rejected by other members for different reasons. Perhaps, if Iran’s proposals were more practical, they stood a better chance of being accepted.
The most important outcome of the summit was its final statement. Opposition of SCO heads of states to deployment of NATO missile shield in the region was among the most prominent features of the statement. They also called for peaceful solution to the Middle East problems, thus, rejecting any military intervention in Syria.
Supporting Iran’s right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, emphasis on fighting terrorism, opposition to the US unilateralism and accepting Afghanistan as a new observer were other important highlights of the final statement.
Apart from that statement, presidents of Iran and Russia met on the sidelines of the summit which had wide reverberations in international media as a sign of coordination between Iran and Russia ahead of the forthcoming talks between Tehran and global powers in Moscow.
Challenges facing the SCO
1. Lack of single leadership
An explanation is necessary about status of the SCO in global equations. In theory, since such members and observers as India, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asian states account for about one-third of the world’s population with great capacities, the organization has big potential for playing an active role in international developments. But in reality, the SCO has not been able to play its expected role in the first place because countries such as Iran, India and Pakistan are still observer members and their request of permanent membership has not been accepts. Also, the organization does not have a single leadership and its leaders are not coordinated.
This is one of the serious problems facing the organization. Single leadership is one of the main challenges of the SCO unless the organization moves toward providing an appropriate ground for collective leadership which calls for specific requirements.
2. Distance between members with regards to political and economic development
Economically speaking, there is a great distance between the organization’s main members. When Russia and China are excluded, Central Asian countries are not economically powerful and this distance has caused divergence among them.
3- US influence on some SCO members
The common interests of SCO member states are influenced by their relationship with the US. It means that the kind of relations that exists between China and the US or Russia affects the development of the organization, which is another challenge for the SCO. The SCO must free itself from the influence of world powers such as the US or the European Union if it wants to increase its impact on international developments; so far it has not been successful regarding this issue. Maybe the organization’s closer ties with Eurasia, a goal that Russia pursues, can help the SCO achieve a standard procedure.
4- Ambiguity surrounding SCO’s real identity
The SCO has not been able to provide a single definition for its identity. The organization is neither anti-US, like Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, nor it has an economic identity with centralized programs like Comecon which was dissolved after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.
Although China and Russia sway considerable influence because of their population, energy resources and a veto right in the UN Security Council, they have not been able to create a new identity for the SCO against the Western capitalism. The SCO is, in fact, a heterogeneous combination of ideas and systems which have come together based on interests or compulsory considerations and have not been able to achieve a single identity.
Today, enjoying military and economic power along with the ability to produce science and promote democracy are highly significant factors in determining the level of power and the influence of an organization in the international arena.
Such problems have caused the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to achieve not a very considerable status in the international arena and world equations. However, the SCO is undoubtedly an influential organization regionally.
Iran’s membership in SCO
Iran expressed readiness to become a member state of the SCO a few years ago but the organization is yet to agree to the request. The reasons could be considered from two perspectives. Inside Iran, there are some who believe that membership in a security or military treaty is against the country’s Constitution, which bans joining any organization with military or security aspects. In response to this reasoning, some say that the problem can be solved through Majlis and making amendment to the law, arguing that accession to regional organizations will reinforce countries’ influence.
Those opposing the idea believe that Iran’s membership in the SCO is contrary to its membership in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and that Iran as an active NAM member state, which will assume the rotating presidency of the organization for the next three years during the August summit, must not go ahead with membership in the SCO because NAM member states are obliged to not align with military organizations. On the other hand, Iran’s membership in the SCO has opponents and proponents within the organization as well.
For instance, Russia announced in its latest reaction that Iran cannot join the SCO as long as its nuclear issue has not been resolved. In other words, resolutions against Iran bar its membership. It seems, however, that such policy is only an excuse since there is no article in the resolutions that would bar Iran’s membership in the SCO.
Furthermore, both China and Uzbekistan had earlier opposed Iran’s membership in the SCO, a fact which indicates that there are two views with respect to the issue. The first view belongs to those countries that support Iran’s membership like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and, on the other side, there are those like Uzbekistan, Russia and China that under different pretexts oppose Iran’s membership. It seems though that the SCO can assume a new identity by agreeing to the membership of countries like India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia.
Hassan Beheshtipour is a researcher, documentary producer, and a frequent contributor to Press TV, Hassan Beheshtipour was born on June 22, 1961 in the Iranian capital. He received his BA in Trade Economics from the prestigious Tehran University. His research topics span from US and Russian foreign policy to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. The Iranian analyst is currently busy with research on the 1979 US embassy takeover in Tehran.