Although President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to participate in next month’s summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, the whole Iranian approach toward this regional, part economic, part security, organization is now under review in Tehran, as part and parcel of a “new foreign policy” promised by Rouhani and his foreign policy team headed by Javad Zarif.
Inducted as observer, along with India, Pakistan and Mongolia, since 2005, Iran has in fact sought full membership in the SCO since 2008, only to be rebuffed by the legalistic argument that the organization’s rules disallow membership by any country that is under the UN sanctions. Clearly, that is giving the UN sanctions too much importance and if China and Russia, the two leading SCO powers, really wanted they could come up with a creative solution, such as a “conditional acceptance” of Iran that would hinge on Iran’s resolution of its current problems with the UN atomic agency, the IAEA.
Even short of membership, Iran’s SCO connection can deepen, in light of a recent invitation by the SCO’s budding Business Council for a stronger Iranian presence at the Council. Tehran will likely shift gear from the geopolitical to economic emphasis in its SCO priority, seeking to maximize the advantage of economic possibilities that rest in part on Iran’s geography, straddled between the two energy hubs of Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea, and as a gateway to Persian Gulf by the landlocked Central Asian states, which are members of both the SCO as well as the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO); (1) calling for a closer SCO-ECO cooperation, perhaps by setting up a joint working committee, is an apt Iranian move, given the recent Turkish expressions of interest in the SCO.
From Tehran’s standpoint, the reasons its policy toward the SCO requires a fresh re-evaluation stem from certain misgivings regarding the “look to the East” orientation of the previous administration, which was formulated mainly in response to the Western sanctions and thus as a viable “survival strategy” that simultaneously vested hope in China and Russia’s high investment capabilities and the benefits of a strong political and security umbrella to counter the risk of any US/Israel attack on Iran. Far from a one-way process, the dominant thinking in Iran until now has been that Iran’s association with the SCO will increase the latter’s maneuvering power vis-a-vis the West, enhance its resistance to the “American unilateral power” as well as NATO’s post-cold war eastward expansion, and also improve the SCO members’ ability to have “good neighborly” relations with the Islamic Republic, which has a history of constructive conflict-management role in Central Asia-Caucasus. In the past, Iran has supported Russia’s idea of an SCO energy committee and can well spearhead a new SCO conflict-resolution committee, in light of Iran’s experience in mediating the conflicts in Karabakh, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
With respect to Afghanistan, likely to experience a power vacuum parallel to the planned departure of US forces in the near future, the SCO’s interest in Iran as a powerful neighbor with considerable influence in Kabul is bound to grow, thus enhancing the “synergy” for closer cooperation on such issues as narco-traffic, arms smuggling, and anti-terrorism. For sure, there are new “stability problems” in the SCO region on the horizon, including the “irredentist” threats (of ethnic separatism), dictating a more organic and closer connection with Iran, which promotes itself as an “anchor of stability.”
Still, in spite of the above-said factors, how Iran will engage with the SCO in the future remains somewhat uncertain due to the received excessive tilt toward the East, which is viewed by some Tehran policy-makers as a deviation from the regime’s doctrinal “equi-distance” expressed in the slogan “Islamic Republic, Neither West, Nor East,” adorning the massive entrance gate of Foreign Ministry in Central Tehran. This is fueled by the growing complaints of Iranians about the unhealthy Chinese and Russian pattern of “bargaining with the West over Iran,” not to mention the disadvantages of sanctions-imposed bartering Iran’s energy for shoddy goods from China and India, or Russia’s refusal to make good on its contractual obligation for the delivery of the S-300 air defense system, presently in litigation in an arbitration court in Europe.
Such criticisms of Russia, China and India, although valid in the main, still weigh considerably less than the potent arguments in favor of keeping and even improving trade relations with the SCO countries as an effective counter-sanctions strategy and Iran’s need to build a new regional and international coalition aimed at Western sanctions. Solidifying Iran’s regional relations is definitely a top Tehran priority today and the Rouhani administration is poised to follow a multi-track diplomacy to ensure that the increased engagement with the SCO does not come at the expense of its new “look West” approach focused on repairing ties with the European Union, its former number one trade partner prior to the onset of sanctions since 2006.
But, with the ideal of a healthy “both East and West” relations bogged down in the rude reality of robust western sanctions for the foreseeable future, Iran’s options are rather limited and any undue tampering with the “look East” approach may backfire and result in weakening Iran’s regional and international support. Avoiding the previous administration’s “zero-sum” approach to Iran’s relations with the West in favor of a “win-win” with diverse blocs in today’s world economy is definitely a wise move, but realistically speaking it can come only in slow stages based on skillful economic foreign policy-making, above all in the energy sector, presently reeling under crippling sanctions. Concerning the latter, Iran’s new oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, has vowed to substantially increase Iran’s oil export and to finish the massive projects in the South Pars and, yet, this hinges in part on Iran’s ability to lure back to Iran the Western energy companies who have defected due to the sanctions and are unlikely to risk the US’s ire as long as there is no breakthrough in the nuclear standoff.
In turn, this raises the question of whether or not Iran’s increased cooperation with the SCO will “offer the US an acceptable format to bring Iran into the dialogue” over the nuclear issue, as predicted by a Russian expert, Alexander Lurkin? Another question, presently preoccupying Iran’s foreign policy-makers, is whether Iran is best served relying on bilateral ties or whether engagement on additional, i.e., multilateral, fronts is necessary? While Tehran debates such questions, there is however little disagreement on the notion that Iran’s approach toward the SCO should be primarily focused on the economic advantages and that a more promising and less cumbersome venue for cooperation would be project-oriented, such s regional transportation improvements, reflecting the concrete benefits of “positive partnership.”
On a broader level, the internal debate in Iran over the SCO revolves around the interpretation of the SCO, once viewed uncritically as an “alternative to NATO,” although at this point it is rather obvious that the competitive side of China-Russia relations hampers the SCO’s evolution beyond “low-security cooperation” to fulfill its original mandate of “collective security.”
The SCO’s Vague, Dual Purpose Identity
Short of being a military alliance or a trade bloc, the SCO serves different purposes for both its six members and observer states, with Moscow using it to complement its Central Asian geopolitics/geoeconomics spearheaded by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Customs Union, as part of its broader “Eurasian” strategy, as a result of which the SCO multilateralism has been championed more in rhetoric than in practice. China, on the other hand, has prioritized bilateral expansion in Central Asia while relying on the SCO as a “stability vehicle” to regulate the regional status quo and contain the American and NATO power. But, perhaps the SCO’s biggest long-term contribution is to regulate the Sino-Russian rivalry, a cardinal issue that, in turn, raises the prospect of Iran’s future membership, as a sort of healthy “balancer” within the SCO family of nations, in light of Iran’s traditional ability to avoid turning into a “satellite state” for any world power.
Thus, unlike other countries — India, Pakistan, Turkey — that seek SCO membership and would complicate the Sino-Russian dynamic for one reason or another, the unique advantage of Iran’s membership is that while it may cause some headaches with respect to the nuclear issue, on the whole it is beneficial to the net of Moscow-Beijing ties by in effect acting as a new hinge connecting the two powers that view each other with suspicions of harboring “hegemonic intentions.” Tehran is moving quickly to entrench itself in a “new regionalism,” aspiring to become a grater “stability provider” in a region primed for much greater Russian and Chinese investments and yet suffering from a stability deficit that may grow more menacing in the future, thus imperiling the region’s pipelines, foreign loans and infrastructural investments. The plethora of region’s potential security challenges cannot be tackled by any single regional power and requires collective effort, i.e., the SCO’s initial raison d’etre, which is in dire need of a “cognitive lift” via consideration of the role and input of new members such as Iran. In a word, the Rouhani administration is poised to focus on the economic benefits of the SCO within the framework of Iran’s “counter-sanctions” strategy, yet at the same time it cannot afford to overlook the vital links between the economic and security dimensions and its potential to infuse itself more organically in the complex dynamic of Sino-Russian relations riveting the “dual purpose” SCO.