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US-Iran Standoff: How SCO Can Avert It? – Analysis

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Given the history of hostile relations and the current US-Iran standoff, the bilateral relations may be characterised in term of antagonism, exchange of threats/warnings, imposition of sanctions, defying the sanctions and lastly fighting the proxy wars against each other. The unilaterally withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of economic sanctions over Iran had once again surcharged and spiked the strategic tensions not only between the US-Iran rather grappled the entire Eurasian region seriously impacting the SCO member countries particularly from the dimensions of economic, security, stability etc. In this background, what should be the role of SCO, becomes more important to be examined here as Iran has been sharing common platform as an observer with the former one.

The SCO Summit 2019 took place when the US-Iran standoff had been going on and in this background, the argument is, the agenda discussed in summit and reiteration and commitement to the Shanghi Spirit, would turn into reality or just remain as a wish list? The moot question is, can SCO take a call on the US-Iran standoff to ease out and play a mediator role to maintain peace, stability, secuirty and pacify the trubulence emerging out of the ongoing US-Iran standoff?

Iran and SCO: Geopolitical Calculus

Iran has been sharing common platform with the SCO as one of the observer members. Being an observer member, Iran has been aggressively lobbying for getting the full membership of the SCO, for which it had applied officially in 2008. Till date, efforts on part of Iran in this direction has not been fructified.

Indeed, the SCO’s regional framework is pivotal for Iran given its stakes like improving global status, joining a growing Eastern-led process of regional integration, overcome a spill-over effects from the ‘Arc of Turbulence’ i.e., Middle East and more importantly neutralizing the US’s draconian measures. Iran’s profound disappointment with the West in general and the US in particular is one of the major dynamics responsible for its reorientation towards the East.

On the other hand, Iran has been in the core part of SCO member countries like China, Russia and India’s foreign policy radars. Therefore, the US’s restrictive and maximum pressure policy towards Iran may be taken as major challenge for China, Russia and India given their vested interests as the former’s actions could undermine their core interests. In this background, the SCO member countries cannot ignore the ongoing US-Iran standoff.

US-Iran Standoff 2019

The recent moves and counter-moves drifted the US-Iran ties further apart which are the by-products of history of hostile relations. The bilateral relations between the US and Iran have been maintaining low profile since the Islamic Revolution (1979). In fact, the bilateral diplomatic engagements have been carrying out through the Iranian Interests Section under the Pakistani Embassy (Washington, D.C.) and the US Interests Section under the Swiss Embassy (Tehran). This bilateral relationship has reached to its nadir during the regime of the US President George W. Bush (2001-2009) as he described Iran as an ‘Axis of Evil’ along with North Korea and Iraq.

The ongoing US-Iran tension was started with the passing of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), under which economic sanctions were imposed on Iran along with Russia and North Korea. It was further escalated when the US unilaterally withdrawn from the JCPOA, and in retaliation, Iran also threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz if the former would re-impose the economic sanctions in the backdrop of withdrawal from the deal.

Indeed, the US-Iran standoff had reached to the highest peak in the backdrop of draconian measures taken by the former to counter geopolitically the latter one. Meanwhile, the incident of attack on large oil tanker of Saudi Arabia took place further added fuel to the fire. The US alleged that attack was carried out by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who were armed and funded by Iran. The placing the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the list of ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ for aiding and abetting insurgencies in Iraq believed to be responsible for killing of the US soldiers further antagonized the Iranian leadership.

The counter-move was also taken by the Iranian Parliament by passing the “Double-Urgency Motion” (April 9) to strengthen its military force. Also, in the same motion, the American forces designated as terrorist, stationed in West Asia. The US terminated the waivers that allowed countries (China, India, and Japan) to import Iranian oil along with the imposition of additional sanctions primarily targeting the steel, aluminium, copper industries etc.

In view of the tension in the Persian Gulf, the US has also issued warning to its citizens not to travel, rather asked the additional staff stationed in Iraq to come back. The Trump regime’s allegation of attacks on four oil tankers (the Strait of Hormuz) and two oil tankers (the Gulf of Oman) had created the rancour between both the countries.

It has been reported in the New York Times that a military plan is in a pipeline by the Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to send about 120,000 troops to the Persian Gulf in case either Iran attacks the US forces or moves toward developing the nuclear weapons. President Trump issued a warning to Iran on 19 May, in case of conflict, then that would be “the official end of Iran.”

On the other hand, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif aggressively reciprocated by saying that Trump’s genocidal taunts won’t end Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran shot down an American surveillance drone (RQ-4A Global Hawk) near the Strait of Hormuz. In retaliation, President Trump gave an order for a retaliatory military strike on 20 June, however, good sense was prevailed and just a moment before the operation began, he withdrew the decision despite the strong objection on part of Secretary of State (Mike Pompeo) and National Security Adviser (John Bolton). These instances clearly indicate that there is hardly chance left for diplomacy and dialogue, that can be substantiated by the tweet of FM Javad Zarif that sanctions are not an “alternative to war; they are war.” Whereas on the othe hand, President Trump tweeted that ‘We were cocked and loaded!’. These warning/threats on part of both sides indicate that Persian Gulf is trapped in war like situation.

Can SCO Avert the Standoff?

The SCO Charter and Summit 2019 of the same, have given importance to the common regional and global security challenges, however, in context of ongoing tussle between the US-Iran, till now, there is no indications/efforts on part of the SCO to pacify the same. Article 1 of the SCO Charter emphasises to strengthen friendship, mutual trust, good neighbourliness, strengthening of peace, security and stability among the member countries in the Eurasian region.

Having lofty principle and ideals and as an intergovernmental regional organization, SCO could play an important role in the ongoing US-Iran standoff. Iran has been sharing a common platform in the SCO as an observer and regularly participating in the SCO Summits since 2008. Even it participated in the Bishkek Summit 2019, wherein, the heads of the member countries had discussed and deliberated over various agenda items including the strengthening the security of the Eurasian region.

At the Summit (2019), the emphasis was given by the member countries of the SCO, how it can be made more effective and constructive mechanism for multilateral cooperation which could play an important role in achieving the set objectives. The member countries had also expressed commitment towards the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ through the joint statement, wherein emphasis was laid on the role of SCO as, “to promote practical cooperation in politics, security, trade and the economy, including finance, investment, transport, energy and agriculture, as well as the development of intra-SCO cultural and humanitarian ties.”

The SCO member/observer countries have been facing several common internal and external security challenges. Hence, emphasis was given on the bolstering of regional security and stability, combatting of the terrorism and extremism in all its forms and manifestations had remained the focal points of SCO Summit 2019. In compatibility to it charter, the SCO in its Bishkek Declaration (2019) had focused on the principle of respect for the sovereignty, non-interference, equality and regional integrity.

On this background, it becomes a moot question that what is the meaning of such common important issues, particularly jointly consolidating peace for Iran? Where Iran is placed in the SCO’s principle of respect for sovereignty, mutual trust, friendship, good neighbourliness, security and stability and strengthening of peace among the member countries? Would China, Russia, India, Pakistan come forward to ease out the ongoing tension or merely remain spectators?

It is important to quote and remind commitment to the SCO, “…consistently advocating the resolution of international and regional conflicts by exclusively peaceful political and diplomatic means based on the principles of equality, respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, the non-use of force or the threat of force.” How the SCO can translate the ‘resolution of international and regional conflicts by exclusively peaceful political and diplomatic means’, principle in practice, particularly in context of US-Iran standoff?

Notwithstanding the lofty ideals, commitment and reiteration to the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ till now, there is no constructive role on part of the SCO is perceptible in the direction of resolution of US-Iran tension. However, in the individual capacity of the SCO members, some diplomatic statements have been issued in this regard.

However, the SCO countries like China, Russia, India have been maintaining low profile with respect to Persian Gulf crisis, may be given of either some geopolitical interests or challenges.

On this backdrop, how the SCO’s vision of multipolar world order and objectives like strengthening of peace, prosperity, security and stability, respect for sovereignty, non-interference, and equality could be achieved if it is not going to take the timely decisions to check the external interventions, which is/are disturbing the regional security and stability.

However, now it seems quite possible as the three strong world leaders viz., Chinese President Xi, Russian President Putin and Indian PM Modi, who are at the helms of SCO decision making mechanism. Therefore, it is recommended that these leaders should come forward on one platform of the SCO and urge the US and Iran to sort out their differences on the table through rationale diplomacy and dialogue to avoid the turning the Persian Gulf into another battlefield. The US leaders who are strong opponents and critics of Trumps policy may also be engaged by the SCO leaders to create a public opinion in the US to avoid such confrontations.

*About the authors:

  • Dr. Bawa Singh (Assistant Professor), Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab
  • Mudasir Mubarik, Ph.D Research Scholar, Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab


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