By Vali Golmohammadi
After nearly 15 years, on 16 September, at the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) summit, Iran’s accession to the permanent membership of the SCO was officially announced. By signing the “commitment document” for full membership to the organisation, Iran’s full accession is expected to become effective in April 2023, when India takes over as chair.
Turning the tide
Iran had been an observer member since 2005, and its frequent bids to get full membership were blocked since it was under United Nations’ sanctions. Now, it seems that the permanent members of the SCO, especially Russia and China, have different understandings of the emerging international environment and Iran’s standing in the less West-centric multipolar world. Although the rising anti-western narratives amongst the key SCO members manifest themselves differently in policy terms, Tehran’s long-standing revisionism is set to drive Iran, Russia, and China relatively closer together in geopolitical and strategic matters. As the world’s largest regional organisation—comprising 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of global GDP—the SCO can provide an effective multilateral institutional capacity for Iran to nullify the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States (US) and its allies.
With the Raisi administration taking office, Iran’s foreign policy motto “Neither East nor West” has transformed, as Tehran pursues a “Pivot to East” policy both geopolitically and geoeconomically. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameneisupports Raisi’s eastern policy, saying, “One of our priorities today in foreign policy is preferring the East to the West, neighbours to remote countries.” As a part of its Pivot to East policy, Iran seeks to play an active role in the shifting global order, thanks to its geostrategic position in the new geopolitical environment. The Pivot to East policy has three main components: nullifying the effects of sanctions and ameliorating Iran’s economic crises; mending ties with the neighbours; and powerful synergy with Russia and China to challenge the US regional interventionism through initiating an anti-West block. For Iranian optimists, full membership in the SCO can bring about all these strategic goals.
According to Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, “Iran’s membership to the SCO is a diplomatic triumph which proves Tehran’s dedication in pursuing a “balanced, smart, active, and dynamic” foreign policy approach and the idea of ‘Asian multilateralism’.” Accession to the SCO has geoeconomic importance; it can help Iran achieve its long-term vision to become a “hub country” by playing a central role in the East-West and North-South transit corridors. Iran has assured the SCO members to provide safe, stable, and reliable routes on the North-South Corridor, and at the same time, supply remarkable infrastructure in its southern port, especially the oceanic port of Chabahar. In 2021, Iran’s trade with the SCO member states surpassed US$37 billion, which accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s total foreign trade. During the same period, Iran’s exports stood at US$20.5 billion, and imports stood at US$16.5 billion with the SCO member states. Unfortunately, the SCO is primarily a security and geopolitical organisation with limited economic benefits for members since it lacks any formal economic mechanism to boost trade amongst members.
Worsening ties with the West
Beyond Iran’s strategic vision to become a member of SCO, the change in Russia and China’s stance regarding Iran’s membership is also important as it comes at a time of their deteriorating relations with the West. For years, China and Russia were against Iran’s membership in the SCO mainly because of its anti-Westernism. Now, with the rising tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over the invasion of Ukraine and the US’ intensifying hostility towards China, the SCO’s geopolitical identity and security capabilities have become evident for the two eastern great powers. Russia and China have realised Iran’s strategic importance in balancing the western threats. Therefore, it can be claimed that Iran’s membership in the SCO is the result of the political will of Moscow and Beijing.
The SCO is often presented as an inherently anti-Western bloc, with some even labelling it the anti-NATO bloc. After the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought to frame all regional organisations—the SCO in particular—as anti-NATO, viewing the SCO as the core of a Russia and China-led anti-Western bloc. As a new potential member of the SCO, approaching the organisation as an anti-western or anti-US setting can protect Iran from international isolation. As the war in Ukraine continues, western powers will likely punish and isolate Russia further, pushing it to consider alternative diplomatic venues to counter international isolation effectively. With Iran’s membership to the SCO, the dose of anti-westernism will inevitably intensify. Speaking at the 22nd SCO summit, Iranian President Raisi urged SCO members to find innovative ways to counter the US’ unilateralism. Iran’s membership to SCO is also in tandem with the Chinese policy of “Asian people to uphold Asian security”, which finds its organisational expression in the recent SCO meeting. Iran can also play a central role in dealing with the Afghanistan quagmire that has been a security concern for the SCO members. The Afghanistan factor, along with rising Sino–US tensions, pushed China to accelerate Iran’s membership to SCO.
Implications of Iran’s accession
Though the changing world order and emerging geopolitical realities convinced Iran to reposition its foreign policy orientations and abandon its traditional policy of “Neither East nor West”, its Pivot to East strategy has no originality in essence. Amidst the deadlock over nuclear talks, the policy shift to Pivot to East and the quest for membership in the SCO are nothing but reactions to the western pressure and shifting global and regional geopolitics. Contrary to what many expect, the SCO membership cannot do much in meeting Iran’s strategic aspirations. The SCO is, at its best, a framework for members to expand their bilateral relations. It does not represent any effective institutional solution to Iran’s international isolation. According to many economic observers, the SCO will not become an anti-sanctions coalition in the short term. Rather than major political or economic gains, Iran’s main achievement from this diplomatic triumph in the short term may be limited to multilateral diplomatic manoeuvres.
The fact is that Iran perceives its accession to SCO as leverage against the US at a time when nuclear talks are on the verge of collapse. The SCO member states are reluctant to engage themselves in Iran-US hostility; they also accepted Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt as “dialogue partners” in a balancing effort. This is also true for Russian efforts to highlight the anti-Western geopolitical identity of the SCO, as member states remain divided over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At least in the short term, the SCO is unlikely to offer any efficient alternative mechanism to meet Iran’s economic and security priorities as long as sanctions and hostility with the West remain. However, the SCO membership brings Iran a degree of international prestige and political leverage to strengthen its bargaining power in negotiating with the US.