PRAGUE, May 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Membership of the SCO could offer Iran shelter from the intense U.S.-led international pressure on Tehran to end uranium enrichment.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi was quoted by ITAR-TASS and Xinhua news agencies as saying in April that his country hopes to join the SCO this summer. He said Iran is looking forward to reviewing the nuclear dispute with its SCO "colleagues." Mohammadi said Tehran hopes for those countries' support at the organization's June summit in Shanghai.
"What we are seeing is really a tectonic shift of diplomatic and every other kind of activity into Western and Central Asia."
Russia and China have already given Tehran crucial support in the United Nations debate over its controversial nuclear program. Both have resisted pressure from the United States and its European allies to formulate a UN draft resolution that could open the way for economic sanctions or even military intervention unless Iran stops work on the nuclear fuel cycle.
The organization's present membership comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as Russia and China.
Analyst Jean-Philippe Beja of the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) in Paris said that formal SCO membership for Iran at this juncture would be a blow for the West.
"Of course, it would be considered a provocation by the West -- by the United States and Europe, which are trying to isolate Iran and which are trying to get Russia and China to join them in a sanctions program [against Iran]," Beja said. "If Iran is part of the SCO, it means it will be considered a legitimate partner both by Russia and China."
As it happens, Iran's aims in aligning itself with the SCO fit well with Chinese and Russian geo-strategic goals. Moscow and Beijing want to reduce the penetration of U.S. influence into Central Asia and the Middle East. In this context, Iran could serve as a bastion against further U.S. encroachment from the west.
In addition, for China, access to Iran's vast energy resources is essential, and bringing Tehran into the Shanghai "club" ensures that access.
Analyst Alireza Nourizadeh is with the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London. He pointed out that there is a certain process of east-west "bidding" going on to attract Iran's attention.
The European Union has just brought forward a new package of economic incentives to offer Tehran in exchange for giving up nuclear enrichment. Against this, Tehran is weighing the possibility of increased SCO investment in its energy sector.
Nourizadeh said an east-west divergence of view is visible in the Iranian leadership. For instance, pragmatists and reformers like Supreme Security Council chief Ali Larijani would prefer to stick to cooperation with Europe, and don't consider any offer from China and the others able to match it. On the other hand, Nourizadeh said that "especially [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad and the people around him, they believe that the only way for Iran to survive is to cooperate with China and the South-East Asian nations."
For instance, Ahmadinejad was pleased with the warm reception he received during his just-completed visit to Indonesia, and wants to swing Iran around to an easterly direction to take advantage of such feelings.
Not So Fast
But a note of caution emerged today from the meeting in Shanghai of SCO foreign ministers. Tajikistan's Minister Talbak Nazarov said the question of Iranian membership is not being considered -- at least for the time being.
The Tajik Avesta news agency quoted Nazarov as saying the SCO cannot extend its membership indefinitely, and that there is presently no document to regulate the process for taking on new members.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after today's meeting in Shanghai that the SCO is in the process of negotiating possible membership with Tehran.
The arrival of Iran as a member, along with prospectively India, Pakistan, and Mongolia -- all of which have observer status in the SCO -- could affect the fine balance in the organization between Russia and China.
Analyst Beja explained that SCO is the scene of a subtle struggle between Moscow and Beijing for influence in Central Asia.
"The SCO is still seen very much as a Chinese initiative," Beja said. "The Russians chose to join it, but they are obviously very wary of China's actions towards Central Asia."
All this means that Asia, as analyst Glen Barclay of the Australian National University in Canberra put it, is once more one of the focal points of international attention.
"What we are seeing is really a tectonic shift of diplomatic and every other kind of activity into Western and Central Asia," Barclay said.
Iran has pledged it will not give up its right to develop its nuclear program, including the uranium fuel cycle, and that the international community, whether in east or west, must accept that.
PRESIDENT TO PRESIDENT: On May 8, the Iranian government announced that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush. The letter was the first direct communication between leaders of the two countries since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. RFE/RL has posted the English version of Ahmadinejad's letter that was posted on the Iranian president's website.
"The people will scrutinize our presidencies," AHMADINEJAD wrote. "Did we manage to bring peace, security, and prosperity to our people or insecurity and unemployment? Did we intend to establish justice, or just support special-interest groups and -- by forcing many people to live in poverty and hardship -- make a few people rich and powerful, -- thus trading the approval of the people and the Almighty for [that of those few]? Did we bring the world peace and security or did we raise the specter of intimidation and threats?"...(more)
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
CHRONOLOGY An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.