MOSCOW, May 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, told a gathering of parliamentary leaders from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on May 30 that their meeting in Moscow was "a landmark event."
It was certainly a first in the group's 10-year history. In the past, SCO meetings have brought together only the leaders of the organization's six members -- Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The hope is that national parliaments could play a vital role in giving the SCO a new boost.
"By letting Iran enter the SCO, Russia and China would clearly demonstrate that they side with Iran and its nuclear program and would embark on a collision course with the West."
Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian State Duma, argued that, as heads of national parliaments, the delegates could "play a more active role in providing legislative support for tasks such as strengthening the collective security system in Central Asia, increasing the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, implementing large-scale trade and economic cooperation programs."
More Influential, But Also Larger?
A soldier pictured during first joint SCO counterterrorism exercises in 2003 (ITAR-TASS)
This was as an occasion made significant by the presence of ordinary parliamentarians, and by a declaration by the six members' parliaments to cooperate.
There was, though, one president in attendance -- Russia's Vladimir Putin.
Putin noted "with satisfaction" that the international community is showing "greater interest" in the SCO.
"We also see attempts to create some sort of competition with our organization in the international arena," he said, in an apparent reference to growing U.S. influence in the region. Putin said, though, that he believes "it would be right if we did not engage in any competition but instead continue positive, constructive work."
Putin's words echoed remarks by Chinese President Hu Jintao, who earlier on May 30 had told reporters in Beijing that the SCO had matured and grown in influence.
But should the SCO also expand its influence by expanding as an organization?
That is on the cards. Two weeks ago, Iran said it would like to become a full member. Like India, Mongolia, and Pakistan, Iran currently has observer status.
Including Iran would be controversial, particularly at a time of heightened tension caused by Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear program.
Some believe it would come too early for early for the SCO's own good. At the May 30 meeting, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both said the organization should first focus on cementing ties between its current member states.
Nurtai Abykaev, the head of the Kazakh Senate, also called for "a temporary moratorium on accepting new observer countries."
To Admit Or Not To Admit Iran?
The SCO's secretary-general, China's Zhang Deguan, on May 29 pointed out the obstacles to expansion, stressing that the organization's charter does not provide for the inclusion of new members.
However, Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundation think tank in Moscow, has no doubt that both Russia and China are eager to expand the SCO, which is increasingly seen as a counterbalance to U.S. influence in the strategically located region.
Iran may, though, be too divisive a candidate, he believes.
"By letting Iran enter the SCO, Russia and China would clearly demonstrate that they side with Iran and its nuclear program and would embark on a collision course with the West," Volk says. "I think that right now such a turn of events does not suit Russia and China. They are interested in maintaining contacts with the West, the United States, and the European Union."
The position of Moscow and Beijing may become clearer soon. In a little over two weeks, on June 15, the presidents of SCO member states gather in Shanghai for a special summit to mark the fifth anniversary of the transformation of the Shanghai Five into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization following its expansion to include Uzbekistan.