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Central Asia: Does The Road To Shanghai Go Through Tehran?

Representatives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states in Moscow in May (epa) New variables are entering the geopolitical calculus of Central Asia. An ongoing Russian-Uzbek rapprochement is only the most visible sign of resurgent Russian influence in the region, which is an important source of natural gas to feed Moscow's ambitions of becoming a 21st-century energy superpower. Chinese interest in Central Asian energy resources is also growing. And the United States continues to maintain close, energy-inflected ties with Kazakhstan and a military base in Kyrgyzstan. But the newest variable is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in an ambiguous alliance that many in the West are beginning to view with trepidation.

The SCO will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary with a summit of member states' leaders in Shanghai on June 15. Last year's summit, in Kazakhstan, was notable for a declaration asking members of the "antiterrorist coalition" to provide a time frame for the withdrawal of military forces from SCO territory. It was a pointed reference to U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Only two weeks later, Uzbekistan evicted the United States from its Karshi-Khanabad air base.

This year, the summit will open against a backdrop of reports that Iran, which currently holds observer status in the SCO (along with India, Mongolia, and Pakistan), is looking to become a full-fledged member.

'OPEC With Bombs'?

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi set the speculation rippling in April, when he said that Iran hopes to join the SCO in the summer. The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan subsequently downplayed the possibility, citing a lack of formal mechanisms to accommodate new members. But the gambit, coming in the context of Iran's strained relations with the West over Tehran's nuclear program, drew notice. "The Washington Times" quoted David Wall, professor at the University of Cambridge's East Asia Institute, as saying that "an expanded SCO would control a large part of the world's oil and gas reserves and nuclear arsenal. It would essentially be an OPEC with bombs."

As it emerged that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad would attend the SCO summit in Shanghai, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also addressed the issue of Iran's potential membership of the organization, "The New York Times" reported on June 4. Singling out Iran, Rumsfeld remarked that it was "passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world."

SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang quickly retorted, AP reported on June 7, firing back: "We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors of terror. We would not have invited them if we believed they sponsored terror."

Mutual Support

Three points follow from the reactions to the SCO's Iranian gambit. First, the SCO represents an approach to multilateral relations and an understanding of terrorism that do not, in fact, define Iran as a sponsor of terror and would permit Iran's accession. Second, it is unlikely that Iran will join the SCO in the near future. And third, even if Iran joined, the SCO would have a long way to go before becoming a genuine "OPEC with bombs."

The SCO's charter helps to explain why SCO states -- primarily China and Russia -- do not consider Iran a sponsor of terrorism. While the charter's "aims and objections" list "joint opposition to terrorism, separatism, and extremism in all their manifestations," its first principle is "mutual respect for states' sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and the sanctity of borders, nonaggression, noninterference in internal affairs, the non-use of force or the threat of force in international relations, and renunciation of unilateral military superiority in contiguous areas."

The crux of the matter is that, for SCO member states, "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" are viewed not as distinct abstract phenomena with global relevance to be dealt with globally, but rather as a single phenomenon that is locally defined by the ruling elite and left to sovereign states to combat by any means they see fit. For Russia, it is Chechen separatism; for China, Uighur "splittism"; for Uzbekistan, religious extremism. The task of SCO member-states is to support each other as they combat perceived threats to existing power relations, as Russia and China did when Uzbekistan labeled May 2005 unrest in Andijon "terrorism" and crushed it with maximum force.

It is the locally bounded definition of terrorism that leads SCO member states to reject the labeling of Iran as a sponsor of terror, and the globally defined emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference that makes them amenable to granting Iran membership. Iran does not support Chechen separatists, Uighur "splittists," or Uzbek "religious extremists." The SCO's understanding of terrorism is not based on globally applied principles -- hence the inclusion of the fight against "terrorism, extremism, and separatism" in the charter's aims and objectives. So if Iran chooses to support individuals and groups it defines as "legitimate resistance" in a theater outside the SCO region, that is Iran's business. But absolute sovereignty and non-interference are global principles to the SCO (hence their inclusion in the charter's principles), which is thus sympathetic to Tehran's plight as, in their view, a sovereign state that is the target of outside interference.

Tehran Overreaching

That said, Iran remains an unlikely candidate for full membership in the SCO. The possibility of Iranian membership has raised the organization's profile on the international arena. But actual Iranian membership could significantly reduce the leeway that leading members China and Russia have until now enjoyed in the diplomatic jockeying over Iran's nuclear program. As Yevgeny Morozov put it in a June 8 commentary on TCSDaily, Moscow and Beijing don't want to be responsible for "Iran's loony statements about Israel or its nuclear program." RIA-Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev made a similar point in an Outside View op-ed for UPI on June 8. Kosyrev argued that Iran "will not join in the foreseeable future" because the SCO is having trouble coping with a flood of new initiatives and needs to put its current house in order before expanding.

Yet even if Iran were to join the SCO, would it strengthen or weaken the organization? Today, the solid common ground in the SCO is its emphasis on non-interference -- a not-so-subtle expression of unhappiness with Western cajoling on rights and reforms. Beyond that, individual members have their own concerns. For Central Asian governments, any forum that allows them to balance Chinese and Russian interests holds obvious attraction. For Beijing, the primary significance of the SCO appears to be as a vehicle for managing China's growing commercial and energy interests in Central Asia. For Moscow, it is an eastward-looking body that goes beyond the borders of formerly Soviet space.

Furthermore, the SCO's four Central Asian members share numerous unsettled scores of their own. And specific Russian and Chinese interests in the region have the potential to diverge significantly, especially if China starts pushing for expanded access to Central Asian energy resources currently exported through Russia. On the military front, while Russia and China held war games in August under the SCO aegis and the organization plans counterterrorism exercises in Russia in 2007, Russia still handles the bulk of its military involvement in Central Asia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Iran surely shares the SCO's particular understanding of non-interference. But beyond this common ground, it has a host of its own concerns -- most of them bound up with the politics of the Middle East, not Central Asia. It is difficult to see how the addition of those concerns to the SCO's already disparate mix of Chinese, Russian, and Central Asian interests would lend the organization greater cohesion or clout.

Nevertheless, the SCO represents two tendencies that are likely to become increasingly pronounced in international affairs. The first is the natural resistance of entrenched domestic elites to outside pressures that they perceive as a threat to their hold on power. The second is a desire to turn that common ground into a platform for greater global influence in the face of what the secondary and tertiary powers see as the primary power in the current world order. As an expression of these rising tendencies, the SCO is noteworthy whether it expands or contracts.

China In Central Asia

China In Central Asia
The Almaty,Kazakhstan, office of China's National Petroleum Corporation (RFE/RL)

BEIJING ON THE RISE: The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States prompted Washington to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At the time, many predicted the United States would gain a new foothold in Central Asia: new U.S. military bases appeared in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, U.S. foreign aid increased, and much U.S. attention was lavished on the region. Russia and China looked on warily. But the pendulum may be swinging back in Moscow’s and Beijing’s favor. China, especially, has expended great effort at winning friends in Central Asia and is becoming a force to be reckoned with....(more)


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