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Iran: Russia, China Unlikely To Welcome Tehran Into SCO

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended an SCO summit in Bishkek in July 2007 (AFP) After meeting Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki announced that Rahmon has promised to support Tehran's bid to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Mottaki added that Iran wants to move from being an observing member in the regional grouping to being a full member.

Iran, India, Mongolia, and Pakistan currently have observer status in the SCO, while Afghan government officials have also attended meetings of the SCO as observers. The group -- established in 1996 as the Shanghai Five before changing its name in 2001 -- comprises China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

On March 27, SCO Secretary-General Bolat Nurgaliev, of Kazakhstan, welcomed Iran's membership bid and said it will not bring any "negative moments in relations with the regional and international organizations."

'Smart Move' For Iran

Vladimir Sazhin, a regional expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, says that seeking full SCO membership is a "smart move" for Iran, which he says would find "political and economic survival" by joining the regional organization.

Sazhin says Iran, which has a strained relationship with the West because of Tehran's controversial nuclear program, finds itself increasingly isolated in the international arena. "By entering the SCO as a full member," he says, "Iran first of all would get official and legitimate partners, including two important players, Russia and China."

SCO membership would also give Iran some degree of protection against threats from the United States. "Secondly, Iran wants -- under the SCO wings and as a full member of the group -- to get a guarantee against possible U.S. and Israeli [military] action against Iran," Sazhin says. "Here, I mean a guarantee against a possible, hypothetical military resolution for Iran's nuclear crisis."

But most experts say it is unlikely Iran will becoming a SCO member anytime in the near future. Although leading SCO members Russia and China have long given some support at the UN to Iran against U.S. and EU pressure aimed at curtailing Tehran's nuclear program, experts say Moscow and Beijing would not risk precipitating an open confrontation between the SCO and Washington and Brussels.

Concern About Group's Direction

Turaj Atabaki, a professor of Middle Eastern and Central Asian history at Leiden University in the Netherlands, tells Radio Farda that Russia and China would not jeopardize internal relations within the SCO and the group's status by accepting Iran as a member.

"China and Russia -- the two main SCO members -- will try to prevent the SCO from becoming an active anti-Western and anti-American organization," Atabaki says. "Therefore, the two countries are concerned that Iran's presence [in the group] would possibly take it in a different direction [that could] result in regional conflicts and confrontations between the East and the West."

"[China and Russia] are concerned that Iran's presence would possibly take [the SCO] in a different direction [that could] result in regional conflicts and confrontations between the East and the West." -- Turaj Atabaki, Leiden University

Sazhin, of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, agrees. He says Mottaki's statement in Dushanbe about Tehran joining the SCO was nothing more than wishful thinking on Iran's part. "I believe Tehran has not yet consulted with Russia or China about making such an announcement in Dushanbe," he says, "because obviously Moscow and Beijing have a lot reservations" about Tehran becoming a member.

According to Sazhin, both Moscow and Beijing realize that Iran -- as a full member of the SCO -- would try to create "a split, if not outright animosity" between the Western permanent members of the UN Security Council on one side and Russia and China on the other.

Experts say Russia and China would find themselves in an uncomfortable position if Iran put forward its candidacy for membership at the next SCO summit in Dushanbe later this year. The organization would also be obliged to give an official response to Tehran's request.

The SCO currently has a moratorium on expanding its membership. The group has only accepted one new member -- Uzbekistan -- in 2001.

Furthermore, if Iran's apparently unrealistic aspiration to join the SCO would be granted, it could be followed by a membership request from Pakistan, which has also expressed its willingness to join the SCO and enjoys China's support.

But including Pakistan without also accepting India as a member would be problematic for the organization. The SCO has in the past encouraged India to become a member of the organization but New Delhi has not formally expressed such an interest. It is yet another reason why Iran is unlikely to gain membership soon.

Counterbalance To NATO?

The SCO members and observers -- which comprise 25 percent of the Earth's territory -- together form the world's largest producer of energy and a very formidable bloc of economic and military power. The SCO leaders have stated that the organization has no plan to become a military bloc and that the alliance is not directed against any other state or region.

Nevertheless, many observers believe the group was created chiefly as a counterbalance to NATO and the United States, particularly to prevent Washington from intervening in areas near Russia and China.

At the Astana summit in 2005, the group urged the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing its troops from SCO member states. Shortly after the meeting, the Uzbek government asked U.S. forces to leave the Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan.

Allowing Tehran to use Russia and China to exert similar power on the United States is not something the SCO's controlling members are likely to approve in the near future.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.