Asian Security Bloc on the Defensive Over Iran

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Ahead of a major summit next week, a China-Russia-Central Asia security bloc has defended its developing ties with Iran, while stressing that it does not see itself as an Asian counterpart to NATO.

Five years after its formation, the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is sending out mixed messages about the likelihood of being admitted as a full member. Iran currently is an observer, along with Pakistan, India and Mongolia.

Beijing confirmed Thursday that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would attend an SCO summit in Shanghai on June 15, and would also hold talks with President Hu Jintao.

Iran has expressed interest in joining the bloc, which it hopes will support it in the nuclear standoff with the West.

SCO secretary-general Zhang Deguang said in April observers would be invited to become full members.

The plan to admit Iran drew criticism in the West, and last week Zhang appeared to backtrack, saying the SCO charter did not provide for the inclusion of new members.

(The charter, available via the SCO website, does, in fact, allow for other countries in the region to join. It sets out a procedure for admitting new members, with the final decision in the hands of the members' heads of state.)

In Singapore last weekend, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned why an organization claiming to be against terrorism would welcome "a leading terrorist nation in the world."

Zhang then held a press conference in Beijing, where he defended SCO's ties with Iran, saying Tehran was not a supporter of terrorism.

"We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors of terror," he said. "We would not have invited them if we believed they sponsored terror."

Zhang said the SCO had no plans to admit any new members to join China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Analysts have differing views on whether Russia and China will press ahead with allowing Iran entry into the SCO, with some saying Moscow and Beijing would be reluctant to directly confront the West by embracing Iran, especially under Ahmadinejad.

"The moment Iran joins SCO - if Russia and China ever allow that to happen - both Moscow and Beijing will start panicking," said Russian newspaper columnist Evgeny Morozov in an article published by Tech Central Station.

"None of them wants to be responsible for Iran's loony statements about Israel or its nuclear program."

In a recent column, Heritage Foundation scholars James Phillips and Peter Brookes said Iran was an attractive partner for Russia and China for economic, strategic and geopolitical reasons.

"Iran has become an important market for their exports of arms and advanced technology, a useful check on Western influence in the Middle East, a potential ally against the United States, and a growing source of energy cooperation, especially Chinese oil and gas imports."

Military focus

At his press conference, SCO secretary-general Zhang also tackled concerns about the organization's ambitions, calling "totally groundless" suspicions that the SCO was an eastern version of NATO and planned to become a military bloc.

The SCO charter does not call for member states to come to each others' aid in the event of an outside attack, and it stresses that the organization is "not directed against other states and international organizations."

At the same time, "defense" is one of several areas in which members pledge to cooperate - others include energy, trade, politics and law enforcement - and SCO militaries have held joint maneuvers. Although described as "counter-terror" exercises, some of these, notably Sino-Russian maneuvers last year, have simulated offensives against a conventional enemy.

The SCO also has shown a more assertive face, and at its last summit it issued a collective call for the U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing military forces from Central Asia.

The move prompted one senior U.S. military office to accuse China and Russia of "trying to bully some smaller countries."

The U.S. troops and assets have been deployed in the region in support of the anti-terror mission in Afghanistan. Since the SCO call, Uzbekistan has evicted the U.S. from a strategically-located airbase there. U.S. forces remain at an airbase in Kyrgyzstan where, despite an as-yet unresolved row over rental, their presence appears secure for now.

Another of the Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan, appears to be taking a more sympathetic view towards the U.S.

On Thursday, Kazakhstan's foreign minister, Qasymzhomart Toqaev, said he did not believe next week's summit would challenge U.S. military presence in Central Asia.

And at a recent meeting of SCO parliamentarians in Moscow, the speaker of the Kazakh legislature, Nurtai Abykaev, told his counterparts that his country would oppose Iran's admission to the bloc.

Kazakhstan, the largest of the Central Asian "stans," has over the last year emerged as a key country in the region in U.S. thinking, and looks set to succeed the now-estranged Uzbekistan as the primary focus of U.S. interests in the region.

Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are among senior U.S. leaders to have visited Astana.

In recent congressional hearings, assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher described Kazakhstan as a "regional anchor" and said its strategic partnership with the U.S. was growing.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow