Iran Applies to Join Security Bloc Dominated by Russia and China

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Stepping up a campaign to join a Eurasian security and economic bloc dominated by Russia and China, Iran is looking for allies within the organization to back its bid, but political analysts doubt it will succeed.

Late last month, Iran secured the support of one of the members of the six-country Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Tajikistan, which later this year will host the bloc's annual summit.

Established in its current form in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) comprises Russia, China, and four Central Asian states -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Together they control a large proportion of the non-Arab world's oil and natural gas reserves.

The SCO is mainly focused on fighting the "three evils" of terrorism, extremism and separatism, but in recent years, attempts to deny the U.S. military basing rights in Central Asia raised concerns that Moscow and Beijing view the SCO as a tool to counter U.S. security interests.

Although Russia and China are both unhappy with the expansion of Washington's military influence in their neighborhoods, SCO officials and member governments routinely stress that the organization and its activities are not aimed at, or a threat to, "any third party."

Iran -- along with Pakistan, India and Mongolia -- has observer status at the SCO, and the possibility that it may join the group has arisen on a number of previous occasions. (In 2006, then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented during a visit to Singapore that he found it "strange" that an organization claiming to be against terrorism would admit "the leading terrorist nation in the world -- Iran.")

The difference this time is that Iran has now formally applied to become a full member.

The announcement came during Mar. 24-25 talks in the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, when the foreign ministers of Iran, Afghanistan and the host country met to draw up preparations for the establishment of an economic union of the three Persian-speaking countries.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said Iran had submitted an official request for full membership to the SCO secretariat, and that Tajikistan had voiced its backing for the application.

Kazakhstan's Kazinform news agency subsequently quoted SCO secretary-general Bolat Nurgaliyev -- a Kazakh -- as confirming receipt of the application, and as saying Iran's request for full membership would not have a negative effect on SCO relations with other international or regional organizations.

"The SCO is not a military and political alliance and all the speculations that the organization resists the existing military and political groups are quite groundless," Nurgaliyev said.

Ilan Berman, editor of the American Foreign Policy Council publication, Iran Democracy Monitor, described Iran's initiative as a significant strategic effort on its part.

"Although the Moscow- and Beijing-dominated SCO currently serves largely as a vehicle for regional counterterrorism cooperation, officials in Tehran have made no secret of their interest in making it into a Eurasian analogue to NATO - complete with collective security guarantees which would protect the Islamic Republic in the event of military action against its nuclear facilities."

Diplomatic maneuver

It remains far from certain that Iran's application will get the green light.

The SCO has maintained a moratorium on expanding since Uzbekistan joined the original five members in 2001, and as recently as the last SCO summit last summer said it should remain in force. Opening its doors to Iran could prompt other observers, especially Pakistan - which is keen and has China's support but not Russia's - to seek membership.

Pyotr Goncharov, a political commentator with Russia's RIA Novosti, expressed doubts that Russia or China would welcome Iran into the SCO fold while Iran's nuclear standoff with the U.S. and its allies remained unresolved.

Dr. Kirill Nourzhanov, a Central Asia specialist at the Australian National University in Canberra, agreed.

"SCO is a military-security bloc, and Beijing and Moscow do not want to commit themselves to Iran's defense in any form or shape," he said Thursday, adding that Iran's nuclear energy programs and ballistic missile developments were issues of concern for Russia and China too.

Apart from Russia and China, Iran would also face difficulties being accepted by smaller SCO members, he said, adding that apart from Tajikistan, "the Central Asian republics have problems with radical Islam and are apprehensive of Iran."

Those hurdles notwithstanding, Iran's formal application for membership is a headache for Russia and China, which are now in the awkward position of being forced to give an official reply.

"An official request like this is deeply embarrassing for Beijing and Moscow, because it will have to be turned down, with some sort of official explanation, during the next SCO summit in Dushanbe later this year," Nourzhanov said.

As such, Iran's application could be seen as a diplomatic maneuver aimed at improving its bargaining position with the two veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

"To sweeten the pill' when turning Iran down, he said, China and Russia may offer concessions elsewhere -- for example, agreeing to block Western attempts at the Security Council to tighten sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear activities.

Nourzhanov said only a sudden and dramatic deterioration in relations between Russia and China on one hand and the U.S. on the other could change the situation and speed up Iran's admission into the SCO.

For its part, China has not displayed enthusiasm for Iran's bid. Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a press briefing last month that China welcomed Iran's "aspiration to enhance cooperation with the SCO in various fields," but added its application to join would require unanimous agreement of all SCO members.

China sees the SCO primarily as a means to help rein in restive populations in its far West, notably the Muslim Xinjiang region and Tibet. Last month, Beijing cited the SCO mantra of fighting "terrorism, extremism and separatism" when it clamped down on anti-Chinese protests in Tibet and sought diplomatic support from SCO allies.

A senior People's Liberation Army officer told a Hong Kong television station that China planned to take joint action through the SCO framework against "terrorists" in Xinjiang to ensure security during the Olympics this summer.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow