Iran nuclear deal with West could help it pivot East

A nuclear deal could bring about the membership of Iran in the Russia and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

al-monitor Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (L) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before the opening ceremony of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia summit in Shanghai, May 21, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Mark Ralston.
Paul J. Saunders

Paul J. Saunders

@1796farewell

Topics covered

uzbekistan, terrorism, shanghai cooperation organization (sco), russia in middle east, russia-china-iran alliance, iran-russian relations, china, afghanistan

Jul 13, 2015

Will the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) expand into the Middle East? Its July 9-10 summit in Ufa, in south-central Russia, suggests that this may be increasingly possible. Nevertheless, the process may take some time — and could face important challenges.

A week prior to the summit, Egypt submitted an application to the group, in which Iran is already an observer and Turkey is a “dialogue partner” — the level below observer status. At a news briefing in Ufa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the group’s membership rules prevent Iran from joining as long as it is under United Nations Security Council sanctions, adding, “The Vienna talks that are about to be completed, paving the way to the lifting of the sanctions, are very important for this reason.” SCO members agreed to upgrade India and Pakistan, now observers, to full membership by next year’s summit in Uzbekistan; they will be the first members beyond the founders.

Established in 2001, the SCO became possible only after Russian-Chinese border agreements in 1991 and 1994 that resolved the disputes underlying the 1969 Soviet-Chinese border war. Originally intended to manage technical cross-border issues, the SCO increasingly took on a geopolitical role during the US and NATO war in Afghanistan. At its 2005 summit, the SCO’s members — Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — signed a declaration calling on “members of the anti-terrorist coalition [fighting in Afghanistan] to set a final timeline for their temporary use” of military bases in Central Asia — a delicate way to suggest that the United States and its allies should leave.

Since then, the SCO has further broadened its focus. At a June ministerial meeting in advance of the Ufa summit, the SCO issued a joint statement that referred to three specific issues: Afghanistan, the Iran talks and the Middle East. The language was mild — “we welcome the aspiration of Middle East and North African nations for restoring stability in their states, creating conditions for improving their lives and setting up broad political domestic dialogue” — but clearly staked out the SCO’s interest in the region.

Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, a career diplomat who moved to the Defense Ministry four years ago, outlined at least one possible reason underlying the SCO’s growing focus on the Middle East — the risk of terrorism. Speaking after a meeting of SCO defense ministers shortly before the Ufa summit, Antonov said, “It’s no secret that thousands of extremists are gaining experience in the Middle East, including from the SCO member countries. What these militants are capable of doing upon returning home, we saw in France, Denmark and other countries.” Chinese officials have likewise expressed concern about the country’s Muslim Uighurs fighting with the Islamic State and returning to conduct attacks inside China. Officials in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — long concerned about radicalism exported from Afghanistan — doubtless have similar concerns.

Still, it would not be easy for the SCO to play a major role in the Middle East. The group’s biggest problem is its limited capacity; when I visited the SCO Secretariat in Beijing a few years ago (a short walk from the US Embassy), I learned that it then had a staff of 30. While the SCO Secretariat may have grown somewhat since, the NATO Secretariat employs 1,000 civilians in Brussels and 6,000 worldwide. And the SCO could not have grown too much. One indicator is that the SCO Secretariat can’t even keep its website up to date — as of this writing, the most recent news item relates to a December 2014 meeting of heads of government.

Beyond this, the SCO seems unlikely to take an active role in the Middle East separately from the individual policies of its member states. While the SCO has conducted regular joint military exercises, it has not undertaken any military missions within its members’ territory, let alone elsewhere. Moreover, its two most capable military forces — Russia’s and China’s — have thus far been leery of operating outside their immediate neighborhoods. (On top of this, China’s military has not had significant combat experience for quite some time.)

There is also the question of politics. As Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized in a post-summit press conference in Ufa, the SCO operates by consensus and “nobody imposes any decisions on anyone.” Putin went on to acknowledge that this is not an easy process — “We are making complex, meticulous and lengthy but joint efforts on the road to common decisions.” If Iran should eventually become a full member of the group, would Tehran agree to add any of its Arab rivals for regional influence? If it did, just how “lengthy” would the SCO’s decision-making become?

While acknowledging the SCO’s shortcomings, however, its deeper involvement in the Middle East could have important political implications. First, if regional states perceive the SCO as a political alternative to alignment with (and dependence on) the United States and the West that avoids reliance on a single country — and includes major players such as China, India and Russia — the SCO could provide greater diplomatic flexibility to some Middle East governments. Second, if Iran becomes a full member of the group not long after it gets out from under sanctions, it could strengthen Tehran’s international political cover in pursuing its regional agenda.

For most of the SCO’s existence, the United States and its allies have essentially ignored the SCO, trying to deny it “legitimacy” and perhaps hoping that doing so would facilitate its quick disappearance. That meant forgoing some possible opportunities, such as NATO-SCO cooperation in Afghanistan, and missing chances to engage with and learn more about the organization. However, it has long been clear that the SCO is here to stay and that it is growing. Western leaders should think about what that means — and before long, leaders in the Middle East might want to do that, too.

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