By Behzad Khoshandam*

The 15th summit meeting of the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as the most important decision-making organ of the organization, will be held on July 9, 2015, in Ufa, the capital city of Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan. The meeting will be held concurrent with the escalation of tensions between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine and simultaneous with the final steps taken toward Iran nuclear deal by Tehran and the P5+1 group of countries. The SCO has been considered among the most important Asian actors in international system in interactions among big world powers since the termination of the Cold War. The capacities, goals and importance of strategic and tactical actions of this international actor in the arena of big powers game and also in Eurasia have been a focus of attention for countries like Iran during the past decade. Understanding relations between the SCO and Iran, as an observer member of the organization, and explaining the reasons for the attention of these two actors to each other need due attention to goals and activities of this organization, the influence of big powers on the organization as well as fateful international developments that have taken place over the past decade. These factors will facilitate future studies on relations between these two actors.

SCO’s strategy toward Iran

SCO’s strategy toward Iran in the past decade can be described as “a biased approach toward an effective international actor.” Therefore, on the one hand, the SCO’s strategy toward Iran has been under the influence of two main forces of this organization, that is, China and Russia. On the other hand and through a more in-depth analysis, it has been affected by the United States’ aggressive reaction to Iran’s foreign policy orientations and approaches followed by the application of the sanctions and threat policy against Iran. In their approach to the SCO, China and Russia have seen this world body and its actors as a tool in the geopolitical expanse of the world’s heartland, which can be used for bargaining and meeting the maximum degree of their national interests. In its first step toward geographical expansion within the international system, the SCO has been trying to attract new members in order to boost the international credit and prestige of its major actors. As a result of this kind of look at countries like Iran, Tehran’s membership request was finally granted in 2005 and the country became an observer member of the organization. From 2005 to 2015, Iran’s participation in the SCO’s meetings was considerable. However, due to later limitations, partly as a result of the bureaucratic red tape, and partly blamable on positions taken by the main members – Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan – and also due to Iran’s foreign policy restrictions as a result of Tehran’s nuclear case, the permanent membership of the Islamic Republic in this organization has not been realized yet.

Having the cooperation of powerful partners like Iran will increase the influence of the SCO in such areas as fighting terrorism and drug smuggling; elimination of poverty and economic inequalities; preventing foreign interventions; bolstering regional security, realizing a multipolar world; strengthening border security; and overcoming border problems. In such fields, Iran’s cooperation will have serious, powerful and long-term outcomes for that organization and its member states.

Due to anti-American positions of the SCO members during summits meetings in 2005 and 2006, and because of the sensitivity of the United States foreign policy about Central Asia, the SCO has been a focus of special attention for Washington since 2006. Since the current bipolar situation inside the SCO will actually turn into a tri-polar situation through full membership of countries like Iran, the main members of the organization have adopted a strategy of “biased approach toward an effective international actor” and have no serious plan to promote Iran’s observer status to a full member in the short run. A possible paradigm change in the SCO may alter the situation of a country like Iran in the SCO summit meeting to be held in the Russian city of Ufa. Some reports have indicated that a change in the status of India and Pakistan from observers to full members is going to be discussed in the meeting.

SCO has been seen as the source of one of the most important geopolitical convergent capacities in the world which can create balance in rivalries among big powers, including those involving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, according to the regional agenda of the SCO’s organs, the organization doesn’t seem willing or capable enough to move toward a full-blown confrontation with the Western alliance. Under these conditions, gaining maximum success in international and regional levels by ending its biased approach to such important and effective members as Iran would allow the SCO to realize part of its goals and strategic plans.

Iran’s strategy toward SCO

Iran’s strategy toward the SCO is influenced by the country’s foreign policy goals and orientations, restrictions it faces at international and regional levels, and its attitude toward China and Russia as driving forces in this organization. On the whole, Iran’s strategy can be discussed under the general heading of “increasing partnership in regional alliances.” To understand historical developments related to Iran’s strategic approach to the SCO, the country’s historical attitude toward collective security, Iran’s new foreign policy goals following the Cold War, as well as the country’s needs, restrictions and motivations for interaction with the SCO from the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 up to the middle of 2015 should be analyzed.

Fighting terrorism, extremism and irredentism, which have been mentioned as three main goals pursued by the founders of the SCO within the international system, have been also among major items on Iran’s foreign policy agenda in the past three and a half decades despite overt animosity of the Western bloc against the Islamic Republic. In addition to these agendas, other issues like attention to peripheral regions, Asian expectations and the “look to the east” approach of Iran’s foreign policy have been the main driving forces behind Iran’s growing participation and role in the SCO. Before the revolution, Iran’s membership in the CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) was the sole instance of Iran’s membership in a “collective security system.” However, since the Islamic Revolution; Iran has been known as an impartial country in the world and has never been a member to any security treaty, which would conform to the logic of “collective security.” Iran’s observer status in the SCO has been the first experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the area of membership in a real multilateral security community subsequent to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. On the whole, Iranian elites have followed two approaches to the SCO during the past 10 years. One group has believed that Iran’s powerful participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would be a step forward on the basis of the alliance-building logic of the country’s foreign policy, and will also promote international and regional standing of Iran in security, economic, cultural and political terms and within regional cooperative frameworks.

There is also a second group, which believes that for a country like Iran, the SCO is an international organization equal in importance to other international and regional bodies such as the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the NATO, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC]. Therefore, Iran’s membership in the SCO must be balanced and equal to its participation in other international and regional organizations based on the impartial and nonaligned approach that has governed Iran’s foreign policy following the Islamic Revolution. Based on the imperial and nonaligned approach that has governed Iran’s foreign policy after the Islamic Revolution, the country, as an observer member of the SCO, has put tremendous emphasis on the organization’s soft approach to such issues as color revolutions, unilateralism, interventionism, NATO’s eastward expansion, NATO’s missile defense shield, and also such crises as those in Karabakh, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ukraine. Therefore, from Iran’s viewpoint, membership in the SCO, as a cooperative, regional and east-oriented organization, would be a step toward establishment of a multipolar balance-seeking world system in the first century of the third millennium, when Asia’s power is constantly on the rise.

The bottom line is that the three following key points should be taken aboard when offering any futuristic scenario on the type, orientation and quality of relations, interactions and possible confrontations between Iran and the SCO during the forthcoming summit meeting of the organization in the Russian city of Ufa. Firstly, qualitative and applied role and importance, real and objective goals, as well as the final result of the SCO’s measures and performance should be made clearer for its relatively heterogeneous members, especially China and Russia, as the main players within this important regional organization. Secondly, serious attention should be paid to developments related to Iran’s nuclear issue and a possible deal between Iran and the P5+1 group. It should be noted that the scope, volume, effects and consequences of this international development can weigh on many regional equations, including the level at which Iran would be cooperating with the SCO. Thirdly, special attention should be paid to the issue of strategic stability, balance of powers, as well as temporary encounters and hostilities in relations among big powers in Eurasia as the main operational environment of the SCO. Such issues, in view of the possible acceptance of the full membership of India and Pakistan in the SCO, can have very serious effects on the nature of the organization and its goals.

*Behzad Khoshandam
Ph.D. in International Relations & Expert on International Issues