What Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization really means


26 years after the Islamic Revolution of Iran and leaving the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1979 and four years after the founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, Tehran is again striving for integration into Eurasia. In 2005, Iran applied for admission to the SCO at the Astana summit in Kazakhstan and was named, alongside India and Pakistan, as an “observer without voting rights. Despite Iran’s interest in changing its membership from SCO observer to main member, Tehran’s ongoing nuclear dispute with the world powers, in which the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2012, was the main reason for the SCO’s refusal who have favourited membership of Iran during Mahmoud. to change Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013).

When Hassan Rouhani came to power in August 2013, most UN sanctions were lifted on January 16, 2016 following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At that point, it appeared that previous barriers to full membership of Iran in the SCO had been removed, however Tensions between Iran and Tajikistan via the Revival Party of Tajikistan have remained unsolved since December 2015, and the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and renewed US sanctions have effectively frozen Iran’s membership status in the SCO. Meanwhile, at the 2017 Tashkent Summit, India and Pakistan’s SCO membership was upgraded from observer to full membership.

But shortly after Ebrahim Raisi became the new President of Iran in August 2021, the status of Iranian membership in the SCO suddenly changed after a 16-year delay. On his first trip abroad as the new President of Iran, Raisi attended the SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, from September 16-17, 2021. At this summit, Iran was granted full member status, becoming the “ninth main member of the SCO” along with the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan. Relative improvements in Iran-Tajikistan relations; the signing of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the PRC; Preparations for the signing of a new 20-year deal between Iran and Russia, which will replace the last 20-year deal from 2001 to 2021; and Raisi’s “Look East Policy”, which emphasizes the expansion of relations with Asian countries, were among the most important factors that helped Iranian accession to the rise.

Iran’s membership in the SCO is the country’s first experience of joining a regional organization with a defense security character and function since its withdrawal from CENTO in 1979. All other regional organizations that Iran joined after the 1979 Islamic Revolution is how the Organization for Economic Co-operation in 1992 and D-8 Organization for Economic Co-operation (Development-8) in 1997 were political and economic in nature. Therefore, the SCO is a new and different experience for Iran and there are many questions about the meaning and consequences of Tehran’s membership. Seven conclusions can be drawn from Iran’s membership in the SCO.

First, Iran’s membership in the SCO is crucial to Raisi’s “Look East Policy” and the attention that Tehran pays to Asian countries in Iran’s foreign policy. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, however, the slogan “Neither East nor West” became the guiding principle of Iranian foreign policy, leading some Iranians to view Iran’s membership in the SCO as a violation of this mantra and approach. However, officials in Tehran acknowledge that the situation has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and that Russia, China and other emerging Asian and Eastern powers are now facing US-led hegemony and unilateralism. From this perspective, Iran regards the SCO as a “club of revisionist states” that opposes the United States and at the same time promotes multipolarity in the international system.

Second, Iran lost its military and strategic allies following Iran’s withdrawal from CENTO and the bilateral military agreement between Iran and the United States, which occurred immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution victory. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which played off almost all Arab countries except Syria against Iran, only exacerbated Iran’s isolation. After the war ended, Iran improved its relations with Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East and developed relations with other countries – including Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, India and China – but those relations never reached a “strategic level”.

Many experts therefore described the situation in Iran as “strategic loneliness”. From this perspective, Iran’s full membership in the SCO can be seen as an attempt by Tehran to end its strategic loneliness after forty years. As Lawrence J. Haas, Senior Fellow on the American Foreign Policy Council, recently wrote For Newsweek: “By reducing its global isolation, Iran’s accession to the SCO further legitimizes its status as an international actor – and the Iranian leaders have wasted little time trumpeting their achievements.” Particularly in the current situation, Iran’s full membership could In the SCO, to offset part of the systemic and strategic pressure from the West and the Middle East through its involvement in Eurasia in the north.

Third, Iran’s full membership in the SCO strengthens Tehran’s two long-term strategic cooperation agreements with Russia and China. Indeed, as a regional and multilateral mechanism, the SCO enables Iran to interact with its two strategic partners at the same time. This could strengthen trilateral political, economic and military-security cooperation between Iran, Russia and China; strengthen Iran’s position in the SCO; while building Iran’s confidence in the confrontation with the United States.

Fourth, Iran’s full membership in the SCO will strengthen its economic and trade cooperation with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU-Iran preferential trade agreement (PTA) was implemented on October 27, 2019 and offers lower tariffs on 862 types of goods, of which 502 are Iranian exports to the EEU. After three years, October 27, 2022), the PTA EEU-Iran will be upgraded to a “Full Free Trade Agreement”. In light of Iran’s recent economic troubles due to international sanctions, such economic and trade cooperation can give Iran breathing space. Given the simultaneous membership of Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the SCO and the EEU, as well as the mutual cooperation agreements between the two organizations, Iran’s full membership in the SCO and in the PTA with the EEU will therefore represent Iran’s position in the Eurasian region. The main advantage of Iran is the extensive land and rail corridors that EEU and SCO members can connect with ports in southern Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea, and with Turkey and Iraq in the west.

Fifth, Iran’s full membership in the SCO will increase its level of intelligence and security cooperation with other nations, particularly within the “Regional Counter-Terrorism Structure” based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Article 10 of the SCO Charter states:

The regional anti-terror structure established by the member states of the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism of June 15, 2001, with its seat in Tashkent, Republic of Uzbekistan, is to be a permanent SCO body.

The regional counter-terrorism structure will therefore be of particular importance to Iran’s efforts to jointly combat religious extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as threats from Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power. Because so far Iran has concluded various security and secret service agreements with the SCO member states. But the SCO, especially the regional counter-terrorism structure, will enable Iran to work in an integrated and coordinated manner on security and intelligence with all members of a regional organization.

Sixth, Iran’s full membership in the SCO gives it a veto right over other nations, such as Israel, that may join the organization. In recent years Israel has applied for observer membership in the SCO, but its application has not been made public or formal at any SCO summit. Article 16 of the SCO Charter on the “decision-making process” states: “The SCO bodies take decisions by consensus without a vote and their decisions are deemed to have been adopted if no Member State raised objections during their examination (consensus).” Consensus Mechanism “Iran’s negative vote will prevent Israel from joining the organization.

Seventh, Iran’s full membership in the SCO will not change anything in Tehran’s security calculations. Iran will not rely on the SCO to defend itself against military threats from the US and Israel. As I wrote earlier, the SCO is not codified as a “Collective Security Treaty” unlike both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Hence, as Haas wrote, Iran’s membership in the SCO can “complicate” strategic planning for Israel and the US, but it cannot guarantee Iran’s security. SCO members are not obliged to repel and repel military threats against a member. In fact, two clauses of the Iranian constitution, which was passed after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, define restrictions on military and defense cooperation with foreign countries. Article 145 of the Constitution states that “no foreigner will be accepted into the country’s army or security forces”, while Article 146 states that “the establishment of any foreign military base in Iran, including for peaceful purposes, is prohibited.” Hence, Iran’s reliance on “self-defense” that began after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 will remain as it has for forty years. Iran’s full membership in the SCO will not fundamentally change Tehran’s approach to security.


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