By Prof. Fan Hongda

Will the upcoming SCO summit bring good news to Iran?

September 12, 2021 - 17:4

The 2021 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit will be held on September 16-17 in Tajikistan, the rotating chair of the organization. The summit's attitude towards Iran's application for membership has attracted much attention.

On May 30, 2021, Tajikistan’s Ambassador to Tehran Nizomuddin Zohidi said in a press briefing on SCO that Iran’s membership in SCO has been on the main agenda. The ambassador also said that his country will invite the Iranian President to participate in the meeting. In a TV interview at the end of August, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian stated that President Ebrahim Raisi will attend the summit.

SCO membership can improve Iran's ability to respond to pressure from the United States. As early as more than ten years ago, Iran applied for SCO’s membership. According to the SCO Charter, the unanimous consent of the existing members is required before new members can join. In the past, because of UN sanctions and Tajikistan’s opposition, Iran failed to become a member of the SCO.

However, on August 11, 2021, Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, wrote on his Twitter account that “political obstacles to Iran's membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have been lifted and Iran's membership will be finalized through technical formalities”.

In this way, it seems that the relationship between Iran and SCO has made significant progress. In fact, Russia has repeatedly publicly expressed its support for Iran’s membership of SCO. According to the Islamic Republic National News Agency (IRNA), during a telephone conversation with President Raisi on August 18, 2021, President Xi Jinping expressed support for Iran's formal membership in SCO which he said will be in the long-term interests of the organization”.

China and Russia are the most influential members of SCO, and their attitude is crucial to whether Iran can join the organization. Now the two members have clearly supported Iran’s application for the membership of SCO, and Iran also stated that all political obstacles have been removed. In this way, the possibility of Iran being accepted as the ninth member of SCO has greatly increased.

Some countries do not want Iran to join SCO. These countries either don't want to see Iran use SCO to increase its influence, or they don't want to see SCO increase its influence because of Iran's accession. SCO membership can enhance Iran’s regional and international influence, integrate Iran into a certain degree of collective security arrangements, and improve Iran's ability to respond to pressure from the United States.

If Iran can successfully gain membership of SCO, Iran’s regional influence is the core factor. Although Iran has encountered serious development difficulties due to international sanctions in the past four decades, its influence in West and Central Asia has not decreased but increased. Many regional issues require Iran’s active participation to be resolved. Iran's accession will enhance SCO's ability to respond to regional challenges.

SCO is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. Compared with 20 years ago, both regional and international situations have undergone obvious changes, and SCO has to deal with some new challenges. Therefore, SCO needs new members who are influential and willing to join like Iran. What needs to be mentioned in particular is that U.S. threat to the stability and security of the international community has forced SCO and its members to respond in some ways.

For example, the continuous U.S. attacks on Russia, China, and Iran are one of the reasons why these countries are getting closer. Also, the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and their irresponsible and hasty withdrawal have not only led to a dangerous state, but also had a serious impact on regional security. It is even more necessary for SCO to absorb new forces and respond to new challenges more independently.

Judging from the remarks of the secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council cited above, Iran should have resolved the political obstacles to joining SCO through diplomatic efforts, leaving only some technical issues to face. This shows that Iran has made further progress in adapting to the requirements of SCO and once again shows its strong desire to join the organization.

However, it must be noted that some countries do not want Iran to join SCO. These countries either don't want to see Iran use SCO to increase its influence, or they don't want to see SCO increase its influence because of Iran's accession. They may take some measures to prevent Iran from becoming a member of SCO.

So far Iran's application for membership will be on the agenda of this year's SCO summit. SCO will also discuss on this issue for the first time since Pakistan and India became members in 2017. As Tajikistan no longer oppose Iran's membership, the attitude of India, which has close relations with the United States, is worthy of attention. Judging from the two visits to Tehran by the Indian Foreign Minister after Raisi was elected President of Iran, Iran-India relations should not become a new obstacle. 

I believe that the upcoming SCO summit will bring good news about membership to Iran.

Fan Hongda is a Professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University

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