by Jacopo Scita

Xi Jinping, the Chinese Paramount Leader and his entourage meet with Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, 23 January 2016. Source: Wikipedia

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded in 2001 by China, Russia and four central-Asian republics with the declared aim of promoting a framework of effective cooperation in politics, economy, security and regional stability, among many other areas of strategic interest. In 2017, India and Pakistan joined the SCO as full members, with the Organisation then accounting for “one fourth of the world’s GDP, 43 percent of the international population and 23 percent of global territory”, as Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a recent interview with the China Media Group.

Among the SCO observer members, the Islamic Republic of Iran has extensively lobbied for upgrading its status and obtaining full membership, for which Tehran officially applied in 2008. Ten years later, this long political gestation has not yet born fruit, although during the 2018 Qingdao Summit President Putin openly advocated Iran’s full membership in the SCO. In the meantime, the Islamic Republic has reinforced its political and economic ties with both Russia and China, with the latter remaining Iran’s top trading partner. This analysis argues that, besides the obvious economic and energetic factors, Iran’s attraction towards a full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation answers to a strong political rationale.

Today, the SCO attractiveness is often understood, along with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in terms of regional economic and commercial integration. However, while the BRI encapsulates Beijing’s Euro-Asiatic grand strategy, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation acts as an institutional arm of the Chinese economic expansion, shaping a political environment that offers to Central-Asian countries a platform of multilateral cooperation under the umbrella of Beijing and Moscow. Therefore, the reasons why the SCO’s framework is particularly attractive for Tehran are summarised by the following political push factors: 1) joining a growing, Eastern-led process of regional integration 2) improving Iran’s global status 3) stimulating a spillover effect in the Middle East.

The political attractiveness of the SCO

The recent withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA and the following reintroduction of secondary sanctions towards Iran have once again exposed Tehran to the risk of being politically and economically isolated from the West. While the EU has officially advocated the ‘protect[ion of] European economic operators engaged in legitimate business with Iran’, China, despite Washington pressure, has effectively refused to cut its oil import from Tehran. Anyhow, the path seems clear: although the European Union appears genuinely committed to the preservation of the Iran Deal, its commercial and political autonomy remains highly affected by the historical ties existing with the United States. By the other side, Beijing – and Moscow – can offer Tehran a forceful alternative. As K.L. Afrasiabi and S. Mousavi, two leading Iranian researchers, recently wrote for LobeLog, the Trump presidency is pushing the Iranian government to make a paradigm shift and adopting an increasingly East-looking foreign policy.

Consequently, the full SCO membership appears a natural consequence of this new direction: by one hand, the Organisation provides an institutionalised multilateral framework that will reduce Iran’s reliance on bi-lateral agreements by increasing its regional integration. By the other, the political importance of the SCO is rapidly growing, suggesting the emergence – at least in the medium/long term – of a normative and institutional structure that can better compete with the US foreign policy agenda – which is, at this point highly divergent from that of Tehran.

Moving towards an East-looking strategy is Tehran’s forced plan B. Arguably, the adoption of resolution 2231 by the UN Security Council has been the height of process that, following the multilateral negotiations of the JCPOA, aimed to the progressive re-inclusion of Iran within the international community. As the election of Donald Trump has largely interrupted this process, Tehran has to find another arena – maybe less ambitious and extended, but definitively more receptive – where to consolidate and improve its status of trustworthy and cooperative actor. By sitting in a forum that includes some of the non-Western most important, rapidly growing actors as an equal member, Tehran could benefit in terms of political perception and leverage, both within and without the organisation.

In this context, Iran’s full membership in the SCO could even assume a powerful symbolic dimension. When the Islamic Republic officially applied in 2008, the process was frozen ‘by rules in the organisation’s charter that forbid membership for any country under United Nations sanctions’. As soon as the implementation of the JCPOA succeeded in 2016, UN sanctions were lifted, and Iran’s full membership could take a concrete path. Ergo, by joining the SCO, Tehran will reinforce its commitment towards an organisation that formally accepts and reinforces the rule of the United Nations as the sole entity allowed to impose international sanctions.

A third political factor that pushes Iran towards the organisation is the possible emergence of a spillover effect in the Middle East. Jonathan Fulton, assistant professor of Political Science at Zayed University, has recently argued that ‘Iranian membership could be the catalyst for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members requesting a seat at the SCO table’. With Turkey that is an organisation’s partner and the BRI already embracing East Africa and Europe, a major integration of the MENA region in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is likely to happen. A similar scenario could result in Tehran’s pivotal role in the growing Asianisation of Middle East, manoeuvring the inclusion of the region into the normative and cooperative structure offered by the Shanghai framework from a position of initial political advantage.

A (still) long political gestation

Despite the post-Qingdao jubilant diplomatic declarations, the SCO has not already granted Iran the full membership. By the Iranian side, political push factors are effective and attractive. However, in the context of uncertainty generated by the Trump presidency, shifting from a foreign policy agenda largely based on the normalisation of Iran relationship with the West – as was the one adopted by the Rouhani’s government since 2013 – to a narrowed East-looking posture is not obvious, nor immediate.

On the part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Tehran is a tempting but costly partner. If Russia shows strategic interests in the Middle East that overlap those of Iran, China attitude towards the SCO is more pragmatic and trade-related, accepting the natural tendency of states to bandwagon as long as the political cost of partnerships remains convenient. As the US-Iran confrontation continue to increase, Central and East-Asian powers will be demanded to take a clear side in the dispute: by accepting Tehran as a full member of the organisation, the room to manoeuvre may have to be reconsidered.


Jacopo Scita is a PhD candidate at Durham University, focusing on Iran’s foreign policy. He tweets at @jacoposcita

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