The SCO Policy toward Iran: When Yes means NO

The SCO Policy toward Iran: When Yes means NO
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The 18th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Qingdao ended with the organization refraining from giving a clear answer to Iran's request for full membership of SCO once again. Iran joined SCO in 2005 as an observer member, and applied for full membership in 2008. The question has been raised in every summit ever since, but the organization has not provided a definite answer.

The organization's policy toward Iran's full membership can be defined within the framework of a Yes/No Policy. In most summits held in the last decade, the members, especially Russia, have highlighted the contribution that Iran's full membership can have in boosting the capabilities of the organization, while implying that the time is not right yet. Therefore, the decision has been postponed until the next summit. The same policy was continued in the 2018 summit. Although the SCO members supported the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, and urged to uphold the deal, they continued their undecided policy toward Iran's full membership. Why has SCO adopted a Yes/No Policy toward Iran?

The first reason is that Iran's membership will be bad news for Washington, who has enforced a policy of containment against Tehran in different ways for many years, and the organization will have to pay a price. The majority of the SCO members are not willing to send such a message or pay the likely price for it. Considering that the Trump administration has gone beyond the usual policy of containment and moved toward confrontation with Iran, such a message can in fact cost dearly for the organization.

The second reason is that there is only a partial overlap between the choices and strategic concerns of Iran and those of most SCO member states. The strategic policy of Iran in recent years has been power projection in the Levant, which will likely remain the center of Tehran's security and foreign policy in the foreseeable future. Yet, this region is of little importance for most of SCO member states. Only Russia has gotten involved in the region in recent years, and has developed new security ties with Iran. This limited overlap has challenged the definition of possible strategic achievements resulting from Tehran's full membership to the organization for its members.

The third reason is the different attitudes held by members toward Iran's membership. Russia fully supports Iran's membership, China holds a conservative stance, and some Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan, are completely against it. Tajikistan’s opposition to Iran’s full membership during SCO 2017 summit became a hot topic in the Iranian media. At the time, the mainstream Iranian media introduced Tajikistan as the main obstacle to Iran's membership. Considering the mysterious nature of decision-making in this organization, there are no reliable sources for knowing which country or countries are opposed to Iran's membership. However, Iran-Tajikistan relations were sour in 2017 due to their disputes, which fueled the speculations.

The fourth reason is that the importance of full membership of Iran in this organization varies for different administrations. The Ahmadinejad administration followed Look-East policy as a priority, and thus showed great enthusiasm for full membership in this organization. Despite this enthusiasm, the SCO during the Tashkent summit in 2010 issued a declaration which called Regulation on Admission of New Members, including eight conditions. As put forth by one of these conditions, countries applying for membership must not be subject to UN Security Council sanctions. Iran was under sanctions at the time, which blocked the administration's efforts for full membership.

Hassan Rouhani came to power promising to resolve the nuclear issue, and adopted a somehow Europe-oriented foreign policy to do so. Iran became less eager in its efforts for full SCO membership, and was represented at the foreign minister level at the 2017 SCO summit.  During Rouhani's presidency, Iran was not overly eager in seeking full membership, and focused on restoring EU ties, which were severely damaged during Ahmadinejad's presidency. In the weeks leading to the SCO 2018 summit, there were no indications that Rouhani was attempting to advance the full membership process.

These four reasons outlined above will likely remain relevant in the near future. With these factors still in play, the organization's Yes/No Policy toward the full membership of Iran will probably continue. The members of the organization are likely to wait for a better time before agreeing to Iran's membership, which, considering the intensified Iran-US tensions, on the one hand, and the continuation of Rouhani's Europe-oriented policy, on the other, is not likely to happen anytime soon.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.