By Janko Šćepanović, Ph.D.
Janko Šćepanović, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies (SAIAS) of East China Normal University in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China. He holds a Ph.D. degree in International Politics from Fudan University (also in Shanghai) and an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) in New York City, NY. His research focuses on Russia’s foreign policy in the former Soviet space and beyond and on regional institution-building in Greater Eurasia. He can be reached at email@example.com.
At the most recent meeting of the Heads of State of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Dushanbe, Iran was at last officially invited to join the organization. After being a mere observer for sixteen years, the Islamic Republic was finally promoted to a full-fledged member. Iran had previously applied for full membership in 2015 when the Heads of Member States invited India and Pakistan to join. However, its bid was unsuccessful. Six years later, Iran has finally reached the desired status. Moreover, the Heads of SCO states also extended the invitation to become dialogue partners to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar. It was thus quite a remarkable summit in terms of making an overt expansion of the SCO into the Middle East. Two decades after its establishment, and twenty-five years after its initial work on primarily demilitarizing the former Sino-Soviet borders, SCO has made a decided bid to become a truly global organization.
Nonetheless, its latest decision, especially the promotion of Iran, remains controversial and could provide the organization’s de facto leaders—China and Russia—with quite a few challenges in the years to come. First, from a procedural point of view, adding another member to an already diverse group of states creates a challenge in an organization where the main decisions are made by consensus. As Stephen Aris noted, SCO does not have a codified decision-making procedure. As per the organization’s Charter, decisions are made “by agreement without vote” and “shall be considered adopted if no member State has raised objections during its consideration (consensus).” This means that more sensitive and divisive issues are rarely touched upon unless there is certainty that no opposition is to be expected. In practice, this set-up of decision-making and the granting of a right to veto to all members are important steps given the vast asymmetry of power between the Central Asian states and their two larger neighbors, Russia and China. However, this institutional design could also be one of the biggest weaknesses of the SCO, especially given the diversity of the members.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the organization consisted of states that were united in their desire to address the problems which they inherited following the collapse of the USSR. Some of these issues included the need to delineate state boundaries between post-Soviet countries, limiting troop levels stationed near the borders, and the wider necessity of establishing confidence-building measures. Later, once these matters were largely settled, the six founding members were interested in working together to address specifically the threat posed by terrorism and extremism (as well as separatism, which together with the other two would become “the three evils” that SCO vowed to combat). They succeeded in creating what Alexander Cooley calls a “distinct normative framework for addressing transnational security threats.” Hence, the smaller Shanghai Five/SCO began with a clear focus and mission.
However, a decade and a half later, SCO has expanded well beyond Central Asia. The 2017 enlargement brought India and Pakistan—two states with a history of turbulent relations—into the fold. It is also no secret that China and India had difficulties in their relations, including contested border issues in Ladakh and Tibet, which turned violent in the summer of 2020. This created problems for the organization and especially for Russia, a close partner of both countries. Additionally, it led some analysts to proclaim the 2017 enlargement as the moment that turned SCO into a useless bureaucracy. The original six members of SCO were interested in cooperation on matters of vital interest such as security and counterterrorism. However, few experts expect any genuine intelligence sharing between India and Pakistan, therefore reducing the potential impact of the organization. Further, even among the original core members, cooperation on non-security matters such as development became gradually more declarative than real.
In the early 2000s, neither China nor Russia supported each other’s projects for the SCO-wide free trade zone or energy club. And the addition of India and Pakistan did not improve cohesion. For instance, India abstained from endorsing China’s Belt and Road Initiative in SCO joint statements after the meetings of the SCO’s foreign ministers (2018) and heads of state (2019). The addition of Iran is unlikely to make these questions of internal cohesion any simpler. For example, any future question of membership or associateship of other states will require the support of all members. The likelihood of Teheran supporting a possible future elevation of Saudi Arabia’s status inside SCO is uncertain, at the very least.
If one looks at the recent growth of SCO, it appears to please Russia primarily. The existence of SCO is in line with Russia’s official long-standing argument that the world order is no longer a US-led unipolar one but rather a polycentric one. Following the 2017 enlargement, Russian President Putin emphasized how SCO moved from being an organization with modest regional ambitions to a global body whose members account for nearly one-fourth of the world’s GDP, forty-three percent of the population, and twenty-three percent of the land.
Interestingly, while being one of its founding members, Moscow’s view of SCO has changed. As Russia recovered economically from its low point in the 1990s, it strengthened and promoted its own regional projects including smaller SCO members (i.e., Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) but not China. Russia has not lost interest in SCO, but it does not wish to see the organization displace the regional associations it leads such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Hence, to Moscow, SCO’s main role is that of a high visibility geopolitical grouping in which Russia engages non-Western powers and can criticize U.S. policies.
Around 2009–2010, Russia became the main driver behind the original push for the inclusion of India in the SCO. Expanding the organization’s reach and visibility supported Moscow’s claim about the emergence of a non-Western world. Some Russian scholars do not deny the fact that the push for enlargement was also in part an attempt to balance against China’s dominant influence inside the organization. In the case of Iran, Russia has been supportive of its membership for both the aforementioned reasons of gathering together major non-Western powers in the organization, as well as the issues of its own relations with the United States. Russian scholar Alexander Lukin explains for instance that Moscow sometimes uses its ties with Teheran to counterbalance its relations with Washington.
However, Russia was hesitant to grant the status of full-fledged member to a state that was technically still under the United Nations Security Council sanctions, some of which Russia itself supported. In the past, Russian politicians have confessed that the lifting of these sanctions was a precondition for Iran’s future membership. In 2015, when asked about Iran’s promotion into a full-fledged member of SCO, Foreign Affairs minister Sergei Lavrov stated how “[to] become a SCO member, an applicant should not be exposed to UN Security Council sanctions.” However, following the signing of the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), Iran’s prospects of membership improved so much that Lavrov remarked in 2017 how “Iran has settled the problem of the UN Security Council sanctions and hence fully meets the SCO membership criteria.” At the latest summit, President Vladimir Putin remarked that Russia “always advocated Iran’s full participation in the work of our [Organization]” given that it “plays an important role in the Eurasian region and has been fruitfully cooperating with the SCO for a long time.”
In fact, as per the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 from July 15, 2015, which followed the signing of JCPOA between Iran and the other parties, the restrictions on import and export to Iran were no longer considered an embargo but rather a subject to special provisions. The UN Security Council was tasked with reviewing and deciding whether to approve the export to Iran of any technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. This provision to Resolution 2231 is set to expire eight years after the 2015 Adoption Day, and it was also contingent on the so-called “Broader Conclusions” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Security Council was also charged with reviewing case by case all major conventional weapons transfers to Iran up to five years after the Adoption Day, and this expired on October 18, 2020.
However, under the Trump Administration, the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and claimed that the sanctions on Iran were still active. The Administration also applied additional sanctions of its own upon the Islamic Republic. Following the election of President Biden, there were hopes that relations between Washington and Teheran would, at the very least, go back to where they were and that the US would rejoin the deal. They were even calls by the UN Secretary-General Guterres to end unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The prospects of this happening are unclear. Fareed Zakaria thinks for instance that the Biden Administration is not so different from the previous administration in terms of foreign policy. This includes the Iran issue, whereby Biden departed from his original idea of going back to the deal without requesting changes to it to now officially favoring lengthening and strengthening the deal. Moreover, the wider animosity between the US and its allies and Iran remains and includes the questions of human rights, the role of Iran’s and its affiliates’ activities in the Middle East, and the accusation of the Islamic Republic targeting Iranian dissidents in Western countries.
Despite the further challenges that Iran’s membership may bring to their relations with the West, SCO’s main leaders are firm in their support. Both presidents of Russia and China have highlighted Iran’s important role in Eurasia, its ability to strengthen SCO’s international standing, and noted that with the growth of its membership, SCO states would be “the builders of world peace, contributors to global development and defenders of the international order.”
However, apart from relations with the West, Iran’s membership could also add potential complications to SCO’s relations with other states. The Islamic Republic is at odds with several of its regional neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. To strike a balance, SCO leaders invited the Saudis to join, albeit in the far less influential role of a dialogue partner. While Iran is important to Russia and China (the latter signed a large economic and security partnership with the Islamic Republic in the summer of 2020), the Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates also have significant partnerships with Beijing. With that in mind, it should be noted that once the Islamic Republic becomes a full member, any potential promotion of Saudi Arabia’s or other country’s status will depend on Teheran’s approval. After all, Iran’s own application was once blocked by one of the smallest SCO member states—Tajikistan.
Finally, SCO’s expansion into the Middle East also raises questions about its ultimate frontier. Will its clout grow as its boundaries expand? Twenty to twenty-five years ago, SCO’s mission seemed more or less clearly defined and regionally focused. Later, it struggled to achieve internal agreement on a new set of practical goals such as a free trade zone. It seems that to overcome the stalemate, the organization’s leaders decided to pursue expansion and increase SCO’s visibility and outreach to South Asia and now the Near East, at the expense of more pragmatical objectives and results.