Iran’s Full Membership in the SCO: A Win-Win Game?
Although the SCO is mainly security and politically focused, membership in the organization is also supposed to have an economic dimension—although this has been hampered in recent years largely by Moscow. Still, participation in the SCO has proven important for its members in developing bilateral trade and financial relations with one another and China in particular. Tehran is fully cognizant of this fact. And its own strategy of looking to the East, including through developing deeper economic relations with the member states of the SCO, may be effective in shifting the Western powers’ behavioral calculations toward Iran, while simultaneously balancing the latter’s foreign policy.
The latest Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was held on September 17, 2021, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan; it marked Iran’s recently inaugurated President Ebrahim Raisi’s first foreign trip in his new role. His participation in and remarks delivered at the summit underscored the ways in which Iran is moving toward more balanced foreign relations. In most cases, Iran has acted as a supporter of the status quo in Central Asia; and, while it respects the regional influence and power of China and Russia, Tehran has openly declared its support for the territorial integrity of all SCO member states. Iran now plans to use its permanent membership in the organization to further strengthen relations with the Central Asian and South Asian countries to its northeast.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in 2016 kick-started the process of developing a comprehensive strategic partnership between Tehran and Beijing, and previous political barriers to that process have apparently now been removed. Notably, this past spring, the two sides signed a 25-year cooperation agreement that pledges Chinese investments of $400 billion–600 billion. Some observers argue that permanent membership in the SCO will greatly facilitate this growth of political and economic relations between the two countries as well as between Iran and the other members, reducing the bite of Western sanctions against Tehran. The bloc already registered $330 billion in trade among the member states back in 2017.
Tajikistan’s opposition had long posed an obstacle to the Islamic Republic’s efforts to join the SCO. The friction in their bilateral relations—which lasted until at least 2019—stemmed from the leader of the Islamic Movement Party of Tajikistan, Mohiuddin Kabiri’s, visit to Iran in late 2015 and his participation in the Islamic Unity Conference. But relations eventually improved, especially since the beginning of 2021, culminating with the visits of Iranian Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Tajikistan as well as reciprocal visits of Tajikistani Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo and Interior Minister Ramazan Rahimzadeh to Iran.
And as soon as it could, Tehran reapplied for SCO membership once it became apparent that the US, under the Joseph Biden administration, might be open to lifting sanctions and reopening talks on the Iranian nuclear program. Russia and China, in particular, stepped out front and pushed to reopen economic cooperation with Iran even before the lifting of those sanctions.
Yet whatever goals the Iranian government has for its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, its freedom of maneuver within the bloc will remain somewhat constrained by the threats posed by the United States’ secondary sanctions as well as the international money laundering prevention regime—even if some proportion of transactions with Iran’s neighbors can be successfully hidden. More importantly, Moscow and Beijing are the two most powerful stakeholders within the SCO, and they are pursuing their own geopolitical interests through the organization, focused more on security threats than economic deals within the forum. Likewise, Tehran may find itself pulled in divergent directions by its two largest trade partners within the bloc, China and India. Driven by their global interests, Russia and China are seeking ways to not only benefit from Iran’s regional and international position but also to nurture a certain bilateral relationship with Iran, despite Tehran’s participation in regionalist multilateral forums like the SCO. Consequently, the Islamic Republic should not expect the bloc to meet all of its needs and expectations on the international stage; some modus vivendi with the United States and the West on its nuclear program will still likely be necessary.