by Omar Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 6, Muharram, 1445)
July 4 is celebrated in the US as Independence Day. The date, however, has now ushered in a more significant and recent milestone, that of Iran’s fully-fledged accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The development marks a major turning point in the geopolitics of the region, with some observers going so far as to describe the move as “game-changing.”
The SCO is a powerful intergovernmental organization that aims to promote cooperation in various spheres, including political, economic, and security matters, among its member states. Prior to Iran’s inclusion, the SCO’s full members consisted of China, Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. With Iran officially on board, the organization could witness a profound transformation that could reshape dynamics in West Asia and beyond.
In his address to the virtual summit of the 23rd Council of Heads of State of the SCO, hosted by India, which coincided with Iran’s new status, President Ebrahim Raiesi said “I hope that Iran’s presence in this important and influential organisation will provide a platform for collective security, lead to sustainable development, expand links and communications, strengthen unity, respect the sovereignty of countries more than ever before, and provide synergies to deal with environmental threats.”
Indeed, the Islamic Republic’s full membership in the SCO would significantly enhance its geopolitical stature in the region and on the global stage. Geopolitically, Iran’s accession could help foster closer ties with its neighbors in Central Asia, and in particular with great powers Russia and China. This would allow Tehran to gain further support in crucial international matters, increasing its diplomatic leverage and influence over regional affairs.
Strategically, there are mutual benefits for both Iran and the other member states. For Iran, being a member of the SCO serves as a gateway to West Asia and, by extension, Europe. On the other hand, the other SCO member states offer Iran greater access to the Central Asian markets, opening up opportunities for trade and investment.
In essence, joining the Chinese-Russian-led bloc, fosters and reinforces Iran’s fiercely-guarded sovereignty and independence. Through its participating in the SCO, Iran can engage in diplomatic and economic exchanges on its terms, without compromising its autonomy as a sovereign state.
The SCO encompasses nearly half of the world’s population and boasts substantial natural resources and markets. All members, apart from Beijing’s geopolitical rival India, also support China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) scheme which aims to revive the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with large infrastructure investments.
Iran, which already benefits from substantial BRI-related investment from China (last year saw an increase of 150 percent), could further integrate its economy with that of the member states, promoting infrastructural development and boosting economic growth.
Most crucially, however, is the potential for Iran to boost its defense and security mechanisms. The SCO conducts joint military exercises and counter-terrorism operations, which would bolster Iran’s defense capabilities and potentially deter external threats, in addition to more effective responses against domestic and cross-border terrorism with member state Pakistan.
Given Iran’s long-standing tensions with the US and Israel, the SCO could serve as a counterbalance against future aggression, safeguarding Tehran’s national security interests.
In recent years, especially following Washington’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Tel Aviv’s adamant position on opposing a revival of the nuclear deal, Iran has faced significant challenges to its sovereignty, including harsh economic sanctions imposed by the US and frequent cyberattacks and assassinations conducted by Israel.
As an “anti-NATO” alliance, the SCO’s emphasis on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs also resonates with the Iranian government’s ambitions to protect the country’s sovereignty and independence. Moreover, the SCO’s collective security framework and mutual defense cooperation will offer Iran a shield against military aggression and covert operations. This would allow Iran to focus on addressing its internal issues without the constant fear of external threats.
On the diplomatic front, Iran’s full membership in the SCO could have far-reaching implications for regional stability. The organization’s emphasis on resolving disputes through dialogue and consensus could provide a platform for Iran to engage in constructive discussions with its neighbors, promoting conflict resolution and easing tensions.
Iran’s veto power within the SCO “becomes a strategic card that can be utilized to assert its influence and impact the behaviors of other nations aiming to join Asia’s economic-security powerhouse.”
Consequently, Iran’s membership in the SCO grants the country more leverage over states with poor relations or rivalrous ties that also aspire to become full-fledged members. Countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Turkiye, and Egypt, who are interested in joining the exclusive member list (currently all are Dialogue Partners), will likely take Tehran’s pioneering presence within the organization into consideration when pursuing their own memberships.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia, which has expressed interest in becoming an official member of the SCO, will also be keen on ensuring that its recent rapprochement with Tehran remains unaffected. The presence of both Iran and Saudi Arabia within the same regional organization may prompt them to seek further common ground and manage their differences more carefully to preserve stability and cooperation within the SCO framework. This will have important ramifications for on-going efforts to rehabilitate Iran’s regional ally Syria, following its readmission into the Arab League in addition to efforts for an end to the devastating eight-year war in Yemen.
The implications of Iran’s new status as a full member of the SCO are multifaceted and hold the potential for transformative geopolitical change in West Asia. Geopolitically, Iran stands to gain greater influence and diplomatic leverage, while economically, it will benefit from increased trade and investment opportunities.
Additionally, the SCO’s defense cooperation could enhance Iran’s security and safeguard its sovereignty in the face of mounting threats in response to the failed policies of isolating Iran by the US and its allies.
For the region, Iran’s inclusion in the SCO will also present valuable opportunities for dialogue and conflict resolution, arguably leading to greater stability and prosperity. The platform provided by the SCO offers a space for Iran to engage in diplomatic efforts and find common ground with other member states, fostering cooperative approaches to regional challenges.
However, the success of Iran’s SCO membership would hinge upon its ability to navigate the intricacies of regional politics adeptly. It would need to strike a delicate balance between pursuing its national interests and upholding the collective objectives of the organization. This balancing act aligns with Iran’s longstanding policy of managing its relations with great powers, a stance that predates the founding of the Islamic Republic.