The 20th summit of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was held virtually, on November 10, under the rotating chairmanship of the Russian Federation. The leaders of the regional organization’s member states—Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan—discussed, in particular, measures to strengthen cooperation in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (Anatoly Agency, November 10). Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also attended the summit. Though not a member, Iran acquired observer status in the SCO in June 2005. The country applied for full membership in 2008 and again in 2010, both times unsuccessfully. In his speech to the other regional heads of state, Rouhani addressed various issues but notably did not bring up the prospect of upgrading Iran’s SCO status from observer to permanent member (IRNA, November 10). This implies the Iranian government see no hope of joining anytime soon, and yet it is determined to remain involved with the organization even as a peripheral partner.
Tehran perceives the SCO as a “club of revisionist states” that opposes the United States while promoting multipolarity in the international system. Full membership within this Eurasian bloc, the Iranian thinking goes, could help the Islamic Republic balance against the US and cope with the impact of further sanctions and military threats from Washington. Indeed, at the bilateral level, Iran already has close relations with both Russia and China, which share leading roles in the SCO. As such, Iran always believed its own accession to the grouping was only a matter of time. And when President Rouhani came into office on June 14, 2013, it seemed that previous obstacles (especially United Nations sanctions) to Iran’s full membership in the SCO had been removed. But despite expressed support from some of the organization’s members—including Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (under the leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev)—the upgrading of Tehran’s status within the SCO continued to face important hindrances.
First, tension between Iran and Tajikistan have had a negative impact on this issue. Bilateral relations between the two countries came under serious strain in December 2015, when Iran officially invited Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), to attend the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran (CGTN, October 11, 2018). The government in Dushanbe had outright banned the IRPT several months earlier, after accusing the opposition political group of being linked to a failed coup (see EDM, September 11, 2015 and January 15, 2016). Since then, Tajikistan has—so far unsuccessfully—sought to add the IRPT to the list of recognized extremist and terrorist organizations within both the SCO and the Russia-led Collective Security Organization (of which Tajikistan is also member). Dushanbe worries that any change in Tehran’s status in the SCO could block its initiative regarding the IRPT. Crucially, the voting system in the SCO is based on consensus; so even a small country such as Tajikistan can unilaterally prevent the accession of new candidates.
A second negative factor has been renewed tensions between Iran and the United States. The adoption by the Donald Trump administration of a “maximum pressure policy” against Iran sharply exacerbated strained relations along the Tehran-Washington axis, which indirectly impacted Iran’s SCO membership prospects. When unilateral US sanctions replaced UN sanctions against Iran, many SCO members worried that a new confrontation between Iran and the United States would spread to their region. Although US-Russian and US-Chinese relations are not exactly warm either, and presumably Moscow (and perhaps also Beijing) wants to show Washington that they and their international partners/allies cannot be so easily isolated, that attitude was pointedly never adopted by the collective membership of the SCO. Rather, the SCO, as a regional organization, has during the last two decades pursued “inward-looking policies” and shown no practical willingness to confront the US or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In this regard, the SCO had no reaction to Russian military interventions in Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014) and Syria (2015), demonstrating no ambitions of becoming a “NATO of the East” or a “New Warsaw Pact” supportive of the geopolitical initiatives of its leading members. Indeed, the SCO approved two procedures for granting membership to new states in Tashkent (2010) and Dushanbe (2014) that specifically impeded any applicant country currently under UN Security Council sanctions. The unilateral US sanctions reapplied in recent years, especially those on Iran’s banking system, likely had the same effect and additionally prevented the Islamic Republic from expanding economic and trade relations with the other SCO members.
The third main obstacle to Iranian membership in the organization has been China’s own ambiguous position. Unlike Moscow, Beijing has been cagey regarding whether or not it supports Tehran’s full membership in the SCO. Admitting Iran as a full member carries certain implications for Beijing’s diplomatic relationships around the world that it is not ready to face. Instead, China may want to wait for a better time, when US sanctions end and Saudi-Iranian ties shift to a more positive track (The Globe Post, June 27, 2019). On June 24, 2020, the governments of Tehran and Beijing signed a draft agreement laying out the framework for the “Iran-China 25-year Cooperation Program.” And although the joint presidential statement on this draft agreement specifically declares that China “supports Iran’s application for full membership of the Organization” (President.ir, accessed November 30, 2020), it is unclear what (if anything) the full 18-page document may say on the matter of SCO accession.
Generally, it seems that Iran has a difficult path ahead to join the eight-member Eurasian bloc. A de-escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States under the next administration and at least a partial lifting of unilateral US sanctions may facilitate Tehran’s efforts to join the SCO—so long as this is also accompanied by an improvement in Iranian-Tajikistani bilateral relations. If Iran succeeds in changing its status from observer to full member, it will represent the first success of the Islamic Republic in joining a regional collective security bloc after Tehran exited from the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1979. And in turn, Iran’s accession will effectively expand the SCO’s geographic influence from Eurasia to the Middle East.