By Richard Weitz (08/19/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has yet to resolve the problem presented by Iran’s efforts to become the institution’s seventh full member. For the fourth consecutive year, existing SCO governments have declined to accept new full members or formal observers. Instead, the SCO has resorted to proliferating new categories of external association, producing a confusing hodgepodge of members, observers, “guests,” and now “partners.”  Although SCO leaders say they are working on procedures to guide the organization’s expansion, it seems that the SCO’s major powers fail to agree on who should join and who should not.

BACKGROUND: The post-election turmoil in Tehran has presented yet the latest Iran problem for the SCO, which held its most recent leadership summit in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on June 15-16. The current roster of full SCO members includes only those six states that joined the organization at its founding in 2001: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The question of whether Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would attend the summit despite his domestic political problems dominated foreign news coverage of the event. Ahmadinejad has participated in the annual SCO leadership summits every year since 2005, typically attracting much international attention for his confrontational remarks. The decision to delay his scheduled June 15 arrival led to widespread media speculation that Ahmadinejad would miss the summit to concentrate on winning the power struggle in Tehran. At the time, mass protests were occurring in the Iranian capital and elsewhere against his “dictatorship” and what many Iranians perceived as his falsified electoral victory.

When the Iranian leader did arrive at the summit the following day, he gave a classic speech that denounced the United States for its allegedly flawed Eurasian policies. Despite the new administration in Washington, Ahmadinejad essentially repeated the charges that he had levied at previous summits about the supposedly ineffective and malign American policies in the region. Perhaps the only variation from Ahmadinejad’s earlier speeches was that the June 2009 summit occurred in the context of an international economic crisis. The setbacks Russia and China experienced from this global slowdown stimulated their interest in using the SCO as well as other multilateral institutions such as the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) format to challenge American global leadership.

Ahmadinejad tried to deepen this interest by highlighting perceived U.S. weaknesses in his speech and urging the SCO to fill this alleged power vacuum by promoting a new world order no longer dominated by the United States or its allies. For example, he proposed establishing a SCO bank and using a single currency for trade and other commercial transactions among the member states. Ahmadinejad further advocated forming two SCO committees that could develop common political and economic strategies to address regional and global developments. The Iranian President expressed an interest in both deepening and broadening Iran’s cooperation with the SCO. Neither Ahmadinejad nor his colleagues mentioned his contested election victory nor the mass street protests then taking place in Tehran and other cities.

Iranian officials have lobbied for full membership since obtaining formal SCO observer status at the July 2005 leadership summit. They have sought to leverage the country’s energy resources to bolster Tehran’s candidacy for membership. At recent SCO summits, Ahmadinejad has called for creating a regional “energy club” among the member governments. These statements remind SCO members of the value of including Iran – which is the world's second largest natural gas producer as well as a major oil exporter – for ensuring the success of any SCO project involving energy resources. By most estimates, Iran’s entry into the SCO would result in the organization’s seven members possessing approximately half of the world’s proven gas reserves.

Furthermore, Iranian officials have offered to help the SCO members counter political extremism and narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan. Representatives of the existing SCO governments cite Islamist-inspired and narcotics-financed terrorism emanating from Afghanistan as a major threat to their security. Ahmadinejad has also called for joint SCO investment and transportation projects. With regard to the latter, Iranian territory could serve as a gateway for SCO members, especially the landlocked Central Asian countries, to access the energy resources and rich commercial markets of the Persian Gulf region. Certain Tajik, SCO, and Russian officials have sometimes made statements supporting Iran’s membership aspirations, but the SCO has repeatedly deferred its application.

IMPLICATIONS: The stated reason why the SCO has not designated new members since its founding, or new formal observers since Iran’s accession in 2005, is that, despite numerous attempts, the SCO governments have been unable to define the legal basis for such expansion. “We have discussed this issue and we all agreed that we need to accelerate the preparation of a draft document that will detail procedures for admission of new members to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” Russia’s frustrated president, Dmitry Medvedev, said at a Yekaterinburg summit news conference. “The instruction has been given, but we need to complete this work and to prepare a regulatory procedural framework for the relevant steps.”

Aside from the peculiar difficulties associated with Iran, the inability to agree on legal criteria for new members probably reflects several underlying membership problems. The enormous disparities in these countries’ populations, geographic size, economic resources, military power, and geopolitical orientation have already complicated the negotiation, approval, and implementation of SCO initiatives. Adding new members could exacerbate these differences. Furthermore, none of the existing observer countries is an obvious choice for full membership. The SCO designated its first formal observer, Mongolia, in June 2004. At the organization’s July 2005 summit in Shanghai, the existing members awarded India, Iran, and Pakistan formal observer status as well. 

The governments of Pakistan and Iran have lobbied most strongly for full membership status. Although Chinese officials would like to elevate the status of their ally Pakistan to that of full member, the other SCO governments still complain about Pakistanis’ links with regional terrorist groups. Offering Pakistan full membership would probably also require granting India the same promotion, but Indian officials have thus far displayed only limited interest in the SCO. Iran’s application presents its own special complications. The Iranian government’s links with international terrorism movements, its support for anti-government groups in Lebanon and other countries, and above all its controversial nuclear energy program had made Beijing and Moscow seek to keep a certain distance from Tehran even before the recent election crisis.

Although other countries have subsequently expressed interest in becoming formal SCO observers, the organization has declined to expand this category either. Instead, the SCO has been inviting special “guests of honor” selected by the rotating hosting government of the annual SCO leadership summit. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has regularly attended SCO summits as a special guest of the host. Afghan officials have reportedly inquired about obtaining a more formal association, but some of the existing members have apparently objected that the country is presently too unstable for inclusion. Nonetheless, the growing number of SCO activities involving Afghanistan, including the special conference the SCO organized this March on the country, has clearly given Afghanistan a unique category within the organization. Medvedev related that, at Yekaterinburg, “There was not a single speech at our summit that did not mention Afghanistan.”

The Yekaterinburg summit has now applied yet another affiliation category—that of “dialogue partner”—to countries that are neither full SCO members nor observers. In the past, the SCO had established formal partnerships only with other multilateral organizations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-dominated military alliance of former Soviet states that includes all SCO members except China. The Yekaterinburg summit decided to award Belarus and Sri Lanka the status of “dialogue partner.” How these two countries will engage with the SCO, whose center of gravity clearly lies in Central Asia, remains uncertain. Belarus’ disruption of Moscow’s plans for the most recent CSTO summit, which met the day before the SCO’s Yekaterinburg meeting, suggests that Russian leaders might seek to limit Minsk’s role in the SCO for an indefinite probationary period.

CONCLUSIONS: A final complication is that the country that the existing SCO governments would most like to include in their membership roster, energy-rich Turkmenistan, remains non-committal about joining. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov attended the 2007 SCO summit as a guest, but he skipped the last two annual leadership meetings and his government has not pressed for further integration. In addition, Turkmenistan is not even a formal SCO observer or partner, so it would have to leapfrog over the existing candidates in order to gain full membership, a step the other membership aspirants, especially Iran, would not welcome.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. He is the author, among other works, of Kazakhstan and the New International Politics of Eurasia (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2008).