Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani recently attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of State virtual summit. The declaration that followed this year’s summit emphasized cooperation among the organization’s member states in the field of epidemiological welfare to prevent and control infectious and non-infectious diseases and counter the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the declaration called for greater economic cooperation among the organization’s member states. Iran in the past has extensively lobbied to become a full member in the organization, however, its attempts failed, and recurring challenges have limited its pursuit for wider influence within the SCO. Iran’s heightened aggression in the region and Trump’s maximum pressure policy resulted in Tehran’s isolation, limiting its possibilities and influence within the SCO.
President Rouhani has expressed interest in Iran increasing its engagement opportunities with the SCO. He criticized Washington’s policy towards Iran and called on the incoming Biden administration to reassess Trump’s Iran policies that have severely hit the Iranian economy. During the summit, Iran’s Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri urged SCO member states to participate in the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project. The recently held India-Uzbek virtual summit further emphasizes the possibility of linking Chabahar to Uzbekistan. Jahangiri’s invitation to join the project comes against the backdrop of Tehran’s attempts to extend ties with its Eurasian partners.
Despite Russia and China favoring Iran’s full membership in the SCO, several internal and external factors have impeded Iran’s ambitions. According to a few Russian sources, some SCO member states had opposed Iran’s membership bid. A certain amount of speculation has pointed to Tajikistan’s disagreement with Iran as an impeding factor in Tehran’s quest to become a full member in the SCO. One of the most crucial blows to Iran-Tajikistan bilateral relations was in 2015 when Tehran invited Muhiddin Kabirim, the leader of Hizbi Nehzati Islomi Tajikistan, a banned Islamist political party in the country, to attend an international conference. Being a founding member of the SCO, Tajikistan’s veto power in the organization negates any possibility for Tehran to become a full member without repairing its ties with Dushanbe. Also, Tajikistan has accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism in the region.
Iran’s definition of terrorism is different from the other SCO member states. Iran’s support for extremist groups in the regions of the SCO member and observer states could potentially strain Tehran’s relations with them, thus limiting its chances to widen its influence and achieve its ultimate objective to be accepted as a full member. In addition, Iran’s tense relations with the United States creates friction within the SCO, with member states wanting to engage with the United States on a wide array of strategic issues.
Iran’s growing rivalry with regional powers in the Middle East has been another source of concern for the SCO member states as countries like Russia and China have increased their bilateral relations with countries in the region such as with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent years. Iran has realized over time that the SCO has little potential in helping it to deal with the fallout from US sanctions as many businesses from the organization’s member states are wary about investing in Iran. US sanctions on Iran have been a major concern for SCO member states. US sanctions have cast a shadow of doubt over Iran’s prospects to widen its trade relations with the SCO member states. Even though Iran has over time increased its trade relations with the SCO in recent years, a large percentage has been with China.
The SCO is one of the world’s largest regional organizations in terms of population size and economic prospects. However, conflicting interests between the SCO member states limit the organization’s ability to engage, exploit and address critical strategic issues particularly amid growing tensions between some member states. Moreover, if the SCO was to increase in size, this could impact the internal efficiency of the organization’s decision-making process, particularly considering the regional changes that have taken place. The rivalry between India and Pakistan and the growing tensions amid border issues between India and China are shared concerns within the SCO. Iran becoming a full member in the SCO no doubt would further complicate the organization’s internal dynamics.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif’s recent tweet can be read in line with Iran’s ambitions to increase its role in the SCO through multilateral cooperative programs. He wrote that “turning our frontiers into bridges is a priority” for Iran, referring to the inauguration of the Khaf-Herat railway, which is significant not only for Iran but the region as well. However, tangible outcomes and Tehran’s ambitions to be fully integrated into the SCO largely hinge on the future of US-Iran relations. Iran’s global image remains a major concern for SCO member states and the shared scepticism within the organization towards Iran means the potential for Tehran to gain wider influence in the organization is extremely bleak, particularly if Tehran fails to respond to any ice breaking gestures from the incoming Biden administration.