Despite the wide-ranging agenda of the SCO on trade, economy, research and technology and culture, as well as in education, energy, transportation, tourism and environmental protection, many western observers tend to dub the SCO as “anti-NATO”. Some like to see the SCO as leverage for Russia to contain China in Central Asia and that’s why Russia agreed on the issue of membership expansion, particularly accepting India as a full member. A different view also believes that the SCO seeks to promote authoritarian norms in Central Asia.
In the meantime, regardless of these different narratives, Tehran needs to identify and promote its own interests and stay more focused on these key questions: How can Iran play its role in the SCO to integrate Eurasia? and what are the opportunities and challenges that Iran is likely to face?
- Iran and the SCO: more convergence than divergence:
While some believe that Iran's major achievement of full membership in the SCO would be reduced to gaining political prestige and foiling the attempts to isolate Tehran, this paper sees the SCO as the best platform to achieve some foreign policy goals, including:
- Embracing a Eurasian identity
Since Iran's low-profile engagement in the SCO meant establishment of regional security regimes without inquiring Iran's views and concerns, especially in the fight against terrorism, now the full membership status is an important step to embrace a new security order in Eurasian.This is important as the past irritations in Tehran's relations with Dushanbe can be considered as a result of not having a coherent Eurasian policy.
Currently, there is a consensus in Iran's strategic community on the SCO’s salience for realizing Iran's "Look to East" policy. The evolution of Iran's engagement in the SCO from observer status in 2005 to full membership in 2021 shows the significance of this organization in Iran’s strategic calculations. But due to the geopolitical developments and the ongoing great game competitions, there are many risks, higher responsibilities and at the same time many opportunities.
- Shared vision on multilateralism
In Iran, many see the SCO as a key platform to strengthen multilateralism this issue was also reflected in the Iranian president’s speech at the 21st SCO Summit. At the same time, some may argue that the new developments in the region, such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, could encourage the Russian, Iranian and Chinese bloc to deepen their cooperation, the reason that makes the SCO more relevant for them. According to them, Tehran and Moscow are more inclined than other members to see the SCO platform as a means for regional economic cooperation aimed at reducing dependence on Western markets and strengthening resilience against sanctions.
- Mutual interests on trade and physical and digital infrastructure projects
In the wide arrays of economic and social cooperation, which have been reflected in the successive Summit Statements, there are two areas related to Iran’s interests; these two areas relate to connectivity projects and an emerging high-tech digital economy to accelerate sustainable economic cooperation. However, the realization of the digital economy cooperation depends on reaching a consensus on the data protection law, which needs to be pushed for by the Iranian policymakers within the SCO.
On connectivity projects, the full membership will allow Iran to gain wider support to operationalize its two major connectivity projects including; the North-South International Transport Corridor and the Chabahar port.
Moreover, the full membership status would also effectively facilitate Iran's position in the BRI initiative and deepen Iran's ties with Central Asian states.
- Common grounds for fighting against terrorism and extremism
Iran which has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism in the region could play a meaningful role to fight against terrorism as the SCO's counter-terrorism policy dominated by China's concept of the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism meets Iran's concerns.
Moreover, given the recent developments in the region as a result of withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan and the reemergence of ISIS to establish the “Emirate of Khorasan”, the counterterrorism attempts by SCO’s members in the heart of Eurasia will be at the focus of Iran's security interests.
- Establishing the long-term energy partnerships
As a country with rich energy resources, Iran is a reliable source for meeting the demands of Asian giants’, such as China and India, growing energy appetite, especially during the global economic recovery following the pandemic. Iran’s full membership may facilitate the negotiations to revive the pending energy pipeline projects, such as the Peace Pipeline, which would be a wild card for India's natural gas needs.
Moreover, the Russian proposal of creating a regional "energy club" to deepen the interactions between producers (Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and consumers (China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan and Mongolia) could also lead to making new energy partnerships and exploring the new energy markets for Iran’s oil products.
- Expanding cultural exchanges
Given Iran's historical and civilizational ties with Eurasian countries, traditional regional ties can be revived to promote confidence-building measures. Cultural exchange programs can be followed through the SCO’s Film Festival and the Heritage Exhibition to promote people-to-people contacts and exchange the ideas. Iranian poetry, art, music, and films are still popular in the region and in this regard, Iran's proposal to host a cultural exhibition entitled "Nowruz’s Common Heritage" would be a right step in this direction.
- Challenges: Different Perceptions
While the SCO needs a common and coherent mechanism to deal with current and future developments in Eurasia, it seems that, due to some differences in perceptions, members have not yet been able to present a clear narrative on the SCO’s partnership to the world. There is some divergence among members regarding the promising geopolitical, security and economic vision for Eurasia, which should be seriously considered by the Iranian policy makers.
- Lack of mutual trust in the midst of geopolitical rivalries
It seems that despite the shared interests and convergences, it would be naive to ignore the differences within the SCO that start with geopolitical rivalries between India – Pakistan and China-India. Moreover, observers have seen some irritations in the relations of the so-called “quadrilateral bloc” within the SCO including Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China.
In the case of Iran, a key challenge ahead will be how to accommodate the emerging geopolitical reality of Eurasia, especially at a time when many ambitious connectivity and integration projects are being pursued by great powers such as China, Russia, the United States, and even India and other rival regional stakeholders.
Moreover, the full membership in the SCO would be more different than having an observer status; Iran might be forced to make commitments and take positions during the decision-making process, which may damage Tehran's bilateral relations with some members.
It is expected that Tehran's positions on the border disputes, definition of terrorist acts and quarrels over the concept of the Indo-pacific vision will be closely monitored by its partners. Therefore, Iranian policymakers will have a tough task to take a sophisticated and balanced policy and navigate its interests amid the divergences within the SCO.
- Lack of a coherent economic and trade vision
A cursory review of the past joint statements of the SCO’s Summits shows that the organization has failed to finalize a comprehensive economic plan acceptable for all members. A number of proposals, including the “energy club”, free trade zone and trade in national currencies, have for long been stalled. But in the case of Iran, it seems that not joining the Financial Action Task Force mechanism will seriously pose a challenge to promising economic initiatives in this organization. Some are also arguing that as long as sanctions continue to stay in place and banking and financial links with partners are suspended, there should not be talk of economic benefits of full membership status in the SCO.
The SCO, as a leading Eurasian agency, has succeeded to build a common understanding on non-conventional security threats including terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking. However, the organization's promising visions on economic synergy, connectivity projects and energy clubs are yet to bear fruit.
The future of the SCO-led Eurasian Integration Project depends on how a shared understanding of the interests and the spirit of cooperation between members in the context of a Eurasian identity will evolve and eventually lead to the emergence of trade, economy, connectivity and energy networks across Eurasia.
According to this paper, Iran as a new member with its unique position needs to take a sophisticated Eurasian strategy to play a significant role in the SCO’s counter terrorism attempts and bridge the gaps between Asia and Europe as a hub of trade, connectivity and energy routs.
Masoud Hamyani, Senior Expert of IPIS
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS