Beset by rising rhetoric about a possible Israeli attack against its nuclear facilities, Iran is seeking full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an additional layer of international diplomatic "life insurance." On 12 November 2011 Iranian Supreme National Security Council's Secretary Assistant Ali Bageri said that Iran is seeking full membership in the SCO, upgrading its current observer status, telling journalists in Moscow, "We have already submitted a relevant application."
Now, Iran has gotten an endorsement from the SCO about the unacceptability of force - sort of.
The leaders of SCO members China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan said in a joint statement signed at the end of a two-day summit on 7 June that "any attempts to solve the Iranian problem with force are unacceptable and could lead to unpredictable circumstances."
Pretty impressive accomplishment, given that Iran currently only has "observer" status at the SCO.
The SCO, founded in Shanghai in 2001, currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan while Iran, India, Mongolia and Pakistan have observer status. Decisions on SCO membership and observer status are made with the consensus of all member countries.
Iran first submitted an official application for SCO observer status on 25 February 2005. In March 2008 Iran then applied for upgrading its status to formally joining the organization.
Three years ago Moscow was much cooler to Tehran's application. Russian Foreign Ministry Department for Information and Mass Media Deputy Director Andrei Krivtsov commented, "We do not accept any new members of SCO, as no country is seeking to extend the organization for the sake of extension itself. Any talk about an early admittance of Iran to SCO has no grounds."
Iran now has a powerful ally in Russia, which earlier on 6 November 2011 hosted an SCO meeting in Saint Petersburg. The Russian government pushed for both Iran and India being allowed to join SCO. Then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, "Russia would welcome the positive review of applications to join our organization in one form or another from any interested nation." NATO member Turkey also has "dialogue partner" status and has also requested full membership.
The ultimate purpose of the SCO remains a contentious issue between Russia and China however, as while Russia apparently hopes to build the SCO into a counterbalance against NATO, China views the SCO as primarily an economic union, where Beijing's booming economy clearly gives it an edge over Russia in dealing with the SCO's "junior members."
Iran sees full SCO membership as a most valuable asset in its efforts to prevent encirclement by NATO and other U.S.-led entities, a position that Moscow can well understand. In July 2011 Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi during an interview with the Russian media described Iran as the "most significant neighbour" of Russia for standing in the way of the U.S.-led Western encirclement strategy.
Even without SCO membership however, Iran has brought the Russian Federation on board as opposing a military strike on Iran, as on 8 November 2011 Russian Federation Foreign Ministry Lavrov commented, "there is no military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem as there is no military solution to any other problem in the modern world."
China is currently Iran's largest oil export mark, and has steadfastly rejected sanctions. China continues to invest in an Iran steadily drained of Western investment and Iran is the fourth-largest recipient of Chinese non-bond investment, which a military strike would put at risk. Iranian SCO membership would place the Sino-Iranian relationship in a position to undermine U.S. attempts to isolate Iran.
Iran has another card up its sleeve for seeking military partners, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The CSTO was established after the collapse of the USSR in December 1991 by a number of former Soviet republics. When Iran began seeking SCO membership it received a warmer welcome from CSTO, as on 18 May 2007 CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha said, "CSTO is an open organization. If Iran applies in accordance with our charter, we will consider the application."
Iranian CSTO membership would strengthen its military alliances, as Article 4 of CSTO's charter states, "In case an act of aggression is committed against any of the Member States all the others Member States will provide it with necessary assistance, including military one, as well as provide support with the means at their disposal in exercise of the right to collective defence in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter."
Bolstering Iranian hopes, on 13 April 2011 Bordyuzha, while not mentioning Iran specifically, said that the CSTO is considering expanding the grouping.
Iran's interest in joining the SCO and CSTO is lacking a crucial element - time. Neither Moscow nor Beijing are known for making snap decisions, with the result that Tehran may soon find itself overtaken by events. That said, having Russia and China in your corner arguing against military action is no small consideration, either in Tel Aviv or Washington.
So, where does the West go from here?
Did the SCO indicate that it would engage in conflict for Iran?
But Iran's interest in CSTO and SCO are hardly a minor policy wonk exercise, as between Russia, Kazakhstan (both non-OPEC producers) and Iran, the trio account for nearly 20 percent of the world's oil output, which could be offlined to the global community should it embark on "reckless adventureism," to use a piquant Soviet term.
The phrase, "any attempts to solve the Iranian problem with force are unacceptable and could lead to unpredictable circumstances" was signed off by SCO members China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan should therefore factor into the considerations of those beating the drums for a military strike against Iran. Hardly insignificant, as the SCO statement was signed by all members.
Something for both Washington and Tel Aviv hawks to consider.
By John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com