Analysis: Does The Road To Shanghai Go Through Tehran?
By Daniel Kimmage, Radio Free Europe
are entering the geopolitical calculus of Central Asia. An ongoing Russian-Uzbek
rapprochement is only the most visible sign of resurgent Russian influence in
the region, which is an important source of natural gas to feed Moscow's
ambitions of becoming a 21st-century energy superpower. Chinese interest in
Central Asian energy resources is also growing. And the United States continues
to maintain close, energy-inflected ties with Kazakhstan and a military base in
Kyrgyzstan. But the newest variable is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO), which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and
Uzbekistan in an ambiguous alliance that many in the West are beginning to view
The SCO will soon celebrate
its fifth anniversary with a summit of member states' leaders in Shanghai on
June 15. Last year's summit, in Kazakhstan, was notable for a declaration asking
members of the "antiterrorist coalition" to provide a time frame for the
withdrawal of military forces from SCO territory. It was a pointed reference to
U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Only two weeks later,
Uzbekistan evicted the United States from its Karshi-Khanabad air base.
This year, the summit will open against a backdrop of reports
that Iran, which currently holds observer status in the SCO (along with India,
Mongolia, and Pakistan), is looking to become a full-fledged member.
'OPEC With Bombs'?
Iranian Deputy Foreign
Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi set the speculation rippling in April, when he said
that Iran hopes to join the SCO in the summer. The foreign ministers of
Kazakhstan and Tajikistan subsequently downplayed the possibility, citing a lack
of formal mechanisms to accommodate new members. But the gambit, coming in the
context of Iran's strained relations with the West over Tehran's nuclear
program, drew notice. "The Washington Times" quoted David Wall, professor at the
University of Cambridge's East Asia Institute, as saying that "an expanded SCO
would control a large part of the world's oil and gas reserves and nuclear
arsenal. It would essentially be an OPEC with bombs."
emerged that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad would attend the SCO summit in
Shanghai, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also addressed the issue of
Iran's potential membership of the organization, "The New York Times" reported
on June 4. Singling out Iran, Rumsfeld remarked that it was "passing strange
that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against
terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world."
Secretary-General Zhang Deguang quickly retorted, AP reported on June 7, firing
back: "We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors
of terror. We would not have invited them if we believed they sponsored
points follow from the reactions to the SCO's Iranian gambit. First, the SCO
represents an approach to multilateral relations and an understanding of
terrorism that do not, in fact, define Iran as a sponsor of terror and would
permit Iran's accession. Second, it is unlikely that Iran will join the SCO in
the near future. And third, even if Iran joined, the SCO would have a long way
to go before becoming a genuine "OPEC with bombs."
charter helps to explain why SCO states -- primarily China and Russia -- do not
consider Iran a sponsor of terrorism. While the charter's "aims and objections"
list "joint opposition to terrorism, separatism, and extremism in all their
manifestations," its first principle is "mutual respect for states' sovereignty,
independence, and territorial integrity and the sanctity of borders,
nonaggression, noninterference in internal affairs, the non-use of force or the
threat of force in international relations, and renunciation of unilateral
military superiority in contiguous areas."
The crux of the matter
is that, for SCO member states, "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" are
viewed not as distinct abstract phenomena with global relevance to be dealt with
globally, but rather as a single phenomenon that is locally defined by the
ruling elite and left to sovereign states to combat by any means they see fit.
For Russia, it is Chechen separatism; for China, Uighur "splittism"; for
Uzbekistan, religious extremism. The task of SCO member-states is to support
each other as they combat perceived threats to existing power relations, as
Russia and China did when Uzbekistan labeled May 2005 unrest in Andijon
"terrorism" and crushed it with maximum force.
It is the locally
bounded definition of terrorism that leads SCO member states to reject the
labeling of Iran as a sponsor of terror, and the globally defined emphasis on
sovereignty and non-interference that makes them amenable to granting Iran
membership. Iran does not support Chechen separatists, Uighur "splittists," or
Uzbek "religious extremists." The SCO's understanding of terrorism is not based
on globally applied principles -- hence the inclusion of the fight against
"terrorism, extremism, and separatism" in the charter's aims and objectives. So
if Iran chooses to support individuals and groups it defines as "legitimate
resistance" in a theater outside the SCO region, that is Iran's business. But
absolute sovereignty and non-interference are global principles to the SCO
(hence their inclusion in the charter's principles), which is thus sympathetic
to Tehran's plight as, in their view, a sovereign state that is the target of
That said, Iran remains an unlikely
candidate for full membership in the SCO. The possibility of Iranian membership
has raised the organization's profile on the international arena. But actual
Iranian membership could significantly reduce the leeway that leading members
China and Russia have until now enjoyed in the diplomatic jockeying over Iran's
nuclear program. As Yevgeny Morozov put it in a June 8 commentary on TCSDaily,
Moscow and Beijing don't want to be responsible for "Iran's loony statements
about Israel or its nuclear program." RIA-Novosti political commentator Dmitry
Kosyrev made a similar point in an Outside View op-ed for UPI on June 8. Kosyrev
argued that Iran "will not join in the foreseeable future" because the SCO is
having trouble coping with a flood of new initiatives and needs to put its
current house in order before expanding.
Yet even if Iran were to
join the SCO, would it strengthen or weaken the organization? Today, the solid
common ground in the SCO is its emphasis on non-interference -- a not-so-subtle
expression of unhappiness with Western cajoling on rights and reforms. Beyond
that, individual members have their own concerns. For Central Asian governments,
any forum that allows them to balance Chinese and Russian interests holds
obvious attraction. For Beijing, the primary significance of the SCO appears to
be as a vehicle for managing China's growing commercial and energy interests in
Central Asia. For Moscow, it is an eastward-looking body that goes beyond the
borders of formerly Soviet space.
Furthermore, the SCO's four
Central Asian members share numerous unsettled scores of their own. And specific
Russian and Chinese interests in the region have the potential to diverge
significantly, especially if China starts pushing for expanded access to Central
Asian energy resources currently exported through Russia. On the military front,
while Russia and China held war games in August under the SCO aegis and the
organization plans counterterrorism exercises in Russia in 2007, Russia still
handles the bulk of its military involvement in Central Asia through the
Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Iran surely shares the
SCO's particular understanding of non-interference. But beyond this common
ground, it has a host of its own concerns -- most of them bound up with the
politics of the Middle East, not Central Asia. It is difficult to see how the
addition of those concerns to the SCO's already disparate mix of Chinese,
Russian, and Central Asian interests would lend the organization greater
cohesion or clout.
Nevertheless, the SCO represents two tendencies
that are likely to become increasingly pronounced in international affairs. The
first is the natural resistance of entrenched domestic elites to outside
pressures that they perceive as a threat to their hold on power. The second is a
desire to turn that common ground into a platform for greater global influence
in the face of what the secondary and tertiary powers see as the primary power
in the current world order. As an expression of these rising tendencies, the SCO
is noteworthy whether it expands or contracts.
Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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