As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has emerged as an influential organization in the Greater Eurasian sphere, Tehran has always found this platform favorable to promote multilateralism, establish a new security order in Eurasia and link Iran’s economy to the non-western markets of capital and technology, especially amid the unilateral sanctions by the successive U.S. administrations.
These expectations are not baseless because the SCO currently constitutes 60 percent of Eurasia's territory and more than 40 percent of the world's population, the Eurasian members produce almost a quarter of the world's GDP. Given these sources of power, the SCO founders have come to the conclusion that admission of new members as full members, observers and dialogue partners, will not only expand the borders of SCO but also will address those criticisms of shortness of scope and ineffectiveness of the organization. As a result, Iran’s bid to become a full member of the SCO was approved after almost 15 years by the bloc’s seven permanent members.
This paper seeks to examine Iran's growing interest and role in this Eurasian organization in the line of “look to East Policy”. More importantly, it aims to answer this key question: what does it means for Iran to be a full member of the SCO amidst a geopolitical flux in Eurasia?
Changing Geopolitics of Eurasia: the balance of power game and identity politics
As the global center of gravity is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific which has been reflected in Indo-Pacific vision of the United States and its partners in the region to contain the rise of China, some observers are drawing the attention to the greater Eurasia zone, arguing that as a dominant player in this region, China will be able to project itself as a hegemon power in Asia. As a result, the geopolitical significance of Eurasia, parallel to the Indo-pacific, is increasing in the strategic calculations of global and regional powers.
Considering these developments, the relevance of SCO which has its roots in the Eurasia geopolitics is increasing day by day. The SCO is also evolving in tandem with these regional geopolitical developments but it has yet to reach the target of economic and political integration of Eurasia, and despite having a common understanding on their interests and threats, the SCO’s members still tend to follow different agendas. Therefore, whether the SCO aims to be successful depends on its ability to overcome the bilateral disputes between its members and their geopolitical rivalries.
Currently, China has appeared as a top trade partner and key investor in Eurasia. Beijing sees the SCO as leverage for drawing and strengthening the bilateral relationships with Central Asian countries and seeks to use its huge economic power to make Central Asia a pivotal point of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This corridor, which is expected to connect Beijing to Europe through Central Asia, can dramatically change the geopolitical of Eurasia. But, some may expect the growing influence of China in terms of political, economic and security in Central Asia which has traditionally been considered by Russia as its backyard, to lead to the “great game” competition between the two great powers in near future.
However, Russia and China have a common interest to neutralize the American Eurasian policy which has been a detrimental factor against their interests in the past. But while some like to describe Russia’s position as a “junior partner” for China, it seems that behind Russia’s position, there is a more delicate strategy which aims to balance Beijing in Eurasia. This policy is reflected in the Kremlin's efforts to revive the Eurasian Economic Union and expand the trade ties with India.
At the regional level, amid the geopolitical realignments in Eurasia after the Taliban takeover, regional powers like India, Turkey and Pakistan with different intentions and agendas are upgrading their partnerships with Central Asian countries. While India has been more convergent with Russia to contain China in Eurasia and has a wide-ranging agenda to revive its historical ties with Central Asian countries, Pakistan ,with an eye on New Delhi’s policy, aims to be an axis for Eurasian connection corridors. Turkey is another regional stakeholder that is trying to redefine the Eurasian geopolitics more than other regional rivals based on identity politics in which its “Turkic States Initiative” has been considered to disrupt the Russia-China power balance in the region and to play a dominant role in Eurasia. At the same time, Central Asian countries also seek to maximize their political and economic gains and maintain their strategic autonomy. It is worth noting all these regional powers being members of the SCO make the regional integration process more critical.
- Imperatives for resetting Iran’s Eurasian policy
Amid a balance of power game and identity politics in the changing geopolitics of the region, it seems that Tehran needs to reset its Eurasian policy, and considering the unfinished process of integrity in Eurasia, one can argue that before talking about the achievements of full membership status in the SCO, Tehran should play a critical role to appeal for regionalism in Eurasia and speed up the development of its own infrastructure projects and economic initiatives by adopting a more flexible strategy.
Given the strategic position, economic potential, energy resources and extensive experience and expertise in the fight against terrorism, Iran can add more strength to the current SCO agenda and can bridge the conceptual and physical gaps between the East and the Islamic world to draw a shared political and economic vision for the region in various fields. Meanwhile, Iran should constantly continue to remain a hub of connectivity and energy corridor across Eurasia and not allow its potentials to be side-lined.
Therefore, the full membership status is likely to benefit Iran to play a meaningful role in its wider neighborhood, as well as to explore the non-Western trade routes, capital flows and technology sources, especially in the face of the unilateral sanctions.
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