Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Iran to Join Russian-Led Eurasian Security Organization

Paul Goble

Baku, March 25 – Iran plans to become a full member of the Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a move that will not only make that grouping of states more Islamic and possibly open the way for additional Muslim members but also likely will tilt it and its members, including Russia, in a more anti-American direction.
Speaking after a meeting in Dushanbe which had been expected to result only in the formation of a loose union of the three Persian-speaking countries – Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran, Tehran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said yesterday that his country had filed papers to change its status in the SCO from observer to full member.
That would raise the number of SCO members to seven – the other six are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – while reducing the number of observers to four – Afghanistan, India, Mongolia and Pakistan – with Afghanistan likely to follow Iran’s lead in the summer (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-10542.html).
Although the SCO, which was created in June 2001, was originally dismissed by many as yet another talk shop, it has become increasingly important as a forum for discussions among and cooperation between countries unhappy with and interested in opposing what they view as excessive American power.
Given the large number of countries involved and the many issues of concern to each of them, it is beyond the scope of this brief report even to outline the impact of Iran’s membership on all of them, but there are three obvious consequences of the SCO’s latest expansion on Russia that deserve attention.
First, many in the Russian Federation will see the inclusion of Iran as yet another example of Moscow’s increasingly warm contacts with the Muslim world in general and its most anti-American elements in particular, a development that many Muslims there will welcome.
Second, while some in the West will undoubtedly view this as a positive step on the assumption that this will give Moscow more leverage over Tehran, the likelihood is that this will make the Russian government less interested in pressuring Iran on issues like the Iranian nuclear program, thus giving the latter even more time to develop it.
And third – and this is likely the most important consequence of all – Iran’s membership in SCO will reinforce its image as a club of authoritarian states, something that will make it less likely that any of them, including the Russian Federation, will change in a more democratic direction.
But while the Iranian announcement is far and way the more important development, the rapprochement of the three Persian language states that took place in Dushanbe should not be forgotten, both because of what it involves and because of how it is being arranged.
At his press conference yesterday, Mottaki said that the three countries had made sufficient progress that the three presidents will be able to sign an accord this summer about transportation, energy cooperation, and a common Persian-language television channel, something that would increase Iran’s influence over the other two.
This meeting, he noted, had been set up at the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) earlier this month, and the summit of the three Persian-language countries will take place on the side of the August summit of the SCO scheduled for August in Dushanbe.
That pattern is a reminder of the increasingly dense pattern of interaction among countries in a region that many people still regard as part of Russia’s “near abroad.” And indeed, the only drawback from Moscow’s point of view of the Persian grouping is that it involves not only former Soviet republics but an outside power as well.
But that continuing decay of an old border has implications for countries on both sides of it, and the involvement of Iran in the SCO is likely to benefit Russia more than the involvement of Tajikistan in the Persian-speaking union will hurt even as both undercut U.S. influence in the region (http://www.islamtat.ru/publ/2-1-0-670).

UPDATE for March 28 – Russian analysts are divided on the advisability of agreeing to Iran’s bid to become a full member of the SCO (http://evrazia.org/article.php?id=384). The government of Kazakhstan reportedly is very much opposed to including Iran in the group (http://www.ia-centr.ru/expert/740/).

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