Rashid Alimov (L), Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), looks on as Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov talks to media following a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of State Council.
Considering the 10-year-old experience of Iran’s observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since 2005, which has included formal submission to join the block in 2008, continuous follow-up from member states, in particular China and Russia, the SCO nod to India and Pakistan full membership in 2014 summit and the “compromise formula” among Iran, Russia and China, Iran has always been interested in being a permanent member. However, what went on in the three important meetings of National Coordinators (April 22, 2016), Foreign Ministers (May 24, 2016), and the SCO Summit (June 23-24, 2016) indicated the continuation of the past trend in implicit and explicit opposition to Iran’s request for full membership in the SCO.
According to article 16 of the SCO charter, any type of membership must go through a unanimous voting mechanism to be successful. Full members can exploit the SCO’s consensus-based decision-making to veto SCO activities like widening membership, which they do by calling for further studies. This fickle expansion system has left the organization at near continuous loggerheads on the issue of a couple of states including Iran for the past several years. Regardless of the Russia and China status in the organization, the voting mechanism gives power to other member states a say and influence over the overall procedure. This feature takes meaning when one observed the Tajiki attitude towards Iran membership in the last SCO summit.
While the relations between Iran and Tajikistan have always been one of the closest and most stable ones between Iran and the Central Asian countries, these warm relations have diminished over the past year on the issue of the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan. That’s why Tajikistan declared its opposition to Russia’s proposal to turn the issue of Iran’s status conversion before the plenary summit of heads. There has always been a controversy between Iran and the secular countries in Central Asia about different definitions and interpretations of Islamic parties and movements. In the current situation, it seems that the scope of this dispute from a country like Uzbekistan has reached Tajikistan and Tajiks are concerned about Iran’s opposition to the classification of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan as religious extremism in the region in the case of Iran’s status conversion in the SCO.
The political stance of the Republic of Uzbekistan as host country of the SCO summit is also very remarkable. Islam Karimov explicitly announced his opposition to the expansion of SCO, the entry of new members and any change in its Central Asia structure and nature while receiving the periodic presidency of SCO in the summer of 2015; but at a summit in Tashkent, with considering the opposition of Tajik government, Uzbekistan announced that it has no disaccord in Iran’s membership if a consensus is achieved. On the other hand, Islam Karimov in his speech at the summit, without naming Tajikistan, criticized the countries that due to their objectives challenge the consensus in Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Thus by adopting a cunning and ambiguous stance, Uzbekistan refused to oppose Iran's membership as the host country and at the same time introduced serious criticism to Tajikistan as its age-old rival and put the political and psychological pressure of being the one that opposes to Iran’s membership and also the one that is responsible for the lack of cohesion within the organization on Tajik government. While it is true that in the past 25 years, under the influence of pragmatic policies of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has shown the most diverge approach towards regional countries, especially Iran and Russia.
In comparison with other countries of Central Asia, relations between Iran and Uzbekistan have never been a desirable and expected one. Despite the provocations that have emerged over the past year in Iran's foreign policy and while all the presidents of the Central Asian countries have had meetings with Iran’s president either in Tehran or their own capitals, Such a meeting has not taken place between the presidents of Iran and Uzbekistan in Tehran or Tashkent. The only meeting between Hassan Rouhani and Islam Karimov has been on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in September 2014. At the inauguration of doctor Hassan Rouhani, despite the attendance of the president of Tajikistan, President of Kazakhstan and President of Turkmenistan, the Government of Uzbekistan took part in the ceremony at a Senate presidential level that in the authoritarian political structure of Uzbekistan has no importance and is a ceremonial role; this explains the special approach that the Uzbek government has employed against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On the other hand, while other major powers of the organization such as the Russian Federation have talked about the need for Iran’s status conversion, lack of China’s support has made the recent summit encounter more complications. Some reasons for this behavior of China are as follows:
1) The negative impact of Iran’s status conversion and adoption of a supportive stance by Iran towards the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, as an immediate neighbor of China,
2) China’s widespread relations with the US,
3) China’s uncertainty about the political and economic processes after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran’s relations with the US, especially until the upcoming presidential elections in Iran and the US,
4) China’s possible dissatisfaction with close relations between Iran and India, especially the recent tripartite agreement between Iran, India, and Afghanistan on the development of Bandar Chabahar,
5) Iran’s unknown and ambiguous place on China’s Silk Road Project, and
6) Traditional, conservative, and non-accelerated policy of China in the sphere of foreign policy.
These points are among the reasons and grounds for the lack of decisive and necessary support of China for Iran’s status conversion (from observer to permanent member) in the SCO.
It is worth noting that in connection with the Conversion of India and Pakistan’s membership, the summit in Tashkent, a commitment document was signed by officials from both countries in the Tashkent summit whereby both countries are obliged to ratify all documents and commitments related to the membership conversion and give them to the organization so that the decisions get made in the next summit of the heads of the SCO in Astana, Kazakhstan (July 2017); Therefore, all issues that has been proposed concerning the membership of India and Pakistan at the Tashkent summit are inconsistent with reality and these two countries still are still observer and non-voting members of SCO. Another important point is that although Pakistan has implicitly declared the ratification of 27 membership conversion documents and India’s cunctation, SCO didn’t show any inclination in approving Pakistan’s full membership in Tashkent summit in order to maintain a balance between Islamabad and New Delhi and The final determination of both countries to join was adjourned to the upcoming summit in Astana, Kazakhstan (July 2017).
Considering the Issues and concerns raised specially by Chinese about Iran's membership conversion from an observer member to a main member happening after the completion of India and Pakistan’s subscription process, the official discussion on this issue will practically be postponed to the next summit of the heads of SCO in Astana, Kazakhstan (July 2017) and even if this issue is discussed in that summit, concerning the experience of India and Pakistan which lasted from Ufa summit till Astana summit (2015-2017), Iran's membership conversion from an observer member to a full member will be unimaginable until 2019.
Vali Kaleji, an expert at Iranian Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.