There are limits to the benefits from Iran’s membership to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

There are limits to the benefits from Iran’s membership to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

SCO’s Dushanbe summit of 17 September raised Iran’s status from “observer” to “member” (source: The Tehran Times)

The Iranian leading foreign policy analyst Diako Hosseini comments on the economic and foreign policy benefits for Iran out of the membership in SCO, as well as on the influence which this membership could have on its relations with the USA, EU3 Russia and China 

Iran’s admission as a full member of a security organisation that unites Russia, China, India, Pakistan and a number of Central Asian states was accompanied by praising articles in the Iranian English-language official The Tehran Times. Foreign policy experts and political analysts have charted a bright future in which relations with the ‘East’ will help Iran overcome the economic and social crisis that has arisen as a result of international sanctions. Moreover, they are confident that Iran will now be in a stronger position in the negotiations in Vienna with the group of six leading countries of the international community on the resumption of the nuclear agreement, which Tehran froze in the run-up to the inauguration of the new President Ebrahim Raisi this summer. 

Below, the Persian Bridge of Friendship publishes an interview with one of Iran’s leading foreign policy experts who takes the liberty of expressing an alternative and critical view.  Diako Hosseini is the director of the World Studies Program at the Center for Strategic Studies based in Tehran. In an interview with the Iranian Labour News Agency, Hosseini commented on the new status of “member” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that Iran received at the Dushanbe summit on September 17, 2021. According to Hosseini, despite successful interaction with the Asian security organization countries, Iran continues to be hampered in its economic and foreign policy relations due to sanctions. Moreover, it is premature to believe that Tehran has placed itself uniquely and permanently in the orbit of Russia and China.

This interview was published in the Iranian Labour News Agency on 18 September 2021 and reprinted by the Persian Bridge of Friendship in a slightly edited and expanded version.

The Iranian Workers’ News Agency’s first question is what are the benefits to Iran of SCO membership. 

According to Hosseini, the SCO is an organization that “was created specifically to give member states security against terrorism, extremism and separatism.” Recently, mainly because of China’s unprecedented economic growth and its desire to invest in Central Asian countries and beyond, the SCO has become something of a coordinator of possible economic interactions. But the essence of this organisation is not economic. Therefore, even though Iran is joining an eastern international organisation, it will not be able to escape the sanctions imposed by the West’s pillar, the US.

One reason for this is that the Islamic Republic continues to be blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international agreement against money laundering and terrorist financing. Iran and North Korea are the two countries that have not joined the FATF  

“All SCO member states operate within an international financial network that is regulated by rules and standards maintained by Western powers, especially the United States,” reminds Diaco Hosseini. Therefore, SCO member states will not be able to circumvent the rules and standards of the international financial system. The expert agrees that SCO membership brings Iran out of the isolation imposed by the West. Relations with the member countries of this security organisation will develop further. However, Hosseini cautions that the Iranian and international community should be aware of the limitations of this foreign policy move.  

“In my view, membership in this organization does not exempt us from the need to make efforts to lift sanctions and to comply with international financial standards. As long as Iran is under sanctions and is on the FATF blacklist, the SCO member states will face certain limitations in their economic interaction with Iran,” the specialist points out. So membership alone does not automatically give Iran an advantage.

Another question to Hosseini steps on the fact that the process of Iran’s accession to the SCO lasted 16 years. The Iranian Labour News Agency wonders to what extent full membership in the Asian international organization is due to the new government that took office in August 2021. 

“The Raisi government has ruled for a short time. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not yet had sufficient opportunity to induct the new foreign minister into the bureaucratic process of running this government,” says Hosseini. According to him, a significant part of the negotiations for Iran’s full membership in the SCO have been implemented in the past.

“The Persian Bridge of Friendship” recalls that for the past eight years, Iran’s foreign minister has been Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian diplomat who achieved the nuclear agreement that paved the way for Iran’s integration into the international economy. Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House has led to the American withdrawal from that agreement and the return of sanctions, the social price of which is being paid by ordinary Iranians in the face of a raging crown crisis, unemployment and inflation. The blocking of the nuclear agreement has led to a strengthening of sentiment within the Iranian elite and society against the administration of Hassan Rouhani, which sought dialogue with the West. It has also led to a gradual reorientation of Iran towards relations with Russia, China and towards regional politics in the Middle East, where it maintains a network of allies in a number of countries with Shia populations. 

Speaking to the Iranian Workers’ News Agency, Diako Hosseini recalled that there were countries in the SCO that opposed Iran’s full membership. However, their opinion has not changed because of the coming to power of Ebrahim Raisi. According to Hosseini, the decisive factor for the green light to Tehran was the support of Russia and China. Previously, the SCO had feared that Iran might go to war with the US, which was not in line with Russia and China’s long-term goals. Apparently, these two key countries have decided that such a conflict will not break out in the near future.

The Iranian Workers’ News Agency is also asking Diako Hosseini about the impact of this full membership on the negotiations in Vienna, where Iran and the six signatories to the nuclear agreement are looking for ways to resurrect it. Are sanctions more likely to be eased now that Iran is a member of the SCO?

“In the West, and especially in the US, there are concerns about China’s growing global influence. The fear is that Iran will move fully into the orbit of China and Russia,” the expert explains. However, according to him, this full membership does not mean that Iran enters the orbit of China and Russia completely. For example, India and Pakistan, two US allies, are also members of the SCO. Central Asian members of the organisation also have very good relations with the US, according to Hosseini.

“So membership in this organization does not mean that all members are allied with Russia and China. I don’t think SCO membership will change the equations related to the negotiations to resume the nuclear agreement. Iran’s bilateral relations with China and the Russians may be considered by some Americans to be a cause for concern in the long term, but not to the extent that it directly affects the forthcoming resumption of negotiations in Vienna. I therefore disagree with the hypothesis that membership in this organisation will give us a stronger position in future negotiations with the West,” concludes Diako Hosseini.

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