The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Bishkek will be the first big political event for newly elected President of Islamic Republic of Iran Hassan Rouhani. The bilateral negotiations with the Russian and Chinese Presidents to be held on the sidelines of the summit are not expected to result in adoption of very important decisions. But perhaps they will help President Rouhani in understanding the prospects of Iran in this Organization and make the necessary adjustments in the foreign policy of Tehran, Igor Pankratenko, expert on Iran and Central Asia, Candidate of Historical Sciences, member of the expert community “Russian Intelligence Network”, said in an exclusive interview with CA-News.
According to the expert, Rouhani's predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not succeed in changing the status of Iran in the SCO from uncertain observer status to “full member.” The official reason - “Iran is a country under the UN Security Council sanctions” - does not surely reflect the whole picture of the problem.
All SCO state members understand that Iran is under the sanctions not because of “nuclear issue,” but due to the openly expressed anti-Western policy and because Iran is a serious obstacle for the projects of the United States and its allies in the Middle East as well as in Central Asia, meaning not only the problems with Afghanistan but also the expansion of military and political presence. Exactly because of its anti-Western policy Iran's permanent membership in the Organization in the future is quite unclear.
The SCO without illusions
A severe criticism of the SCO coming from many experts is explained by the fact that the SCO does not want to become a type of “anti-NATO” military-political bloc that opposes the expansion of “non-regional” powers in Central Asia. Yes, from the very beginning SCO state members adopted the declarations that to some extent could be considered as “anti-Western.” For instance, the following was written in the declaration of the summit in Astana in 2005: “In the interests of the anti-terrorist coalition, several SCO member states allowed use of their ground infrastructure for the temporary deployment of military contingents of the participating states, as well as their territories and air space for military transit. Taking into account the completion of active military phase of the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, the SCO states consider it necessary that the respective members of the anti-terrorist coalition make a decision on the deadlines for the temporary use of infrastructure facilities and military forces on the territories of the SCO countries.”
The same idea was continued in the declaration in Bishkek in 2007: “stability and security in Central Asia can be provided first of all by the forces of the states of this region with the help of the international associations established in the region,” “efforts of third countries to take any unilateral actions in the SCO region are counterproductive.”
However, the distance between declarations and reality is always huge where politics is an art of possibility. The question of air base in Kyrgyzstan has not been resolved yet, and the declared intentions of the Kygyz government in this sphere are more likely to be a tribute to political climate and the quest to obtain financial preferences from Russia rather than the political will. Transit hub of NATO in Aktau, Kazakhstan, is becoming a reality. The number of American counselors in Tajikistan will increase. Russia, after the hub story in Ulyanovsk, has no strong arguments against this expansion. Thus, the efforts of predecessor of Rouhani to obtain the status of “permanent member” for Iran and use the SCO platform for some anti-American initiatives were quite naive.
Today, admitting Iran into the SCO means to express the Organization members' readiness to confront the West. Which one of these members is ready for such turn? Is it Kazakhstan that is advertised as “multi-vector”, becoming more oriented to the West in exchange for the status of a “moderator” of Western interests in the region? Moreover, participation of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey in the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries creates the kind of “Turkic lobby” in the SCO, activities of which are not certainly clear but an obstacle to Iran's quest to enhance its role in the SCO, especially when taking into account the current unconditional “Atlantic” loyalty of Turkey.
Or is it Russia that cannot clearly formulate its strategic interests neither in the Middle East nor in Central Asia, and the foreign policy of which continues to remain the collection of reactions to external irritants? Or is it China that has more than enough bigger problems?
Generally speaking, the SCO today is not a regional structure, it is a negotiating area with a collection of interests of the member states. China looks for the expansion of markets, providing the security for investments that have been already made and planned, and creation a barrier to the penetration of Islamic radicals in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are concerned with the preservation of their own regimes. Russia looks for the preservation of its own political influence in the region, trying to avoid large investments and not to “step on foot” of Western partner-competitors. Politics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the region comes to struggle for regional leadership.
In this situation, the initiatives of Iran will be misunderstood inevitably.
The tactics of small business
The real situation of the SCO described above is neither good, nor bad; this is what happens indeed, this is reality, in which the new Iran President has to work.
His success will depend on whether he is ready to refuse his global goals and rather offer the SCO states the urgent agenda. Rouhani's hope for the “strategic dialogue” with Putin is unrealizable, and the question of relations with China rests on the price of Iranian energy resources where China claims “lower prices.” But there are also the themes that are certainly not only to be listened carefully, but they could also serve as the beginning of partnership, joint projects an goals for the organization that could become a basis of the regional ally due to the geopolitical meaning.
The first issue of this agenda could be Afghanistan. Today, Chinese investments into this country is $3 billion, Indian investments - $2 billion. Held in early May the bilateral negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi showed the extreme concern of two states about the security of these investments and the search for the ways to ensure not only the safety of enterprises, but also the security of Indian and Chinese staff. Besides this, both China and India are concerned by the fact that Afghanistan is an operational base of Islamist radicals, who are operating both in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China and in Indian Kashmir.
Russia is also concerned of the situation in Afghanistan though in a different sphere. One of the results of the Operation Enduring Freedom was the growth of heroin production that increased for more than 40 times. Under the strict control of ISAF the growth of opium poppy fields made 18% for the last year – from 131 to 154 thousand hectares. The tactic of “Opium War” that the U.S. has inherited from British Empire is the most serious threat to Russia and for the rest of the SCO members.
Iran has much to offer to the SCO in solving two of these issues – providing the security for the investments in Afghanistan and confronting the Afghan drug expansion. On one hand, this is the huge political influence of Tehran on Afghan society (mentioning the government is at least unnecessary). On another hand, Iran has 3 decades of successful experience of counteraction to the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. Russian security forces have already assessed the prospects of cooperation with Iran on this issue by signing a document on cooperation between the Interior Ministries of the two countries. It remains to extend the agreement commitments to other SCO members.
Regarding the opposition to Islamist radicals, the network of which is covering other countries in the region too, the negotiations held at the Iranian Embassy in Tashkent between the Iran representatives and Director of the Executive Committee of the SCO Regional Counter-Terrorism Structure Zhang Xinfeng seem very promising.
The second theme could be Iran's support for the idea of SCO Development Bank and its participation in the SCO Interbank Association where the participation is indirect and does not directly violate the UN sanctions. This could be the beginning of operation of Iran in concrete regional economic projects from the construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway to participation in the Russian-Chinese project for creation of the system of personal mobile satellite communications, especially when Iran has much to offer from this industry.
Another thing is that this “tactics of small business” requires Iranian balanced diplomacy, consistency, refusal from dramatic statements, and hard work, the results of which will be visible only after a few years. Is Hassan Rouhani, a “sheikh of diplomacy”, ready for the implementation of such tactics? The answer to this question will already be known this week.