A Power Shift to the East: Iran and the SCO

Meeting of the SCO heads of government

by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Seyedrasoul Mousavi

On June 8-9, the 18th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be held in Qingdao, China. The SCO consists of eight full members (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, India, and Pakistan), four observers (Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia), and six dialogue partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey). Ahead of the summit, in an interview with the Chinese media, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that “the SCO member states account for one fourth of the world’s GDP, 43 percent of the international population and 23 percent of the global territory.”

An important geopolitical facet of post-Cold War multilateralism focusing on peace, economic development, and security issues, the SCO directly challenges US interests, which the Trump administration has pushed in the direction of global unipolarism. The new U.S. offensive against Iran serves as a litmus test of this effort. How the SCO leaders receive Iran at this summit will reveal much about the challenges that the Trump administration faces in implementing its confrontational Iran strategy.

In a symbolic gesture meant to antagonize the White House, Chinese President Xi Jinping has invited Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani for a bilateral meeting ahead of the SCO summit. This move underscores the sustained strength of Iran-China relations irrespective of Washington’s unilateral exit from the Iran nuclear deal, which Beijing has soundly criticized. At a time of rising US-China tensions over trade and regional issues in South China Sea and beyond, Beijing is clearly in no mood to appease Washington by supporting its policy toward Iran.

On the contrary, expectations are high both in Tehran and Beijing that the two countries will maintain business as usual, in light of China’s status as Iran’s number one energy partner. Unlike other oil giants fleeing Iran since Trump’s May 8 announcement of new Iran sanctions, Chinese energy firms are actually filling the void to some extent. For instance, Chinese firms picked up Total’s share in the South Pars Field immediately after the French announced their intention to pull out due to fear of US reprisals. In fact, per their conversations with the authors Iranian oil officials are optimistic that China’s oil imports from Iran could jump nearly 30 percent in the near future to a record high of 900,000 barrels a day.

From Tehran’s vantage point, the pre-summit meeting can provide momentum for Iran’s full SCO membership. Iran has been an observer since 2005 and initially submitted its application for full SCO membership in 2008. Already, Iran’s ties with both China and Russia have deepened in recent months. Iran signed a free-trade zone agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and a bilateral MoU with China earlier this year to expand cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative.

In light of Indian and Pakistani accession at last year’s summit after only a brief interlude as observers, Iran’s relatively long wait should be over soon. Despite the unilateral US sanctions, Tehran will likely be granted full membership. Until 2015, when the Iran nuclear deal was reached, the SCO’s objection to Iran’s membership was that, per its internal rules, countries under international (UN) sanctions could not be admitted. With the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) effectively removing the UN sanctions, that legal hurdle has been lifted. There is now no important obstacle blocking Iran’s bid to join the SCO.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has voiced support for Iran’s SCO inclusion in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal. Rouhani and Putin are also scheduled for a bilateral meeting on the sideline of the SCO summit, which bodes well both for Iran-Russia as well as Iran-SCO relations. Intent on salvaging the JCPOA minus the US, Rouhani’s intention is to shore up support for the flagging nuclear deal, which is presently on “life support,” to paraphrase Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

But, more than that, Rouhani’s SCO participation comes at a crucial juncture as Iran responds to the economic consequences of the new US sanctions. Western companies are leaving Iran, and the prospects for a successful European strategy to save the JCPOA appear, at least from Tehran’s point of view, to be mostly wishful thinking. In turn, Iran’s profound disappointment with the West has kindled new interest in the “look East” strategy that the Rouhani administration downplayed in favor of a more balanced “both East and West” approach with the JCPOA. This latter approach, sustained only by European engagement to save the JCPOA, is now on the brink of collapse.

Iran’s hard-liners, known as the Principlists, hope that Europe lacks the political will to stand up to the US. They have also been emboldened by the firm stance of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is taking a more hands-on approach toward the country’s nuclear file, which was put into Rouhani’s hands after his electoral victory in 2013. Having written off the West, the Principlists are putting pressure on Rouhani, who must now steer a more eastward foreign policy as a survival strategy.

This is a paradigm shift in Iran’s foreign policy. The big question is, of course, whether or not the SCO’s leadership is willing to take on the risk of complicating its relations with the US by embracing Iran at a time of spiraling US-Iran tensions. Equally important, can SCO membership turn the tide in US-Iran relations by solidifying Iran’s regional connections and raising the costs for the United States of a potential war?

The SCO is not a NATO-type collective security organization that binds its members to rush to Iran’s defense in the event of a US-Iran confrontation. It does, however, provide a timely buffer of collective solidarity that may spur the Trump administration to rethink its decision on the nuclear deal. Both China and Russia are presently rather quiet about Iran’s full membership at the SCO. But the SCO’s logic of a multipolar world order—and Iran’s place in it—represents important pushback against the Trump administration’s version of US unipolarism.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign affairs, including Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (with Nader Entessar). Seyedrasoul Mousavi is a senior researcher at the Tehran think tank, Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS).

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  1. The Ayatollahs just represent themselves, not the Iranian people. Unless of course KA thinks that Iranians love them.

  2. Russia and China would be very unwise to reject Iran’s membership of the SCO. The US would love to pick them off one by one, but solidarity leads to strength. Bullies must be confronted, or else they will never stop.

  3. Could you ban the Ayatrolla Ali Mostofi? Same comment every post about Iran. Paid agent?

  4. Excellent article, very insightful thank you.

  5. It’s interesting to note that the cluster of nations in the SCO represent what the geographer Mackinder called the Heartland—a chunk of land stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze. Putin acknowledges so much when he brags about its size, population and economic prowess.

    Economically unified, these countries would be a formidable obstacle to American hegemony. And if America’s relations with western Europe should significantly deteriorate, France and Germany would have incentives to tilt east, making it more formidable.
    As Mackinder said a hundred years ago in his book, Democratic Ideals and Reality:

    Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
    who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
    who rules the World-Island commands the world.

    It sounds pontifical and debatable, but let’s ask the Iranians what they think.

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