(CNSNews.com) - An Asian security and economic bloc driven largely by China may soon open its doors to Iran and other contenders for membership, a move that may help to "make the world more fair," a senior Iranian official said.
The move comes at a sensitive time in the international dispute over Iran's suspect nuclear activities. While the U.S. seeks to isolate Iran, China and Russia oppose any steps by the U.S. and others to pressure Tehran to back away from its nuclear program.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which currently comprises China, Russia and four Central Asian republics, is preparing for a mid-year summit that is expected to enlarge the group, reform its secretariat, and possibly refocus its agenda.
Iran and three other observer nations -- Pakistan, India and Mongolia -- will soon be invited to join as full members, SCO Secretary General Zhang Deguang said last week.
If they do join, the SCO will stretch from the Pacific to the Caucasus and include the world's most populous countries, fastest-growing economies, and some of its biggest oil and gas producers.
It also will effectively encircle Afghanistan, whose U.S.-backed government has up to now resisted SCO overtures. (President Hamid Karzai and a Mongolian presidential envoy were both invited to SCO's 2004 summit in Uzbekistan. Mongolia then requested, and was granted, observer status; Afghanistan did not.)
The SCO in its current form was established in 2001, when Uzbekistan joined an existing "Shanghai Five," a group made up of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Its main focus has been regional security and the fight against separatism and extremism, but last year witnessed a shift linked by some analysts to Beijing's opposition to American "hegemony" and wariness about U.S. presence near its western flank.
At its 2005 summit last July, the SCO called for the U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing its forces from bases in Central Asia. The troops were deployed there in support of post-9/11 military operations in Afghanistan, but the SCO argued that military operations in Afghanistan were winding down.
Uzbekistan, whose government's relations with the U.S. had deteriorated over criticism of human rights abuses, subsequently gave the Pentagon notice to withdraw U.S. troops and aircraft from a base in the country by year's end.
SCO members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not taken equivalent steps. The U.S. operates an airbase in Kyrgyzstan and has overflight and refueling rights in Tajikistan.
Writing in the Eurasia Daily Monitor on Tuesday, Central Asian expert Roger McDermott said China was using the SCO "to advance its own geopolitical interests within the region," a region in which he says "Beijing wants to minimize Western influence."
At this year's summit, to be held in Shanghai, the Iran issue is expected to feature.
The White House said Tuesday the U.S. was making it clear the U.N. Security Council should take "meaningful steps ... to address the threat posed by the regime's continued defiance."
However, not only have the Chinese and Russian governments consistently resisted talk of punitive steps against Iran, in both countries suspicions have been voiced about what lies behind Washington's opposition to Iran's nuclear activities.
Heritage Foundation scholar John Tkacik notes that the state-controlled People's Daily in Beijing published a commentary last week charging that America's real aim was to see sanctions imposed, to pave the way to regime-change in Tehran.
Speaking in Moscow last Friday, Iran's deputy foreign minister Manouchehr Mohammadi said Iran was counting on SCO support for its nuclear stance.
The Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying that expanding the SCO would make the SCO stronger and "could make the world more fair."
How SCO members see the bloc's evolving role remains the subject of speculation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told China's Xinhua news agency last month the five-year-old organization had completed the initial goals of regional integration and was now seeking "new ways" of international cooperation.
SCO members have carried out joint military and counter-terror maneuvers, and member states' defense ministers are due to meet at the end of April.
Russia's permanent envoy to the grouping, Grigory Logvinov, said Tuesday that although there were no plans to turn the SCO into a military bloc, "as threats of terrorism, extremism and separatism have increased, substantial involvement of armed forces is necessary to combat them effectively."
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