Russia Supports Iran Joining Moscow-Beijing Security Bloc

Patrick Goodenough | January 17, 2020 | 4:48am EST
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SCO leaders at a summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, last June. (Photo: The Kremlin)
SCO leaders at a summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, last June. (Photo: The Kremlin)

( – Just days after the Iranian regime fired missiles at military bases in Iraq and accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, Russia’s foreign minister has reiterated that Moscow supports full membership for Tehran in a Eurasian security bloc sometimes viewed as an aspiring counterweight to NATO and the West.

Speaking at a geopolitics forum in New Delhi, Sergei Lavrov noted that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) includes China, five former Soviet republics (Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), India, and Pakistan.

“Iran is an observer and we are supportive of the Iranian request for full membership,” Lavrov said. “And most of the [SCO] countries support this request and I’m sure this would be satisfied.”

Russia holds the bloc’s rotating presidency this year, and will host its annual summit in July.

Over the SCO’s two-decade lifetime, membership has expanded beyond the original six autocracies, with India and Pakistan becoming full members in 2017 and Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia enjoying observer status. But Russia and China continue to dominate it, and largely call the shots.

Asked for a reaction Wednesday to Lavrov’s comment about Iran joining, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang was noncommittal.

“I understand Iran, already an observer of the SCO, has long been participating in relevant events,” he said. “With regard to SCO expansion, China will stay in close communication with other members and make decisions together.”

Lavrov’s remarks about Iran becoming a full member come at a time when the U.S. is urging other nations to isolate the regime over its persistent provocative behavior across the region.

Russia and China held their first-ever joint military exercises with Iran in the Gulf at the end of last month. Days later, Iran’s Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad.

The regime responded to the killing by firing ballistic missile at two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops. Hours later it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane which it says was mistaken for a hostile target, killing all 176 people onboard.

SCO emerged out of the pre-existing “Shanghai Five” in the early 2000s, with a focus on regional security, including combating what Beijing calls the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism.

SCO members account for more than one-third of the global population, owing to the participation of China, India and Pakistan, countries with the world’s largest, second-largest, and sixth-largest populations respectively.

Russia and China periodically dismiss Western concerns about the organization’s agenda, insisting it poses no threat to any third party. The point was repeated in New Delhi by Lavrov, who said the SCO, like the bloc known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), “is not against anybody.”

Still, some developments in the SCO’s early years troubled some in the West.

In 2005, the bloc’s leaders rejected a request from the United States to become an observer. At the same time, they agreed to give observer status to Iran, as well as to India and Pakistan.

Commenting later on the decision to grant Iran observer status, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he found it “strange” that an organization claiming to be against terrorism would consider admitting “the leading terrorist nation in the world.”

At a 2005 SCO summit in Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao in a joint statement were critical of what they characterized as attempts by some powers to “monopolize or dominate world affairs” and to “divide countries into a leading camp and a subordinate camp.”

At that same summit, SCO leaders called for the U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Central Asian countries, where they were stationed in support of coalition operations in Afghanistan. Just months later, SCO member Uzbekistan expelled U.S. forces from the strategically-located Karshi-Khanabad airbase.

In a 2014 article in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Lavrov called the SCO “an important factor in the emergence of a new polycentric world order.”

The SCO “has been clear that it does not seek to create a military-political alliance,” Lavrov wrote. “However, its core principles include preventing unlawful acts that harm the interests of member states.”


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