(CNSNews.com) – Apart from other benefits Iran may accrue as a result of an international agreement on its nuclear program, Russia on Thursday held out another, long sought-after reward – membership in a growing Eurasian security bloc, which some observers view as a means to counterbalance the West and NATO.
After hosting a meeting in Moscow of foreign ministers from Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member-states, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave the clearest indication yet that Iran’s decade-old bid to join the group will succeed.
“Iran has been actively engaging in SCO issues as an observer since 2005,” Lavrov said. “Bloc members have discussed Iran’s application for SCO membership and reached consensus to raise Iran’s status in the organization after its nuclear issue is solved.”
June 30 is the deadline for Iran and the P5+1 group – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – to reach a final agreement resolving the lengthy nuclear stand-off.
Ten days later Russia will host a summit of SCO leaders in the southern city of Ufa.
Last September, as Russia looked forward to holding the rotating presidency of the six-country bloc, Lavrov said that the SCO hoped to begin a long-deferred expansion “during the Russian presidency.”
Whether he was including Iran in that prediction remains to be seen. Meanwhile two other countries knocking on the door, India and Pakistan, look set to join: “We adopted recommendations paving the way for India and Pakistan’s accession to the SCO,” Lavrov said on Thursday.
Current members of the SCO are Russia, China, and the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Official observer states are Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia, while Turkey, Belarus and Sri Lanka are “dialogue partners.”
Together the current members account for one-quarter of the world’s population, and control resource-rich territory stretching from the Caucasus to the Pacific Ocean.
Should India, the world’s second-largest country by population, and Pakistan become members, the SCO’s combined population will be more than two-fifth of the global total.
From its beginnings as the Shanghai Five in the late 1990s the bloc’s stated mission has centered on regional security, including combating “terrorism, extremism and separatism.”
Beyond regular joint military exercises and security coordination, SCO members also cooperate in other fields, including economic development, law enforcement including drug trafficking, transportation, disaster relief and culture.
SCO officials and governments, especially core members Russia and China, have long dismissed Western concerns about the bloc being a counterweight to NATO or the West in general, insisting that the organization poses no threat to “any third party.”
Nonetheless, Russian media outlets and analysts in particular characterize the SCO as a “counter balance” to NATO, and Russian leaders at times use phrases alluding to Moscow’s rejection of a U.S.-dominated world system, for instance calling the SCO “an important factor in the emergence of a new polycentric world order.”
U.S. officials were troubled when in 2005 the bloc called for the U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing from Central Asia troops who were supporting operations in Afghanistan. Months later, SCO member Uzbekistan year expelled the U.S. from the strategically-located Karshi-Khanabad airbase, amid strained relations over human rights abuses.
Also in 2005, the SCO turned down a request from the United States to become an observer – at the same time as it gave Iran, India and Pakistan observer status.
Addressing the foreign ministers gathered in Moscow, Putin said Wednesday that “the SCO is gaining greater weight and importance all the time, as it addresses the issues of greatest priority for our countries and for the region as a whole.”
On Thursday, a member of the Iranian delegation led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif predicted that the SCO could “become the main competitor of the G7” – the Group of 7 major industrialized countries: the U.S., Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy.
(Russia formally joined the G7 – which thus became the G8 – in 2002, but its membership was suspended in March 2014 in response to the Ukraine crisis.)
Iranian deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Rahimpour told Russia’s official Sputnik news agency that the SCO “will become stronger as an international institution if the organization accepts new members,” adding that Iran wants “want the SCO region to be strong and independent.”