Iran's Shanghai Dream

The Perks and Pitfalls of Joining China's Security Club

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Shanghai, May 21, 2014. Mark Ralston / Reuters

In late June, during the 15th annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-led security bloc, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the signing of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal and the lifting of UN sanctions meant that there were “no obstacles left” to Iran joining the SCO. But only a day earlier, the SCO as a whole and Beijing, by implication, had refused to process Iran’s application, and a month before that, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had recommended that the bloc focus first on India and Pakistan’s own slated accessions. During the same summit, Putin’s SCO representative Bakhtiyor Khakimov vaguely explained that “technical nuances” were to blame for the varying positions. What is at play is a deep disagreement between the SCO’s two main powers—Beijing and Moscow—over Iran’s bid for membership.

Tehran, which applied for full accession in 2008, has repeatedly pressed its case, but has only enjoyed observer status from 2005 until now. Iran’s hopes have been buoyed in the interim by noncommittal promises to admit it sometime in the future. In a 2010 summit document, the SCO officially nixed the longstanding moratorium on new admissions imposed little after the organization’s rebranding from the erstwhile Shanghai Five in 2001, but at the same time legally ruled out states under UN sanctions. Although Iran is no longer under UN sanctions, internal disagreements have continued to draw out the process. So why does Iran want to join an organization that isn’t ready to commit, and if it were to join, what would its membership betoken?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, June 24, 2016.

Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin via Reuters

During Iran’s raucous years under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, SCO observer status allowed Tehran to, in some ways, set its “Look East” policy, which was aimed at compensating for the country’s rapidly deteriorating relations with the West. Today, while President Hassan Rouhani has made strides towards mending Iran’s ties with the

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