Sunday, June 18, 2006

Iran and the 'OPEC with bombs'

By Daniel Kimmage

nuclear iran--The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) celebrates its fifth anniversary with a summit of member states' leaders in Shanghai on Thursday.

Last year's summit, in Kazakhstan, was notable for a declaration asking members of the "anti-terrorist coalition" to provide a time frame for the withdrawal of military forces from SCO territory. The SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

It was a pointed reference to US military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Only two weeks later, Uzbekistan evicted the United States from its Karshi-Khanabad air base.

This year, the summit will open against a backdrop of reports that

Iran, which currently holds observer status in the SCO (along with India, Mongolia and Pakistan), is looking to become a full-fledged member. India has sent its influential oil minister, Murli Deora.

'OPEC with bombs'
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi set the speculation rippling in April when he said that Iran hoped to join the SCO in the summer. The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan subsequently played down the possibility, citing a lack of formal mechanisms to accommodate new members.

But the gambit, coming in the context of Iran's strained relations with the West over Tehran's nuclear program, drew notice. The Washington Times quoted David Wall, professor at the University of Cambridge's East Asia Institute, as saying that "an expanded SCO would control a large part of the world's oil and gas reserves and [a] nuclear arsenal. It would essentially be an OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] with bombs."

As it emerged that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad would attend the SCO summit in Shanghai for a one-on-one meeting with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the sidelines, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also addressed the issue of Iran's potential membership of the organization, the New York Times reported on June 4.

Singling out Iran, Rumsfeld remarked that it was "passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world".

SCO secretary general Zhang Deguang quickly retorted, Associated Press reported on June 7, firing back: "We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors of terror. We would not have invited them if we believed they sponsored terror."

Mutual support
Three points follow from the reactions to the SCO's Iranian gambit. First, the SCO represents an approach to multilateral relations and an understanding of terrorism that do not, in fact, define Iran as a sponsor of terror and would permit Iran's accession. Second, it is unlikely that Iran will join the SCO in the near future. And third, even if Iran joined, the SCO would have a long way to go before becoming a genuine "OPEC with bombs".

The SCO's charter helps to explain why member states - primarily China and Russia - do not consider Iran a sponsor of terrorism. While the charter's "aims and objections" list "joint opposition to terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations", its first principle is "mutual respect for states' sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and the sanctity of borders, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, the non-use of force or the threat of force in international relations, and renunciation of unilateral military superiority in contiguous areas".

The crux of the matter is that, for SCO member states, "terrorism, separatism and extremism" are viewed not as distinct abstract phenomena with global relevance to be dealt with globally, but rather as a single phenomenon that is locally defined by the ruling elite and left to sovereign states to combat by any means they see fit.

For Russia, it is Chechen separatism; for China, Uighur "splittism"; for Uzbekistan, religious extremism. The task of SCO member states is to support one another as they combat perceived threats to existing power relations, as Russia and China did when Uzbekistan labeled May 2005 unrest in Andijon "terrorism" and crushed it with maximum force.

It is the locally bounded definition of terrorism that leads SCO member states to reject the labeling of Iran as a sponsor of terror, and the globally defined emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference that makes them amenable to granting Iran membership.

Iran does not support Chechen separatists, Uighur "splittists", or Uzbek "religious extremists". The SCO's understanding of terrorism is not based on globally applied principles - hence the inclusion of the fight against "terrorism, extremism and separatism" in the charter's aims and objectives. So if Iran chooses to support individuals and groups it defines as "legitimate resistance" in a theater outside the SCO region, that is Iran's business.

But absolute sovereignty and non-interference are global principles to the SCO (hence their inclusion in the charter's principles), which are thus sympathetic to Tehran's plight as, in their view, a sovereign state that is the target of outside interference.

Tehran overreaching
That said, Iran remains an unlikely candidate for full membership in the SCO. The possibility of Iranian membership has raised the organization's profile on the international arena. But actual Iranian membership could significantly reduce the leeway that leading members China and Russia have until now enjoyed in the diplomatic jockeying over Iran's nuclear program.

As Yevgeny Morozov put it in a June 8 commentary on TCSDaily, Moscow and Beijing don't want to be responsible for "Iran's loony statements about Israel or its nuclear program". RIA-Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev made a similar point in an Outside View opinion piece for United Press International on June 8. Kosyrev argued that Iran "will not join in the foreseeable future" because the SCO is having trouble coping with a flood of new initiatives and needs to put its current house in order before expanding.

Yet even if Iran were to join the SCO, would it strengthen or weaken the organization? Today, the solid common ground in the SCO is its emphasis on non-interference - a not-so-subtle expression of unhappiness with Western cajoling on rights and reforms. Beyond that, individual members have their own concerns. For Central Asian governments, any forum that allows them to balance Chinese and Russian interests holds obvious attraction.

For Beijing, the primary significance of the SCO appears to be as a vehicle for managing China's growing commercial and energy interests in Central Asia. For Moscow, it is an eastward-looking body that goes beyond the borders of formerly Soviet space.

Furthermore, the SCO's four Central Asian members share numerous unsettled scores of their own. And specific Russian and Chinese interests in the region have the potential to diverge significantly, especially if China starts pushing for expanded access to Central Asian energy resources currently exported through Russia.

On the military front, while Russia and China held war games in August under the SCO aegis and the organization plans counter-terrorism exercises in Russia next year, Russia still handles the bulk of its military involvement in Central Asia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Iran surely shares the SCO's particular understanding of non-interference. But beyond this common ground, it has a host of its own concerns - most of them bound up with the politics of the Middle East, not Central Asia. It is difficult to see how the addition of those concerns to the SCO's already disparate mix of Chinese, Russian, and Central Asian interests would lend the organization greater cohesion or clout.

Nevertheless, the SCO represents two tendencies that are likely to become increasingly pronounced in international affairs. The first is the natural resistance of entrenched domestic elites to outside pressures that they perceive as a threat to their hold on power. The second is a desire to turn that common ground into a platform for greater global influence in the face of what the secondary and tertiary powers see as the primary power in the current world order.

As an expression of these rising tendencies, the SCO is noteworthy whether it expands or contracts.

Daniel Kimmage is the Central Asia regional analyst with RFE/RL Online and editor of the "RFE/RL Central Asia Report".

(Copyright 2006 RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.)
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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