China, Russia welcome Iran into the fold
By M K Bhadrakumar
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which maintained it had no plans
for expansion, is now changing course. Mongolia, Iran, India and Pakistan,
which previously had observer status, will become full members. SCO's decision
to welcome Iran into its fold constitutes a political statement. Conceivably,
SCO would now proceed to adopt a common position on the Iran nuclear issue at
its summit meeting June 15.
Speaking in Beijing as recently as January 16, the organization's secretary
general Zhang Deguang had been quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying:
"Absorbing new member states needs a legal basis, yet the SCO has no rules
concerning the issue. Therefore, there is no need for some Western countries to
whether India, Iran or other countries would become new members."
The SCO, an Intergovernmental organization whose working languages are Chinese
and Russian, was founded in Shanghai on June 15, 2001 by China, Russia,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The SCO's change of heart
appears set to involve the organization in Iran's nuclear battle and other
ongoing regional issues with the United States.
Visiting Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mohammadi told Itar-TASS in
Moscow that the membership expansion "could make the world more fair". And he
spoke of building an Iran-Russia "gas-and-oil arc" by coordinating their
activities as energy producing countries. Mohammadi also touched on Iran's
intention to raise the issue of his country's nuclear program and its
expectations of securing SCO support.
The timing of the SCO decision appears to be significant. By the end of April
the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to
report to the United Nations Security Council in New York regarding Iran's
compliance with the IAEA resolutions and the Security Council's presidential
statement, which stresses the importance of Iran "reestablishing full,
sustained suspension of uranium-enrichment activities".
The SCO membership is therefore a lifeline for Iran in political and economic
terms. The SCO is not a military bloc but is nonetheless a security
organization committed to countering terrorism, religious extremism and
separatism. SCO membership would debunk the US propaganda about Iran being part
of an "axis of evil".
The SCO secretary general's statement on expansion coincided with several
Chinese and Russian commentaries last week voicing disquiet about the US
attempts to impose UN sanctions against Iran. Comparison has been drawn with
the Iraq War when the US seized on sanctions as a pretext for invading Iraq.
A People's Daily commentary on April 13 read: "The real intention behind the US
fueling the Iran issue is to prompt the UN to impose sanctions against Iran,
and to pave the way for a regime change in that country. The US's global
strategy and its Iran policy emanate out of its decision to use various means,
including military means, to change the Iranian regime. This is the US's set
target and is at the root of the Iran nuclear issue."
The commentary suggested Washington seeks a regime change in Iran with a view
to establishing American hegemony in the Middle East. Gennady Yefstafiyev, a
former general in Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, wrote: "The US's long
term goals in Iran are obvious: to engineer the downfall of the current regime;
to establish control over Iran's oil and gas; and to use its territory as the
shortest route for the transportation of hydrocarbons under US control from the
regions of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea bypassing Russia and China. This is
not to mention Iran's intrinsic military and strategic significance."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said: "I would not be in a hurry to draw
conclusions, because passions are too often being whipped up around Iran's
nuclear program ... I would also advise not to whip up passions."
Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's nuclear power agency and a former prime
minister, said Iran was simply not capable of enriching uranium on an
industrial scale. "It has long since been known that Iran has a 'cascade' of
only 164 centrifuges, and obtaining low-grade uranium from this 'cascade' was
only a matter of time. This did not come as a surprise to us."
Yevgeniy Velikhov, president of Kurchatov Institute, Russia's nuclear research
center, told Tier-TASS, "Launching experimental equipment of this type is
something any university can do."
By virtue of SCO membership, Iran can partake of the various SCO projects,
which in turn means access to technology, increased investment and trade,
infrastructure development such as banking, communication, etc. It would also
have implications for global energy security.
The SCO was expected to set up a working group of experts ahead of the summit
in June with a view to evolving a common "energy strategy" and jointly
undertaking pipeline projects, oil exploration and related activities.
A third aspect of the SCO decision to expand its membership involves regional
integration processes. Sensing that the SCO was gaining traction, Washington
had sought observer status at its summit meeting last June, but was turned
down. This rebuff - along with SCO's timeline for a reduced American military
presence in Central Asia, the specter of deepening Russia-China cooperation and
the setbacks to US diplomacy in Central Asia as a whole - prompted a policy
review in Washington.
Following a Central Asian tour in October by US Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, Washington's new regional policy began surfacing. The re-organization of
the US State Department's South Asia Bureau (created in August 1992) to include
the Central Asian states, projection of US diplomacy in terms of "Greater
Central Asia" and the push for observer status with the South Asian Association
for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should be seen in perspective.
US diplomacy is working toward getting Central Asian states to orientate toward
South Asia - weaning them away from Russia and China. (Hamid Karzai's
government in Kabul has also failed to respond to SCO's overtures but has
instead sought full membership in SAARC.)
But US diplomacy is not making appreciable progress in Central Asia. Washington
pins hopes on Astana (Kazakhstan) being its pivotal partner in Central Asia.
The US seeks an expansion of its physical control over Kazakhstan's oil
reserves and formalization of Kazakh oil transportation via Baku-Ceyhan
pipeline, apart from carving out a US role in Caspian Sea security.
But Kazakhstan is playing hard to get. President Nurusultan Nazarbayev's visit
to Moscow on April 3 reaffirmed his continued dependence on Russian oil
Meanwhile, Washington's relations with Tashkent (Uzbekistan) remain in a state
of deep chill. The US attempt to "isolate" President Islam Karimov is not
working. (Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is visiting Tashkent on April
25.) Again, Tajikistan relies heavily on Russia's support. In Kyrgyzstan,
despite covert US attempts to create dissensions within the regime, President
Burmanbek Bakiyev's alliance with Prime Minister Felix Kulov (which enjoys
Russia's backing) is holding.
The Central Asians have also displayed a lack of interest in the idea of
"Greater Central Asia". This became apparent during the conference sponsored by
Washington recently in Kabul focusing on the theme.
The SCO's enlargement move, in this regional context, would frustrate the
entire US strategy. Ironically, the SCO would be expanding into South Asia and
the Gulf region, while "bypassing" Afghanistan.
This at a time when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is stepping up its
presence in Afghanistan. (General James L Jones, supreme allied commander
Europe, said recently that NATO would assume control of Afghanistan by August.)
So far NATO has ignored SCO. But NATO contingents in Afghanistan would shortly
be "surrounded" by SCO member countries. NATO would face a dilemma.
If it recognizes that SCO has a habitation and a name (in Central Asia, South
Asia and the Gulf), then, what about NATO's claim as the sole viable global
security arbiter in the 21st century? NATO would then be hard-pressed to
explain the raison d'etre of its expansion into the territories of the former
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for more than 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to
Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).