The economic appeal of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is growing with the accession of India and Pakistan. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russia wants Iran to receive full membership in a geopolitical organization designed as a partial counterweight to NATO and other western pacts, a move that would likely deepen the economic and military ties between the two governments.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for Iran's speedy accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group of Central Asian states dominated by Russia and China that fosters military and economic cooperation between the members. He issued the call within days of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaling a desire to impose sanctions that former President Barack Obama lifted under the terms of the recently-negotiated nuclear deal.
"Iran has settled the problem of the UN Security Council sanctions and hence fully meets the SCO membership criteria," Lavrov said. "We hope that during their June summit in Astana the heads of our states will be able to discuss the possibility of launching the procedure for admitting Iran into the organization as a full member."
That would give Iran formal ties to Russia and China, the two leading powers in an organization often regarded as "a counterbalance to the Western-dominated international institutions that have held sway since the end of the Second World War," as Newsweek put it. SCO nations cooperate militarily and economically, although the organization doesn't guarantee mutual defense the way NATO does.
The economic appeal of the group is growing with the accession of India and Pakistan. "The SCO will account for 43 percent of the world's population and 24 per cent of global GDP," as Lavrov noted.
Membership of such a league would have political and military benefits for Iran. "Iran has been angling for quite awhile to get into the SCO just for the benefits of being closer to what it calls, in its parlance, the eastern powers — China and Russia," Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner. "Iran has expressed interest in joining them because it sees these guys as a natural counterweight to American and the west, American counterweight and hard power and its Iran saying, 'you want to divest us of western markets, then we can go east."
Those relationships will be especially valuable to Iran when bans on conventional weapons and ballistic missile sales expire in 2020 and 2023, respectively. "Russia and China will likely be the two biggest arms markets for Iran," Taleblu said. "The SCO process would provide a much broader international cover for these arms relationships."
The timing of Lavrov's statement underscores how Iran can factor into disagreements between Russia and the United States. President Trump's team announced days earlier a new effort to punish Iran for supporting terrorist groups and other destabilizing moves, a crackdown that might include walking away from the deal and reimposing economic sanctions that were lifted through the nuclear deal. "The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday.