On July 4, 2023, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders held a virtual summit focusing on multipolarity and territorial sovereignty. A significant summit highlight was Iran’s induction into the organization after months of negotiations. Iran had been keen to join the SCO despite escalating international pressure and sanctions due to its failure to finalize a new nuclear deal and its open alignment with Russia during the Ukraine invasion. Although not officially involved in the military offensive, Iran supported Russia by providing indigenously manufactured Shaheed loitering munitions known as kamikaze drones.
Iran’s Alliances and SCO Membership
Iran’s support for Russia arrived at a pivotal time, considering Russia’s tactical setbacks in Ukraine. However, this assistance placed Tehran under increased strain from Western powers, significantly impacting ongoing nuclear negotiations. Despite this, the strong partnership between Moscow and Tehran facilitated Iran’s full membership in the SCO. Established in 2001, the SCO is sometimes called the “Asian NATO.” However, when considering its members’ potential, power dynamics, and resources, it scarcely equates to a formidable rival to NATO. This organization, a Eurasian alliance focusing on politics, economy, and security, was established with combating extremism as one of its primary goals.
Iran initially submitted its application for SCO membership 15 years ago. The organization’s process for the induction of new members is lengthy and comprehensive. In 2021 Iran was granted observer status, and by July 2023, it had obtained full membership. Unquestionably, Iranian officials celebrated this new membership as a diplomatic triumph. The SCO provided Tehran with new opportunities to penetrate Chinese, Indian, and Russian markets, even as the organization extended its influence amid strenuous conflict with the Western bloc. For example, Iran’s membership may facilitate trade operations with India, such as vegetable and chemical product imports. Moreover, Iran would increase the imports of motor vehicles and spare parts from China within the SCO regulations. The potential trade operations would be additional asset for Iran’s shrinking economy and depleting national currency.
Given Iran’s existing alliances with Russia and China, it is reasonable to suggest that membership in SCO could provide Tehran with an additional avenue to mitigate international isolation and bolster its relationships with these long-standing partners. While the SCO may be a productive platform for fostering the Tehran-Moscow-Beijing axis, it presents limited opportunities for security partnerships among other member states, such as India-Pakistan and India-China. For instance, India has strong ties with Iran and Russia, yet it collaborates with the U.S. to counterbalance China. Conversely, China maintains strategic relations with Iran while treating Pakistan as a near-ally, highlighting the ideological differences within the SCO.
The Potential Membership of Saudi Arabia is Significant
Despite differences, the Russia-China-Iran alliance will likely guarantee the SCO’s continued existence and expansion. Consequently, Saudi Arabia, a significant regional player from the Gulf, is another potential candidate for SCO membership. Although Riyadh’s alignment with Russia and China started gaining momentum in 2016, Saudi Arabia’s entry into the SCO seemed highly unlikely due to its overt rivalry with Iran throughout the Middle East. However, the dynamics shifted dramatically when Riyadh and Tehran agreed to normalize diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China in March 2023.
As a result, the warming relations between Riyadh and Tehran underscored new trends in China’s diplomatic moderation while simultaneously exposing the limitations of U.S. influence. The kingdom established a positive precedent for Saudi Arabia by reconciling with Iran, moving closer to SCO membership. In a broader context, since 2016, Riyadh has strived to assert itself as an independent geopolitical actor with a multipolar strategy. Therefore, joining the SCO would empower Saudi Arabia to forge more enduring and long-term partnerships with its largest trading and energy partners, China and Russia, and gradually distance itself from a growing great power competition.
New Memberships Have Broader Geopolitical Implications
The SCO framework will provide Riyadh with an appropriate platform to initiate collaboration with Iran in communication, transportation, and economics. This is primarily because prospective members of the organization must maintain a non-hostile stance and engage in dialogue with existing member states. Consequently, it’s plausible that China’s primary stipulation for Saudi Arabia’s SCO membership was de-escalating tensions with Iran. Furthermore, for a seamless transition into the SCO, Saudi Arabia will require the endorsement of all member states, including Iran.
Significantly, including Iran and Saudi Arabia in the SCO primarily represents a political opportunity for Russia to counter isolation and cultivate regional partnerships. In contrast, China focuses on economic projects and returns, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has consistently sought to synchronize the SCO’s economic mechanisms with completing the BRI. Beijing envisions more active participation of SCO member states in its ambitious economic and trade initiatives. By this, Iran’s entry into the SCO could increase energy accessibility for India and China, Tehran’s primary customers. Additionally, wealthy Saudi Arabia’s membership in the SCO would further enhance the organization’s geographical reach.
In conclusion, Iran’s recent induction into the SCO, coupled with the potential membership of Saudi Arabia, signifies a pivotal expansion for the organization, carrying far-reaching political, economic, and security implications. This development paves the way for new geopolitical alliances and equips the SCO with additional leverage in the global arena, thereby reshaping the dynamics of international relations.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.