After seeking for years to become a full member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Iran finally achieved this goal on September 17, 2021. The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan may have been one of the driving factors behind the unanimous vote to welcome Iran into the organization. With Iran part of the club, however, China and Russia must now rebalance their relations with Iran’s Arab rivals.
Iran’s entry into the SCO came just weeks after conservative Ebrahim Raeesi’s victory in June’s presidential election. Iranian Principlists thus celebrated it as a major accomplishment of a conservative president and something that previous presidential administrations were unable to achieve.[i] They have further portrayed Iran’s SCO membership as a defeat for the United States and the West.[ii] Toward that end, Iranian conservatives have exaggerated the SCO’s importance, portraying it as equivalent to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).[iii]
The Post-Taliban Takeover
The geopolitical environment of Central Asia (CA) will be enormously impacted by Afghanistan’s new rulers. All countries bordering Afghanistan and other regional players, such as India, have special interests in Afghanistan’s fate. They have been faced with cross-border terrorism and all except Turkmenistan, due to its policy of ‘positive neutrality,’ are members of SCO. On the 12th of December 1995, the United Nations’ General Assembly recognized Turkmenistan as a neutral state. This has been used by the Turkmen government to avoid joining multilateral organizations, particularly security organizations.
In all likelihood, Iran’s admission to the SCO had less to do with any great political success on the part of its conservative establishment than with the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Security issues in Central Asia—particularly threats of terrorism, separatism, and extremism—are generally major concerns of the SCO members. The Taliban’s rise to power may have influenced China and Russia as well as other SCO members to finally open the door to such an important regional player as Iran.
Beyond the Taliban’s return to power, the rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) may have been an even bigger concern for the SCO. The Taliban have portrayed themselves as the only force able to defeat IS-K.[iv] Meanwhile, the Taliban appears to have altered its view of Muslim rebels in Chechnya, China, and Kashmir to improve relations with Russia, China, and India, respectively. In 2000, Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil stated that, “It is the Muslim world’s shame that it does not support Chechens. They are my brothers. They are Muslims.”[v] The Taliban has now toned down its support of Chechens, Uyghurs, and Kashmiris, as they understand very well they need powerful friends such as China and Russia.[vi]
The Taliban reassurance has not calmed nerves in the region due to the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan since the US withdrawal and the shocking rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) fighters. Even some former Afghanistan’s security forces may[vii] have joined IS-K, due to lack of income and being hunted by the Taliban.
Can Iran help bring Russia’s Central Asian Neighbors Together?
On October 27, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighboring states, including Russia’s three CA neighbors Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, gathered in Tehran for a one-day conference to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. It was aimed at fostering cooperation between the neighboring states to prevent a civil war in Afghanistan that would severely impact the entire region.
Conferences like this could also help Russia bring its CA neighbors together. Russia’s interest in Central Asia is mainly geopolitical rather than economic. Russia is concerned that chaos and civil war in Afghanistan could spread to its Central Asian neighbors: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, all former members of the Soviet Union.
Moscow has good relations with each of these countries but does not have a mutual security treaty that covers all of them. Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are full members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, but Turkmenistan is only an associate member. None of the three states is part of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, though Uzbekistan is an observer and a candidate for full membership.
Complicating the security situation for Russia is the fact that some of its Central Asian partners are at odds with each other. There have been border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example. It would not be unreasonable to expect Russia to mediate between them. In this regard, perhaps Iran’s membership in the SCO can be of benefit to Russia and the region.
For Beijing, Afghanistan is a critical spot as it borders Tajikistan, one of the most important regional countries for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Central Asia is a main land corridor in the BRI project to link China to the Persian Gulf and beyond, to states like Turkey and Russia, and on into the European Union.
Among all CA states, Tajikistan (Afghanistan’s immediate neighbor) is critical to Chinese security and thus a source of concern to Beijing. All Central Asia faces a growing threat from extremism. But the threat is particularly alarming in Tajikistan, which serves as a buffer zone between Afghanistan and western China’s restive Xinjiang region. Tajikistan is the poorest CA country and prone to drug trafficking and Islamic militancy.
Increasingly, the Chinese presence in Central Asia is associated with Sinophobia in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.[viii] Reports of labor camps for Muslims in Xinjiang have triggered anti-Chinese sentiment.[ix]
India and Afghanistan
IS-K has attracted Indian Muslims as well. There have been attacks in Afghanistan on people affiliated with India, like the 2018 attack on a Sikh and Hindu delegation that traveled to Afghanistan to meet then-President Ashraf Ghani.
In May 2020, Taliban spokespersons Suhail Shaheen and Zabiullah Mujahid commented[x] that India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy was an “internal affair.” “The statement that has been circulated in certain media regarding India does not belong to the Islamic emirate. The policy of the Islamic Emirate regarding neighboring states is very obvious that we don’t interfere in their domestic issues,” a tweet from Shaheen clarified.
However, there are reports[xi] that Kashmiri militants are present in Afghanistan, working in or alongside the extremist Haqqani network.
Iran and New Insurgent Groups in Afghanistan
Tehran’s main concern in Afghanistan is security. It has a genuine concern that if Afghanistan degrades into another civil war, it could spill over into Iran. This concern is part of the reason the Iranian government has cultivated a relationship with the Taliban.[xii] The worst-case scenario for Iran is that Afghanistan becomes a haven for international terrorist groups, either from the Middle East or Central Asia. A civil war could strengthen IS-K’s hold on parts of Afghanistan. Also, there are reports from the U.S. Treasury Department that the Taliban has been in close touch with Al Qaeda, despite its pledges to cut its links with that group.[xiii] Iran could be trying to pressure the Taliban to break its ties with Al Qaeda and similar groups.
Iran’s other concerns in Afghanistan include drug trafficking (it is estimated that there are over five million drug users in Iran)[xiv], the flow of migrants and refugees into Iran (some 300,000 Afghans have already fled to Iran since August, on top of several million that came starting in the 1980s)[xv], and water disputes. However, these challenges are of lesser urgency for Tehran than the threat of an IS-K or similar group gaining a stronger foothold in a neighboring country.
SCO Members Could Encourage Iran to Return to JCPOA Compliance
Iran first applied to become a full member into SCO in 2008 but it was not eligible to join the organization due to United Nations’ sanctions. In 2016, even after the removal of the United Nations’ sanctions, Iran’s request for membership was not accepted due to Tajikistan’s objection. There were accusations that Tehran was providing support for the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a party founded in 1990 and banned in 2015.[xvi]
Tehran still is sanctioned by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, (FATF), due to its failure to ratify required financial transparency measures.[xvii] However, this seems to be of lesser concern for SCO members, due to the urgency of finding a solution to Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation.
SCO members have shown little interest in Iran’s troubles. However, they could help the stalled negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, since lifting U.S. secondary sanctions would ease financial transactions with Iran.
It remains to be seen whether Iran’s membership in the SCO will help Iran overcome economic sanctions or become a vulnerability for the organization.
Russia and China: A Balancing Act with Iran’s Rivals
On March 28, U.S. President Joe Biden expressed[xviii] concern about reports that Iran had signed a $400 billion, 25-year economic cooperation agreement with China, saying “I’ve been concerned about that for a year.” A day later, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, responded to Biden in a tweet,[xix] saying “Biden’s concern is correct: the flourishing of strategic cooperation in the East is accelerating the US decline.” This response, similar to some other statements from Iran, indicates that the aim of the public relations campaign around the agreement has mainly been showing the United States that, in dealing with Iran, Beijing won and Washington lost.
China has, so far, balanced its relations with Iran’s Arab rivals in order to protect its economic interests, including large imports of oil from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Israel and China have also expanded their strategic ties in numerous domains, including economics. In 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, China was Israel’s largest source of imports. This means that Beijing has distanced itself from major conflicts in the region and rarely plays any role in easing geopolitical tensions there. This balancing act has served China well in securing its main objectives: economic ties, trade, infrastructure investment, and finance.
Russia also appears to be unwilling to strain its relations with other Middle Eastern countries in favor of Iran. In fact, most recently, “strengthening military and defense cooperation” between Saudi Arabia and Russia seems to be a priority.[xx] The same is true about Russian-Israeli ties. For example, in regard to Syria, although both Iran and Russia have helped strengthen Bashar Assad’s government, their interests, and their approaches, may not have been the same. In 2018, Russia and Israel reached an agreement based on which Iran-backed militias would remain more than 80 kilometers away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. According to a Russian envoy to Syria, the agreement was reached in order not to “irritate” Israel.[xxi]
Central Asia will be impacted by instability in the region, whether fuelled by war or potential famine. Recent events in Afghanistan have increased the need for regional security cooperation and may have smoothed the way for Iran’s acceptance into the SCO. Iran’s was both a diplomatic victory for Iran’s new president and a sign of SCO members’ concerns about the threat of religious extremism in Afghanistan.
For China and Russia, Iran’s full membership in the SCO complicates their relationships with Iran’s Arab rivals. They may already be taking steps to balance the scales—on September 18, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar were admitted into SCO as “dialogue partners.”
[i] “Why [previous president] Rouhani did not manage to make Iran a major permanent member of the SCO but Raisi could?,” Fars News Agency, September 19, 2021. https://bit.ly/3qPGmLf
[ii] Ahmad Salek, a conservative cleric and former parliament member: “Iran’s permanent membership in SCO is a major victory over the U.S..” September 2021 https://bit.ly/3FyKL9k
[iii] “On the importance of SCO, one should note that for Russia and China SCO is a balance to NATO,” State-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting – IRIB Ahmad Salek, a conservative cleric and former parliament member: https://bit.ly/30FPVBk.
[iv] “Despite mistrust, Afghan Shiites seek Taliban protection,” https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/mistrust-afghan-shiites-seek-taliban-protection-81197186.
[v] Vinod Anand, “Export of Holy Terror to Chechnya From Pakistan and Afghanistan,” https://ciaotest.cc.columbia.edu/olj/sa/sa_jun00anv01.html#txt17.
[vi] “China Seeks Taliban Promise to Wage War on Uighur Fighters in Afghanistan,” https://www.newsweek.com/china-seeks-taliban-promise-wage-war-uighur-fighters-afghanistan-1614032 and “Neighbors position themselves as Taliban gains momentum in Afghanistan,” https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2021/08/03/neighbors-position-themselves-as-taliban-gains-momentum-in-afghanistan/.
[vii] “Left Behind After U.S. Withdrawal, Some Former Afghan Spies and Soldiers Turn to Islamic State,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/left-behind-after-u-s-withdrawal-some-former-afghan-spies-and-soldiers-turn-to-islamic-state-11635691605.
[viii] “Fear of the Middle Kingdom in Central Asia,” https://berlinpolicyjournal.com/sinophobia-in-central-asia/.
[ix] “The Security Component of the BRI in Central Asia, Part One: Chinese and Regional Perspectives on Security in Central Asia,” https://jamestown.org/program/the-security-component-of-the-bri-in-central-asia-part-one-chinese-and-regional-perspectives-on-security-in-central-asia/.
[xi] “With The Taliban’s Rise, India Sees A Renewed Threat In Kashmir,” https://www.npr.org/2021/09/14/1036877490/with-talibans-rise-india-sees-renewed-threat-in-kashmir.
[xii] “Iran-Taliban growing ties: What’s different this time?,” https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-taliban-growing-ties-whats-different-this-time/.
[xiii] “Overseas Contingency Operations – Summary of Work Performed by the Department of the Treasury Related to Terrorist Financing and Anti-Money Laundering for Third Quarter Fiscal Year 2021,” https://oig.treasury.gov/sites/oig/files/2021-08/OIG-CA-21-027.pdf.
[xiv] Iran Drug Control Headquarters: :” 5 percent of the population uses drugs, occasionally and regularly,” https://bit.ly/3FAKoLo.
[xv] “Humanitarian needs in Iran rise as 300,000 Afghans arrive since Taliban takeover,” https://www.nrc.no/news/2021/november/humanitarian-needs-in-iran-rise-as-300000-afghans-arrive-since-taliban-takeover/ and “The Afghan refugee crisis: What does it mean for Iran?,” https://www.mei.edu/publications/afghan-refugee-crisis-what-does-it-mean-iran.
[xvi] “Tajiks Protest Outside Iranian Embassy Against Alleged Support For IRPT,” https://www.rferl.org/a/tajiks-protest-outside-iranian-embassy-against-alleged-support-for-irpt/29240344.html.
[xvii] “Advice to Iran as a new administration takes over the White House,” https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/advice-to-iran-as-a-new-administration-takes-over-the-white-house/.
[xviii] President Biden: “I’ve been concerned about that for a year.” https://twitter.com/BahmanKalbasi/status/1376299614521921538?s=20.
[xx] “Saudi Arabia is trying to make America jealous with its budding Russia ties,”https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/saudi-arabia-is-trying-to-make-america-jealous-with-its-budding-russia-ties/.
[xxi] “Russia: Iran-backed forces withdraw from Golan frontier,” https://apnews.com/article/iran-russia-israel-syria-middle-east-c5101c349e7e431595c2979ebfbebcc2.