Could turmoil in Afghanistan give Iran a chance to join the SCO?

·3-min read

The turmoil in Afghanistan could improve Iran’s prospects of joining a China-backed security grouping but international sanctions on Tehran could mean continued caution from Beijing, according to observers.

Iran has failed in its repeated efforts to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an issue that is again expected to come up for discussion at the group’s summit in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe on Thursday and Friday.

Afghanistan would be the main focus of the talks and SCO members could be looking to Iran to help mitigate the security risks stemming from the Taliban’s seizure of power, perhaps speeding up Tehran’s membership approval, observers said.

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China is concerned that a spillover of the turbulence in Afghanistan will threaten its investment in the country and counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang.

China urges US to unfreeze assets in Afghanistan and remove ‘obstacles to peaceful reconstruction’

Wu Bingbing, from the department of Arabic language and culture at Peking University, said Iran was the only neighbour of Afghanistan not to be in the SCO and Afghanistan’s neighbours needed to reach consensus on how to deal with the situation.

“Given that the SCO will now have a lot of focus on Afghanistan, it would be difficult to maintain peace and stability in the region without Iran’s full participation,” Wu said, adding that the process of Iran joining the SCO was “definitely speeding up”.

Yang Jin, a Central Asia specialist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said SCO members would likely reach a consensus on accepting Iran as a member.

Established in 2001, the SCO focused on counterterrorism in its early days before expanding into political and economic cooperation. But maintaining regional security and stability is still its biggest mission.

In addition to China and Russia, its founding members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan joined in 2017.

Iran has long aimed to join the regional grouping amid long-term international isolation led by the United States.

It became an observer in 2005 and applied for a full membership several times, but its application has yet to be approved.

Last month after a phone call with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said the political obstacles to Iran’s membership of the SCO had been removed.

Crisis stalks Afghanistan, one month after fall of Kabul

Some of the sanctions on Iran were eased in 2015 when it signed an agreement with several nations, including the US, to limit its nuclear weapons programme.

The US reinstated its sanctions in late 2018 as former US president Donald Trump abandoned the deal. Those sanctions were expanded to finance in 2019 and 2020.

Analysts said the international sanctions and scrutiny had made China very cautious about accepting Iran into the SCO.

“China is still hesitant to make a sanctioned country like Iran a full member of the SCO. China’s position and attitude on the whole Iran issue remain the same,” said Zhang Xin, associate professor of international relations at East China Normal University.

“Besides, the last round of expansion in which India and Pakistan joined has not been so beneficial to the group. It adds complexity to decisions and action. If Iran joins, it may further complicate those issues.”

Ma Bin, an SCO specialist at Fudan University, said the group’s top priority was not expansion but regional stability and development, especially in Afghanistan, and adding new members would not solve this problem.

Additional reporting by Kinling Lo

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