Bradley Bowman / Ryan Brobst /Zane Zovak
Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) unanimously agreed on Friday to elevate Iran to full membership. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s entry into the SCO strengthens Tehran’s relationships with China and Russia and demonstrates the need for more unity among Israel, the United States, and its Arab partners about the challenges coming from China.
The SCO was formed in 2001 as an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing political, economic, and security issues across Eurasia. China and Russia dominate the SCO, whose member states also include India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Diverse security priorities and tensions among members, exacerbated by the addition of India and Pakistan in 2017, mean that the SCO functions more like a diplomatic forum than a unified security bloc.
Despite these limitations, Iran’s SCO membership underscores Tehran’s desire to build a deep and comprehensive partnership with the People’s Republic of China. Under Iran’s “Look to the East” foreign policy, Tehran sees China as its main long-term partner. Earlier this year, Iran and China signed a 25-year strategic partnership that will see China invest several hundred million dollars in Iranian projects, including nuclear power, energy development, and infrastructure. A leaked draft of the partnership agreement called for combined Chinese-Iranian military exercises, weapons development, and intelligence sharing. The final terms of the agreement remain secret.
The Islamic Republic has also been improving its relationship with the SCO’s other key power, Russia. Tehran has agreed to hold joint military exercises with Moscow and Beijing in late 2021 or early 2022, building on trilateral naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman in late 2019.
Although it could take approximately two years to finalize the legal process of Iranian accession to the SCO, Iran’s acceptance by the body’s members reinforces the importance of enhanced cooperation between the United States and its allies and partners in the Middle East.
In particular, the growing political, military, and economic ties between Tehran and Beijing should ring multiple alarm bells in Washington, Jerusalem, and a number of Arab capitals.
Some Americans have wittingly or unwittingly consoled themselves with the vague notion that great power competition happens only in Europe and East Asia, allowing the United States to ignore the Middle East. As Iran’s SCO membership shows, China and Russia compete in the Middle East, too.
They have a better grasp of the region’s continuing importance.
That reality must inform Washington’s thinking when it comes to the U.S. military posture in the region. It may just be a matter of time until Iran builds or acquires (with Beijing’s or Moscow’s help) some of the same formidable anti-access and area-denial weapons that China and Russia are already fielding. The partnership could provide Tehran, for example, more advanced air defense, missile, cyber, anti-satellite, and electronic warfare capabilities.
The growing military and economic integration between Beijing and Tehran also forces Jerusalem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and others to assume that technology shared with China may find its way to Tehran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should be more sympathetic to concerns regarding their own growing arms purchases from Beijing. The increasingly close economic and military links between China and Iran should also help solidify a growing consensus between Washington and Jerusalem regarding the potency of the Chinese military-civil fusion threat and the need to protect shared technology that may have military applications.
While Iran’s accession to the SCO is distressing, if Washington, Jerusalem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and others draw the right lessons and increase their cooperation, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst and Zane Zovak are research analysts. They also contribute to FDD’s Iran Program and China Program. For more analysis from the authors, CMPP, and the Iran and China programs, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.