Iran General NewsTehran pushes to join Central Asian alliance

Tehran pushes to join Central Asian alliance

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Washington Times: Seeking to break out of its diplomatic isolation, Iran has applied for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an alliance dominated by China and Russia and seen as challenging U.S. security interests in Central Asia. The Washington Times

By David R. Sands

Seeking to break out of its diplomatic isolation, Iran has applied for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an alliance dominated by China and Russia and seen as challenging U.S. security interests in Central Asia.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki revealed on a visit to Tajikistan late last month that Tehran had applied for full membership in the six-nation SCO, which last expanded when Uzbekistan was invited to join in 2001.

With Iran at loggerheads with the United States and leading European powers over its suspected nuclear programs and its support for militant Islamic groups in the Middle East, SCO members had been seen as reluctant to provoke the West by taking up Tehran’s application. But that may be changing, according to Ariel Cohen, a security specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Cohen said Russia may be more willing to consider the Iranian bid to counter U.S. moves to expand NATO into Eastern Europe and to back the independence bid of Kosovo from Serbia, a close Moscow ally.

Iran’s SCO application “is becoming more likely than people may think,” he said. “Russia is seriously concerned about issues like NATO and Kosovo and could see this as a strong countermeasure.”

Formed originally as an anti-terrorism grouping, the SCO currently includes Russia, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Iran since 2006 has been an SCO “observer state,” along with Pakistan, India and Mongolia. Top officials from Afghanistan have also participated in SCO summits.

Pushed strongly by Moscow and Beijing, the growing alliance has unnerved U.S. officials, who fear it could be used to blunt American influence in the region.

A 2005 SCO summit in Kazakhstan called for the U.S. military to set a timetable for closing its bases in Central Asia. Last year’s summit highlighted the SCO as an emerging “energy cooperation club,” with Russia and the Central Asian states controlling a large chunk of the world’s oil and natural-gas reserves outside the Middle East.

The six SCO states last year staged a major joint military exercise in Russia.

Iran, the target of a U.S.-led economic-sanctions campaign over its nuclear programs, has pushed hard for a bigger SCO role. The next SCO summit is scheduled for Dushanbe, Tajikistan, this summer.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the 2007 SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Mr. Mottaki announced the formal application for membership last month even though there has been an informal moratorium on taking new members.

Iranian diplomats have been touting the country’s huge energy reserves and its influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan as reasons it belongs in the alliance.

China and Russia have been noncommittal on the Iranian offer, and both capitals are believed to be reluctant to bring in Iran when its relations with the United States are so hostile. Moscow has sided with the Bush administration in pressuring Iran to renounce any plans for nuclear weapons.

“China and Russia will try to prevent the SCO from becoming an active anti-Western and anti-American organization,” Turaj Atabaki, a historian on Central Asia at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said in a recent interview on Radio Farda, a U.S.-financed Persian broadcaster.

Beijing stopped well short of an endorsement when noting the Iranian SCO membership request.

“We welcome [Iran’s”> aspiration to enhance cooperation with the SCO in various fields,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said last week.

But with Russia’s relations with the West deteriorating and both China and Russia concerned about long-term U.S. intentions in Central Asia, Iran’s SCO hopes can no longer be dismissed out of hand, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Cohen.

“This is something the United States should be trying to prevent by all means possible,” he said.

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