By Leonardo Bruni
Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has led to a flurry of analyses from across the wider Mediterranean. Divergent perspectives emerge between foreign media coverage, which emphasize international security implications, and what domestic Iranian media reports that instead focus on the potential economic and trade advantages for Tehran. Many of both, however, overestimate the real capabilities of the organization.
For instance, Western articles often inaccurately depict the SCO as an encroaching China-led alliance. Le Monde described the organization as part of Xi Jinping’s plan to establish a “new international order,” while Italian news outlet Formiche called it a “new Warsaw Pact.”
The domestic Iranian debate, conversely, has a more economic angle. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Diplomacy Mehdi Safari, for example, stated that “the purpose of Iran’s participation in the SCO is economic benefit” and that membership will create new markets for energy and non-energy exports. His hope that Iran could serve as an energy provider, transport hub, and maritime trade gateway for fellow SCO members was reiterated by Majidreza Hariri, President of the Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industries.
SCO membership has also been discussed positively within Iran in the context of the revival of the nuclear deal, especially since the final statement of the Samarkand summit stressed the need for all participants of the JCPOA to remain committed to the agreement. Iranian officials and analysts have suggested that the organization could improve Tehran’s negotiating position or help the country bypass U.S. sanctions if no deal is reached. Even Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi referred to the SCO when discussing overcoming the limits imposed by the sanction regime.
Nevertheless, there have also been critical Iranian analyses of the alleged advantages of the SCO. Both professor Hamidreza Azizi and former diplomat Kourosh Ahmadi pointed out that, despite its potential and Tehran’s wishes, the SCO is primarily a security platform rather than one for economic cooperation. Ahmadi further noted how the organization lacks the institutions necessary for regional integration with all proposals on their establishment never materializing.
Regarding China, furthering cooperation with the world’s second largest economy is clear a throughline in all aforementioned articles asserting the SCO’s economic benefits, especially in light of the recent increase in Iranian non-energy exports to China. However, Iran’s primary export to China remains oil, a market where Tehran is facing both steep competition from Moscow and the threat of new U.S. sanctions. Beijing’s compliance with sanctions on fellow SCO member Russia also suggests that Iran’s membership in the organization will not convince Chinese businesses and investors to significantly sidestep U.S. sanctions.
Moreover, professor Fatemeh Mahrooq, whose article was covered in the latest issue of the ChinaMed Observer, perceived Beijing as a passive actor within the nuclear deal negotiations, even hypothesizing that China may not even want a final agreement to prevent any Iran-U.S. rapprochement. This distrust is nothing special as within Iran there is wariness of excessive Chinese influence, while Beijing remains concerned that strengthening ties with Iran could endanger its important relations with the Gulf states.
It is clear that the SCO cannot solve Tehran’s economic problems (which are also partly fueling the nationwide protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini), but membership in the organization may also not offer much besides some prestige. Despite the SCO’s erroneous depiction as an encroaching China-led “anti-NATO alliance”, the reality is that within the group there are differing views and interests, that sometimes even boil over into open hostilities. Consequently, SCO membership may not even strengthen Iran’s international position on the most relevant issues the country faces, the JCPOA and relations with the Gulf states, instead only heightening the tensions between Tehran and the West.
Leonardo Bruni is a research fellow at the ChinaMed Project. You can follow Leonardo on Twitter at @IlFuLeoBruni. For more coverage of articles and analyses on Sino-Mediterranean relations by Chinese and Mediterranean media, check out the ChinaMed Observer or subscribe for free to the ChinaMed Bulletin.