In the context of Iran’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh analyses Iran’s wider aspirations and strategic priorities for the prospective alliance.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a self-declared ideological state. From its early days, it has constructed an image of revolutionary Islamism for itself. Tehran wears its ideology on its sleeves, and as a result has become a pariah state. Iran challenges the international system for its inherent injustice, be it the domination of the United States in international organisations, the willingness of the international community to let Israel get away with the occupation of Palestinian land, or the imposition of debilitating sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for civilian use. In short, the Islamic Republic of Iran views the international system to be skewed in favour of the United States, and has assigned itself the role of the champion of the Muslim world and the oppressed (mostazafin).
This binary worldview has significant public relations potential for Iran. Presenting itself as the champion of the global Muslim community and purporting to defend Muslim values against the cultural and material encroachment of western imperialism has offered Iran some appeal among ordinary Muslims far and wide, reflecting a sense of disillusionment with incumbent regimes for not doing enough to protect local values. For example, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Indonesia in 2006 he received a hero’s welcome in Jakarta.
However, Iran’s popular appeal has been dented in the last three years due to the growing sectarian conflict that has plagued the Middle East. But Iranian authorities refuse to be pigeonholed and insist that Iran stands for the interests of all Muslims; Shia and Sunni alike.
This worldview has resulted in peculiar behaviour in its neighbourhood, most evident in relation to Central Asia and the paramount regional body: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). From Tehran’s point of view, the SCO offers promising opportunities for Iran to advance its binary worldview. The SCO was initially formed as the Shanghai Forum in 1996 to help states bordering China (ie. Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) coordinate border control and trans-border trade. China was clearly the driving force behind this initiative as Beijing was concerned about the rejuvenated Uyghur separatism and the movement of people and material across the border that could bolster Uyghur aspirations. Given the close religious and ethnic connection between the Muslim Uyghur of Xingjian and the Kazakh and Kyrgyz, now in their independent post-Soviet states, Beijing felt it necessary to coordinate efforts with neighbouring states. With the accession of Uzbekistan to the organisation in 2001, the Forum formally adopted its current name.
The SCO’s significance grew in the wake of the US operation in Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban and destroy Al-Qaeda. This brought US troops on the doorstep of China, Russia and Iran. While the latter were content with the removal of the Taliban from power, they remained wary of the US presence in the region. US access to military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were especially contentious for China and Russia. The Uzbek decision to terminate the lease in 2005 and evict US troops from Karshi Khanabad was, to some extent, due to lobbying by Russia and China.
Iran’s attitude towards the US foothold in Central Asia and Afghanistan was closely aligned with that of Russia and China. Iran saw the SCO as the natural regional vehicle to push its anti-American agenda. Under President Ahmadinejad, Iran made three unsuccessful attempts to join the SCO, pointing to the significance of the Organisation in Iran’s regional thinking. But Iran’s desire to join this regional organisation and promote its global ideological agenda against the US presented it with a dilemma. The SCO members have been actively involved in suppressing their own Muslim dissidents. China has been engaged in suppressing its Muslim Uyghur separatists and Russia, notorious for its violation of human rights against its own Muslim dissidents whom it labels as terrorists, was involved in a brutal war against the Chechen and Uzbekistan. In its eagerness to sit at the SCO table, Iran was prepared to turn a blind eye on the SCO member states’ behaviour.
The Iranian leadership is very much aware of the irony of its position. The apparent contradiction in claiming to champion the Muslim cause globally, but ignoring the plight of Muslims in the SCO space, is explained away in the context of the overarching importance of challenging the evil of the US. In this logic, there is a hierarchy of objectives and curtailing the global reach of the US trumps all other concerns.
Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh is a Research Professor in Middle East Studies Forum and International Deputy Director of the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation in Deakin University.
This post draws on a research article entitled ‘Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: ideology and Realpolitik in Iranian Foreign Policy’ published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.