• Sophie Honary

Iran Gains Membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)

After nearly fifteen years, Iran’s bid has been approved to become an official member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in September 2021, and will formally affiliate with the bloc after the established process concludes. However, this process may take up to two years.


The SCO is comprised of China, Russia, India, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan. The organization makes up about one-third of the world’s landmass and about one-fourth of global GDP. It originated from the “Shanghai Five” in the mid-1990s and was officially formed in 2001. The SCO is ruled by consensus. Although the organization was originally meant to be a consolidated security institution, it has now become more of a diplomatic forum due to divergent security concerns and tensions among member states.

Photo Courtesy: Anadolu Agency

Iran’s association with the SCO signifies the first time, since its Revolution in 1979, that the country has become an official member of a faction. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, regarded the approved bid to join the SCO as a diplomatic achievement in gaining closer relations with China and Russia. During his speech at the summit, President Raisi denounced “unilateralism” by the United States, and beckoned for a collective effort to challenge sanctions. Despite direct economic profits being marginal, member nations can thrive from bilateral arrangements. Now looking to the East for political and economic advantages, after being economically isolated from the West, Iran may obtain notable access to trade in Central Asia.


Although Abas Aslani, a research associate at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, predicts that U.S. sanctions may prove to be an obstacle in Iran achieving these gains. Iran is now hoping to gain allies that will assist the nation to reach a new arrangement on its nuclear program, its approach to business and commerce problems that U.S. sanctions have inflicted on Iran, and its approach to establishing its role in the Middle East and Asia. Although Iran and China may have deviating interests, their mutual adversary—the United States—has brought them together. In return for being Iran’s most prominent oil customer and trading ally, China has presented Iran with technological expertise to expand its energy reserves, modernize its militaristic arms, and strengthen its infrastructure.


Further, Iran and China announced last spring that the two countries are working on the specifications of a twenty-five-year deal after renewed American sanctions cut off Iran’s access to the global banking operation. Although the details of the agreement have been kept quiet, a draft was leaked. The proposed deal will build a strong economic partnership between Iran and China, with military cooperation. The partnership will also secure a Chinese investment of several hundred million dollars in Iran’s projects involving energy advancement, nuclear power, and infrastructure. The draft further calls for united Chinese-Iranian military operations, weapons improvement, and intelligence sharing.


This agreement has given rise to concern of China gaining a foothold in the territory that the United States has strategically preoccupied for decades. In fact, this deal has been perceived as an act of defiance towards the U.S. as a result of the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate the Iranian government and the rapidly deteriorating relations between Beijing and Washington. Now, Iran’s acceptance into the SCO emphasizes the importance of connections between the United States and its allies in Eurasia—particularly Jerusalem and its Arab affiliates—as economic, political, and militaristic relations between Tehran and Beijing develop. One of the most notable concerns of the U.S. regarding Iran’s affiliation with the SCO is the acquisition of formidable weapons that China and Russia are already carrying. These may include the advancement of Iran’s air defense, missile, cyber, anti-satellite, and electronic warfare capacities.


The SCO comprises the largest fuel producers and buyers of hydrocarbons. However, seeing as the organization is primarily focused on security and stability in Eurasia, it is very unlikely that Iran will gain vast access to the Central Asian regional markets. Although Iran had never deviated from its slogan, “Neither East, Nor West,” the nation is displaying a possible shift in its course through its hopes of using relations with China and Russia against Western capitals. However, some Iranian analysts are skeptical of joining the SCO as the affiliation may prove to produce more opportunities for Moscow and Beijing to reinforce Iran’s reliance on the East.