Afghanistan China Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource September 23, 2021

With the US out of Afghanistan, Iran jumps on the opportunity of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

By Jonathan Fulton

Since the United States’ pull-out from Afghanistan, there has been much speculation that China stands to benefit. The logic appears to be zero-sum: the US has left, so China will jump in to fill that space, bringing Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Beijing’s growing sphere of influence in Central Asia. There are good reasons to be skeptical of this line of thinking. For starters, China and Afghanistan are not natural partners. At the same time, the manner in which the US departed Afghanistan could lead to Eurasian alignments that are not in Washington’s interests, especially where Iran is concerned.

Looking first at the China-Afghanistan bilateral relationship, there is little evidence that Beijing wants to be a major player there. Many have been anticipating a Chinese push into Afghanistan for over a decade, and the expansion of China’s Central Asian ambitions through the BRI fueled more speculation. Afghanistan’s mineral wealth has always been seen as a magnet for Chinese state-owned enterprises, with an estimated $1-$3 trillion worth of lithium, gold, silver, platinum, iron, copper, aluminum, and uranium. However, those minerals are still in the ground. If Beijing was reluctant to move in while the US military was there, there is no reason to believe that it would do so now. 

More important is the fundamentally conflicting ideologies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Taliban. The establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on China’s western border—next to Xinjiang province—is a problem for both governments. Xinjiang is home to the Uyghurs, a severely persecuted Muslim ethnic minority in China that the CCP is forcefully trying to assimilate. The CCP is obsessed with foreign political ideologies gaining traction domestically, and the prospect of the Taliban’s version of Islam penetrating Xinjiang is seen in Beijing as a tangible threat to the state. Like other governments using Islam as a pillar of its legitimacy, the Taliban must reconcile relations with Beijing and the CCP’s fraught relationship with Islam. The two sides are on message for the time being, but the contradictions between their interests will be too hard to reconcile over the long term. 

Beyond the bilateral relationships, an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban alters the Central Asian landscape in a way that the US will find difficult to manage. The countries bordering Afghanistan or sharing the region with it will need to be more actively involved in responding to the security concerns. More importantly, most of them are full or observing members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), meaning there is a security-focused international organization that can facilitate coordination on Afghanistan. 

Iran, a new SCO member?

The SCO began as the Shanghai Five in 1996 and was a useful mechanism in solving territorial disputes that came about with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It started with five full members: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan joined in 2001 and it rebranded as the SCO. Since then, India and Pakistan have become full members, joining together in 2017. There are several observer states and dialogue partners, including Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, among others. After its early success, the SCO has had little impact. Despite its reputation as an authoritarian NATO, it has primarily been a talk shop. Security cooperation on the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism has been a consistent feature of the SCO and provides a shared threat perception among its members. This is institutionalized through the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which broadens cooperation on security, crime, and drug trafficking. 

Iran has long coveted full membership. It first applied in 2008 and leaders from Russia and China indicated support at different times. An SCO regulation stipulating countries under United Nations sanctions cannot join meant that Iran was not eligible until 2016, at which point Russian President Vladimir Putin noted, “We believe that after Iran’s nuclear problem was solved and United Nations sanctions lifted, there have been no obstacles left.” That same year, China’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Li Hailai, said that Beijing “welcomes and supports Iran’s wish to become a formal member of the SCO.” However, the presidency of Donald Trump and the resumption of US-Iran tensions, as well as the re-imposition of US sanctions, stalled that momentum and China seemed especially reluctant to get too close to Tehran, knowing it would significantly raise the cost of doing business with Washington.   

This seems to be changing. Last week’s SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on September 16-17 brought Iran close to the goal of full membership, with Chinese President Xi Jinping announcing that the organization “will launch procedures to admit Iran as a member state” in his opening address. What that means in terms of procedure or timelines is unclear. It took India and Pakistan a year to complete the process, but neither brought the same kind of baggage that Iran does.

Full Iranian membership would certainly benefit Tehran—any international acceptance is welcome news for the Iranian government. That China and Russia lead the SCO is another plus, providing Iran with great power support in its ongoing struggle with the US. Moscow’s consistent calls for a “polycentric world order” and Beijing’s for a more democratic one are consistent with Tehran’s concerns about US power. It also builds upon the momentum from the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership that was finally completed in March. 

An interesting byproduct could be indirect pressure for Iran to come back to the nuclear talks in Vienna. If it wants to fully benefit from regional trade that SCO membership could offer, Tehran needs to work with banks that are not facing sanctions from the US. 

The Arab states and the SCO

Admitting Iran complicates matters for China, however. As I’ve written here before, China’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are much deeper and serve a far greater range of interests than those with Iran. In a 2017 article, I argued that if Iran were to join the SCO, its Middle East rivals would likely expect to do the same. This has borne out. Immediately after announcing that Iran would join in his opening speech, Xi also announced that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar will become dialogue partners, signaling that Beijing continues to maintain its delicate balancing act in the Gulf. 

The admission of these three Arab countries creates another complication: each has deep security relationships with the US that could be strained by participation in a security-focused organization led by China and Russia. US officials have consistently warned Middle East allies and partners about the risks of engaging in security cooperation with China, and SCO participation, even at the limited level of a dialogue partner, will likely test this. For Beijing, the widely shared belief that it has been trying to create wedges between the US and its allies gets oxygen with this move, antagonizing Washington at a time when their bilateral relationship is already at a low point. 

Even if Iran’s full membership in the SCO is stalled, the US exit from Afghanistan changes the regional landscape. All the SCO member countries and Iran share concerns about Afghan stability, and the US withdrawal provides them with an issue to cooperate on. There was already a meeting between the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran to discuss Afghanistan on September 16, the first day of the summit, in Dushanbe. As political coordination between Iran and the SCO becomes routinized, its membership gets that much closer, in turn bringing other Gulf states closer to the same status. An unintended consequence of the US leaving Afghanistan may well be a Persian Gulf more closely aligned with China. 

Jonathan Fulton is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathandfulton.

Image: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 17/09/2021 Photo by Salampix/ABACAPRESS.COM