TCS Daily

NATO's Evil Twin?

By Evgeny Morozov - June 8, 2006 12:00 AM

"I find it passing strange to bring a leading terrorist nation in the world into an organization that says it's against terror", said Donald Rumsfeld in Singapore last week, elevating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to the fore of media attention.

"OPEC with bombs", as a commentator in one Canadian newspaper dubbed SCO, is now the official bogeyman of the month. Ever since its inception in 2001, SCO lingered in total media blackout, but Rumsfeld gave its forthcoming summit in Shanghai the best PR it could hope for. Bloggers -- both liberal and conservative -- have also recently picked on the subject, mostly portraying SCO as a militaristic behemoth aspiring to counterbalance American supremacy in Asia.

Becoming of a bogeyman, SCO is depicted in a rather bellicose manner redolent of the Cold War era. Touted as Russia and China's response to NATO, SCO appears even more threatening, especially when plotted against Pentagon's fretting about China's military expansion. And now Iran -- that perpetual bogeyman -- aspires to join too. Global security, if not the world order, seems to be at stake.

Are such fears justified?

The organization's past and present do not seem to warrant all the bad press. SCO launched to deal with security and confidence-building issues (border conflicts, terrorism, and militant Islam), and since then has expanded to the matters of economics, transportation, culture, disaster relief, and law enforcement. So far, SCO sounds short of NATO-type of tasks, doesn't it?

A closer examination reveals that SCO aspires to be neither a new NATO nor a new Warsaw Pact. At least, not yet and not officially. Its charter has no reference to collective defense of its member by others in the event of an outside attack (well, it does stipulate for collective resistance to big armed gangs or international terrorists if they cross the border of a member country -- but NATO troops hardly fall under that category). SCO has even developed a promising mechanism for conflict resolution: i.e. last year when China suggested bringing in Pakistan as an observer, Russia insisted that India be invited too. As a result, both now cooperate within SCO's framework.

In a move characteristic of the proposed cooperation under the SCO auspices, China has extended loans worth of $900 million to other SCO members so that they can buy Chinese exports. In another move, Russia has recently agreed to help Tajikistan improve its border security and fight drug-trafficking. SCO's activities might not sound extremely pacifist, but they do not sound belligerent either.

Set against the background of the rising violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that Asian states cooperate in combating terrorist threats is hard to reprimand. Even Rumsfeld agreed that the increasing military cooperation between Asian countries bodes well for the region's stability. So, what's all the fuss about?

Perhaps, the Pentagon hawks are fixating on the wrong organization -- they would be much wiser to look at the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which comprises all of the SCO member states plus Belarus and Armenia minus China. This is a true anti-NATO alliance in the post-Soviet space, and it hardly concedes its real intentions (which are obvious from the name). Yet how often have you seen this organization in the press? (Perhaps, it is because Iran is not joining it.)

Has SCO appeared threatening in the past? Partly. The only instance when it flexed its muscles was at its Astana summit in 2005, when members asked US troops to provide a deadline for their withdrawal from Central Asia. However, it was an exercise in PR rather than an exhibit of military strength. In the past, such statements would have originated from some Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) institution -- would anybody in their right minds ever accuse CIS of presenting a threat to the international security?

Today as SCO's clout in the region grows, Iran feels a strong urge to become a member. The application to join was submitted by the President Khatami, Ahmadinejad's predecessor. Now the latter appears firmly committed to cement Iran's place in the SCO. Unlike most of Ahmadinejad's other desires, this one is hardly outlandish.

Sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iraq and facing grave problems with its tumultuous minorities, Iran wants to step up its efforts in preventing potential terrorist threats. The recent unrest of its Azeri minority over a cartoon published in a local newspaper was an alarming sign of how unruly things might soon become (four people were killed and 70 injured, while the whole Azeri community in the region was watching the evens with great uneasiness).

Acquiring membership in SCO would be a logical way to alleviate Tehran's concerns and ensure "collective resistance to big armed gangs". No matter whether it is Ahmadinejad or any other more democratically elected leader ruling the country, reining in Iran's minorities is a top priority for the US, and Iraq is not the last reason for that (Iran's Kurds and Sunni Arabs might yet play their own card in Baghdad). As an extra tool to prevent ethnic tensions in the region, SCO might not be that bad.

So, why not capitalize on Iran's vulnerability, and factor in Ahmadinejad's fears and SCO ambitious in all policy calculations? Well, that's easier said than done; Moscow and Beijing have tasted the lucre of horse-trading and, depending on which official you talk to, are sending mixed signals about their eagerness to embrace Iran in SCO.

Their stance is changing symmetrically in response to the US position. The more vocally US oppose Iran's membership in SCO, the more strongly Russians and Chinese appear to want it. However, in the rare moments that the White House skirts the issue, the Russians and the Chinese oppose Iran's membership themselves.

Thus, in early April Zhang Deguang, the Secretary General of SCO stated that the organization would consider application for full membership from observers. Just a few weeks later, Sergey Ivanov, Russia's minister of defense, expressed skepticism about any forthcoming enlargements of the SCO. A few weeks later Gleb Pavlvosky, the Kremlin's spin doctor, said that "the consideration of this issue was planned a year ago, and if Iran is still interested and if no insurmountable obstacles are put by the SCO member-states or Iran itself, this might well happen".

Approximately at the same time, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the SCO is in the process of negotiating a possible membership with Tehran.

To add to the controversy, on May 29 the Secretary General changed his mind, saying that the organization's charter does not provide for the inclusion of new members (he obviously did not know when he spoke in April). Nevertheless, an invitation to attend SCO's 2006 summit was sent to Ahmadinejad; he agreed to come.

Seen through the prism of international relations, the opposition by the two of SCO's founding and dominating members to Iran's membership does not square well with their rhetoric of geopolitics. If Beijing and Moscow believe in their own stories about the multipolar world, they should jump at the opportunity to handle Iran's crisis; having it in the SCO will only strengthen the multipolarity they crave. Up till now, however, their support for Iran's bid to join SCO has been rather "muted".

To see why, suppose the US lifts its opposition to Iran's membership in SCO. Will it be the end of the unipolar world and the US military supremacy? Or rather the end to Russia and China's horse-trading with the West? The second option is much more likely, so Iran's ambition to SCO should be used as an opportunity rather than a threat by the US.

The moment Iran joins SCO -- if Russia and China ever allow that to happen -- both Moscow and Beijing will start panicking: none of them wants to be responsible for Iran's loony statements about Israel or its nuclear program. They would also need to stop naysaying at the UN Security Council and engage in direct diplomacy with Tehran, something they've started forgetting how to do. They would also become more involved in joint negotiations with the EU and the US, since they would have their international credibility to lose should Iran go nuclear while member of their warm club.

But since the US has already expressed its condemnation of Iran's membership in SCO both Russia and China stand to benefit more from the current stand-off than from having Iran in SCO. Any further escalation of the situation around Tehran's nuclear plans only increases the price that the US and EU would have to pay for Russia's and China's eventual capitulation at the UN. And both of them have a lot to ask from the West. Just ask Russia about the prospects of its membership in WTO.

What do the US and EU gain if they seize the initiative and green-light Iran's membership in SCO?

First of all, such would disarm SCO of whatever evil intentions -- if any -- it has harbored. With Iran on board, the block would hardly dare voicing any belligerent rhetoric. It would be a very awkward conglomeration, which might actually focus on subjects like border cooperation, in the absence of any other spicier topics. Neither Russia nor China is silly enough to discuss alternatives to the US domination in the region with Ahmadinejad present in the room; it would be a total media disaster.

Secondly, Iran's membership in SCO could finally put the burden of global leadership on Russia and China who have largely shunned away from their responsibilities as members of the Security Council. Iran presents them with a good opportunity to prove that they are mature actors on the international scene and deserve their global status (this is especially relevant for Russia, which chair G8 this year). Through SCO they will have to be extra cautious guarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, because, indirectly, they might be implicated in the consequences too. It would be much easier to take both Beijing and Moscow to task if they have some leverage and connection with Iran in SCO. That either of them will instigate, not deter, Iran from developing its nuclear potential is nonsense; both countries are too dependent on the US and EU to engage in such dangerous schemes.

Therefore, the policy of the US and the EU regarding Iran's membership in SCO should focus not on blocking it, but rather on persuading China and Russia to use SCO as a carrot to obtain certain concessions from Iran. In order to incentivize them, the US and EU might, indeed, require more and more carrots. But, perhaps, it is better to waste a few carrots on China and Russia than waste all of the Middle East with one stick.

The author is a TCS contributing writer; he blogs at


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