Iran’s resurgence as a regional power in the Middle East, fomenting since 2003, has been considered a threat to both its neighbours and to US strategic interests in the region. Tehran’s expansionist policies have coincided with rapid military and nuclear strengthening. The country’s leadership is intent on restoring Iran as a key regional power.
A strengthened and assertive Iran, positioned in the northeast corner of one of the most geostrategically critical regions in the world, is of significant interest to China and Russia. The ostensibly important differences in policy and ideology between the three are overridden by a visceral hostility to US hegemony. Strategic alignment in this respect has led to comprehensive strategic agreements being drawn up with Iran and joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean, indicating a new era of cooperation between the three countries.
These new strategic ties have been particularly important for Iran since former US president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran and imposed a policy of maximum pressure, coupled with the international isolation of the country since 2018. Tehran has been left with no other option but to look East for achieving its economic and political objectives and reformulating the geostrategic function of Iran. Beijing and Moscow have welcomed Tehran’s growing tendency to look East — and the SCO is being used as the institutional framework that will protect and align the interests of the three countries.
SCO membership ensures Iran’s economic survival in the face of Western sanctions. Iran’s increased involvement and cooperation with SCO members enables Tehran to undermine US containment policies, aimed at marginalising Iran politically. It enables Iran to engage in security cooperation arrangements that will advance the country’s military prowess. The deepening of relationships with Eastern powers may also enable Iran to further its nuclear program and overcome diplomatic hurdles in the 5+1 nuclear talks. Both Russia and China enjoy UN Security Council veto power, which Iran may require in its ongoing power struggle against the West.
SCO membership will boost Iran’s trade, increase inward investment flows, spur growth in tourism, unlock access to a SWIFT alternative, assist in the state’s fight against terrorism and empower Tehran to counter separatist factions in the country. The vast geographical scope and demographic scale of the SCO bloc will create unprecedented market opportunities for Iranian oil and gas traders, with many of the biggest producers and consumers of energy in the world being members of the SCO.
Iran’s membership in the SCO facilitates Beijing’s expanding economic and political footprint in the Middle East. With US power in the Middle East declining, the integration of Iran into an organisation embedded with Chinese interests will unlock opportunities for China to extend its regional influence. Access to Iran’s oil and gas reserves comprises another important advantage for China as it looks to diversify its energy sources. Iran’s SCO membership will also enhance Chinese access to the strategically critical Persian Gulf — an essential geographical component of the Belt and Road Initiative.
From Russia’s perspective, Iran can function as an instrument for countering NATO power by engaging in geopolitical power struggles in the region and beyond. Tehran may be able to play a decisive role in undermining US interests in the Middle East, particularly in countries where Tehran has significant influence. Just as Tehran dragged Moscow into the war in Syria, so now Russia is pulling Iran into the quagmire of the Ukraine war by using Iran-made drones.
Iran’s SCO membership will connect Tehran with two ambitious global powers, both of which share the Iranian regime’s disgruntlement with US hegemony. SCO membership will likely further Iran’s geopolitical interests in the Middle East, empowering Tehran to undermine US influence in the region. Iran’s membership in other regional organisations, such as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia and the Caspian Economic Forum, will be exploited in conjunction with SCO membership to serve its political and economic objectives.
In gauging whether the SCO is intended as an ‘anti-Western, Anti-NATO’ bloc for emerging powers in Asia to subvert and replace the old US hegemonic order, the inclusion of Iran as a permanent member should dissuade us from any doubt. It ensures an economic lifeline, political influence and security for Tehran.
Asianisation is a progression towards a so-called ‘Westless’ global order and Iran’s decisive and dogmatic hostility to the West, combined with its geostrategic importance, means that it can play a vital role in the transfer of power to the East if it is consistently supported by Russia and China.
Alam Saleh is Lecturer in Iranian Studies at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, The Australian National University.