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International relations

Iran to gain Central Asia clout with entry into SCO security club

China and Russia-led group expands amid fear of radical spillover from Afghanistan

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, left, speaks with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon while attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe on Sept. 17.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Iran is set to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by China and Russia as a full member, a move experts say will give Tehran more influence over Central Asia -- including war-torn neighbor Afghanistan.

"Today, we will launch procedures to admit Iran as a member state of the SCO, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar as new dialogue partners," Chinese President Xi Jinping said via video link on Friday, addressing the SCO Council of Heads of State in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Xi said he was confident the "growing SCO family" would "be the builders of world peace, contributors to global development and defenders of the international order," according to an English translation shared by China's official Xinhua News Agency.

Iran, which is under international sanctions over its controversial nuclear program, joined the Eurasian security bloc as an observer in 2005 and has long sought full membership. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is in Dushanbe to take part in the SCO meeting -- the grouping's first summit since the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan, an observer state.

Iran's inclusion as a member makes it "a more organic part of the larger Central Asia-Middle East system," Harsh V. Pant, head of the strategic studies program at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, told Nikkei Asia. He noted that Tehran faces challenges emanating from Afghanistan and wants to keep tabs on the troubled country and surrounding region.

Iran has a long history of cultural and political ties with Afghanistan, and hosts 780,000 registered Afghan refugees along with 2 million undocumented ones.

Apart from China, Russia and Tajikistan, the SCO -- founded two decades ago -- also includes India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as permanent members. Belarus and Mongolia are also observers, while several others hold dialogue partner status.

From other members' perspective, the most pressing current concern is the fallout from American forces' withdrawal from Afghanistan -- the spillover from which would likely be felt in Central Asia first. The governments of the region and Russia want to ensure the Taliban's "version of radical Islam should not spread to Central Asia," Pant said.

Iran is led by a Shiite Islamic theocracy and is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Yet in the current context, Pant argued that "having Iran on board allows for a better policy and more holistic approach to [dealing with] the challenges in the region."

Addressing the plenary session of the SCO summit, also virtually, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the threat of radicalization. "The biggest challenges in this [region] are related to peace, security and trust deficit, and the root cause of these problems is increasing radicalization," he said. "Recent developments in Afghanistan have made this challenge [even] more apparent [and the] SCO should take an initiative on this issue."

At the same time, Modi welcomed Iran as a new member state alongside the new dialogue partners. "The expansion of SCO shows the growing influence of our organization," he told the summit, where some leaders were attending in person.

While Afghanistan may be a key concern for Iran, its upcoming SCO membership could also help it build stronger ties with China and Russia -- the biggest forces in the grouping.

"Iran is also broadly in the same camp [as China and Russia] in the sense that it is an anti-American, anti-Western power in the Middle East and that allows it to also develop its ties with Beijing and Moscow more substantively," Pant said.

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