With Iran’s full accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) complete, Tehran now needs to wrangle big trade deals with its new regional friends to offset US sanctions against its beleaguered economy.
“Today, we will launch procedures to admit Iran as a full member of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization),” Chinese President Xi Jinping announced on Friday, putting to rest the rampant speculation that Iran will officially accede to Asia’s most coveted security organization.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is in Dushanbe, Tajikistan with a high level diplomatic and economic delegation to attend the annual two-day SCO summit. The visit, marking Raisi’s first foreign trip, is already a dazzling success for the new head of state. The Islamic Republic had, until today, only enjoyed SCO observer status (since 2005), and had undergone two previous failed attempts to gain full membership.
The announcement of Iran’s accession to the SCO comes as little surprise to experts who predicted that Tehran’s comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with China last March and its subsequent announcement of a similar agreement with Moscow, would pave the way for Iran’s upgraded SCO status. Recent developments in Afghanistan have only confirmed for Beijing and Moscow – the organization’s main stakeholders – the value of Iran within the regional security organization.
Founded in 2001, the SCO brings together regional powers, such as Russia and China, along with India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The organization represents a geographical region of 60 million square kilometers (23 million square miles) and a population of over 3 billion.
Economy of the SCO
During its first 20 years, the SCO was largely viewed as a political and security grouping of countries that sought to cooperate against “terrorism, separatism, and extremism.” However, it has recently also sought to bolster economic cooperation among members and is expected to further develop these ambitions in the coming years.
In 2018, at the Qingdao summit in China, the SCO adopted an agreement consisting of 17 documents, which included action plans for economic cooperation between the SCO member states and the need “to examine the prospects of expanding the use of national currency in trade and investment.”
The SCO’s eight member states, four observer states, and six dialogue partners boast a total economic volume of close to $20 trillion and a total foreign trade volume of $6.6 trillion, 100 times larger than the values of 20 years ago.
For Iran and its ailing, US-sanctioned economy, joining the SCO provides access to significantly larger markets and the world’s fastest-growing international corridors. It also further consolidates Tehran’s unofficial alliance with major powers Moscow and Beijing against the West on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s trade with SCO members
According to the latest data announced by Iran’s Customs Administration (IRICA), the value of trade between Iran and the members of the SCO (including observer states) reached $28 billion during the last Iranian calendar year (ending 21 March, 2021). That makes China Iran’s single largest trade partner with a trade value of $18.9 billion, almost two thirds of Iran’s total trade with SCO members.
Despite being one of the pivotal members of the organization, Russia ranks fourth in terms of trade volume with Iran, after India ($3.4b) and Afghanistan ($2.3b), recording only $1.6 billion in total trade with the Islamic Republic. According to the Iranian data, Pakistan stands fifth in terms of trade value with Iran within the bloc, while the remaining six countries have a combined trade value of just $569 million.
Considering Iran’s total trade volume of $73.89 billion during the last Iranian (1339) calendar year – $11.2 billion lower than the previous year – Tehran’s trade with the SCO countries has already approached nearly 38 percent of its total trade, 26 percent of which was with China alone.
Iran’s other top trade partners are Iraq, UAE, and Turkey respectively, followed by Afghanistan in the same period.
While Iran’s accession to full membership status in the SCO can theoretically boost the country’s trade with other member states, there are significant obstacles which are unlikely to allow Tehran to reap an economic windfall, at least in the short run.
Among Iran’s most difficult obstacles is a series of US-led sanctions against the country’s financial and transportation institutions, in addition to being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global intergovernmental organization tasked with devising standards on combating money laundering and ‘terrorism financing.’ Given the exposure of most countries to US markets and financial networks, and due to the risk of heavy penalties or loss of access to US and European markets, major companies are reluctant to do business with Iran.
The former head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization (TPO), Mohammad-Reza Modudi, was quoted by local media earlier this week as saying that many countries, including Iran’s neighbors such as Iraq, “are not willing to do business with Iran out of fear of being sanctioned by American banks or the US Treasury.”
He added that despite Iran’s good production capability, exporting many of the Iranian-made products will not be easy. “We [Iran] have not prepared the needed capacity for these products to be competitive in international markets,” Modudi explained.
Compounding Iran’s lack of focus on the economic benefits of the SCO, is the fact that other Iranian officials view the SCO through a purely political and security lens. Hossein Malaek, Iran’s former ambassador to China, believes that Tehran’s membership in the SCO “has nothing to do with economic issues.”
In an interview with ILNA news agency last month, Malaek was quoted as saying that “Iran’s presence in the Shanghai Agreement will not have any economic aspect, and this cooperation only has security aspects,” and emphasized that “no economic agreement will be signed between Iran and the SCO.”
The political and security benefits of becoming a member state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization might outweigh other benefits for Iran in the short run. However, if Tehran helps secure the SCO’s energy needs by increasing oil and gas output to its new partners, and facilitates much-needed land access to other markets in West Asia and Europe in the long term, Iran’s economy stands to benefit substantially from its new eastward alignment.