Iran Takes a Major Step Toward Regime Preservation

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

A new article by Nicole Bayat Grajewski contends that a Russia- and China-led consortium can help Tehran suppress dissent and challenge the Western order.

Iran has earned full membership in the nine-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by Russia and China, as it looks eastward for allies in the face of sanctions and threats from the United States and Western powers. Nicole Bayat Grajewski, in a new article published by Middle East Policy, argues that while the new status will not provide direct benefits to the Islamic Republic, the organization’s solidarity and shared norms will help strengthen Tehran.

“By the nature of the group’s strategic culture, the SCO has functioned as a regime-preservation network that provides authoritarian governments with opportunities to cooperate and coordinate their efforts to suppress dissent and maintain domestic stability,” argues Grajewski, a research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, speaking at the SCO’s virtual meeting on July 4, declared that “the benefits of the official membership of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the SCO will be historic.”

It took the Islamic Republic 19 years to advance from its application in 2004 to observer status and on to full member. In addition to Iran, the group includes the original five— Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—plus India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

The SCO has historically been rooted in Central and East Asia, but more Middle Eastern states are looking toward the organization as they hedge their bets away from the United States and Western powers. Afghanistan has earned “observer status,” while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, and Kuwait are “dialogue partners.” These states do not have voting privileges, but Grajewski notes that members can use annual summits as part of a socialization process to spread the SCO’s values.

In her Middle East Policy article, Grajewski contends that the organization allows states like Iran to defy liberal norms, resist the West, and promote multipolarity in international politics. “Through the use of diplomatic channels and public statements,” she writes, “member states can support each other’s domestic stability and promote the view that repressive measures are necessary to maintain order and protect sovereignty.”

Indeed, Grajewski says, the SCO participants emphasize noninterference inside borders as part of a push to weaken US hegemony. The organization took advantage of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 to chide the Americans and call on “all the participants to strictly fulfill their obligations for the comprehensive and effective implementation of the document.”

While Iran’s elevation to SCO member, as well as China’s recent brokering of a rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia, suggests the East is building a powerful bloc, Grajewski does flag some areas that could lead to tensions among these actors. One is Iran’s relations with its neighbors, especially Israel. “Given that almost all SCO member states maintain cordial relations with Israel and the Arab states, they are unlikely to jeopardize these relationships,” she observes.

As well, Grajewski says, “The lack of a formal security framework and the absence of a mutual-defense mechanism” means that SCO member states could desert Iran if it provokes attacks from regional or outside powers.

Still, the indirect benefits have served Iran’s purposes, Grajewski concludes: “In addition to enabling the Iranian regime to withstand external pressure, the SCO has served as a platform to legitimize its ideas about regional and international order—the basis for bonding among Tehran and its fellow member states.”

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Grajewski’s Middle East Policy article:

  • The key argument: Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has helped it bolster external legitimacy, foster regional security, and promote a multipolar world order.
    • The impact of Iran on the organization has been neglected by academics.
  • The SCO has served as a regime-preservation network for Iran, providing it with solidarity against external pressure.
  • The inclusion of Iran in the SCO serves both Tehran’s interests and the SCO’s purpose of presenting itself as an institutional alternative to the Western-led international order.
  • The SCO’s promotion of non-liberal norms and emphasis on state sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs could have implications for the global balance of power and the promotion of democracy and human rights.
  • The SCO has extended its outreach to Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Egypt.
  • Potential weaknesses of the SCO:
    • Despite the numerous statements from Iranian officials on the economic potential of the organization, Iran’s membership will not provide direct material benefits.
    • The organizations lack a formal security framework and a mutual-defense mechanism, such as the one binding NATO members.
    • The SCO and its members have an interest in staying out of Iran’s conflicts with its neighbors.
      • The organization especially does not want to jeopardize relations with Israel.
    • The SCO supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal), so it could push Tehran toward a new agreement and compliance.

You can read Nicole Bayat Grajewski’s article, “Iran and the SCO: The Quest For Legitimacy and Regime Preservation” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley. The article is free for all readers until July 16, regardless of whether they have a subscription to the journal.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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