Iran’s Membership to SCO: What Does It Mean for Regional Security?


On 4th of July, the Eurasian political, economic, international security and defense organization– Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) welcomed its 9th full member to the coalition. The alliance, known for its anti-western stance consists of major global players like China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and several Central Asian countries, has now expanded its membership to embrace Iran to the biggest regional alliance, comprising 40 per cent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the global GDP. Iran’s membership, on one hand, strengthens the SCO’s regional influence and expands its geopolitical reach as the country is situated at a critical juncture of Middle East and Central Asia. On the other hand, by joining SCO Iran has taken another step towards ending its global isolation, as the nation has been grappling with Western sanctions since the 1979’s Islamic revolution with its perceived anti-West stance and with its recent ambitious nuclear project.

With its admission, Iran has institutionalized its warm relation with its allies like Russia and China, that are set to bring new dynamics and implications in regional security and geopolitics. Iran has emerged as a major regional player, showcasing its tactical weaponry advancements, wielding influence in the conflicts in the neighboring countries and even at the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, where Iranian-made kamikaze drones made global headlines. This inclusion increases SCO’s leverage in dealing with regional and international issues, especially those related to the Middle East and West Asia such as the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan. This short analysis attempts to grasp what Iran’s membership in this seemingly anti-Western alliance means for regional security.

SCO and Iran

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was originally formed in 1996 as The Shanghai Five, which included Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. When Uzbekistan joined in 2001, the group took its current form and its name was changed to the SCO. It is composed of two permanent organizations: the SCO Secretariat in Beijing and the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure Executive Committee in Tashkent. Its principal objectives include increasing cooperation in politics, trade and commerce, economy, research, technology, and culture among member nations, preserving regional peace and security, and pushing for a new global political and economic order. The platform is considered a revisionist setting and has been dubbed “anti-NATO” and “anti-West” because of its desire to create a favorable new world order for them, which has alarmed Westerners. Iran obtained its observer status with the SCO in 2005 and then it first applied for SCO membership 15 years ago in 2008.

Subsequently, at the 21st SCO summit in 2022, held in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, all existing members unanimously agreed to change Iran’s status from observer state to a full member and the country got confirmation on the 4th of July after completion of formalities. Over the years, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has grown into a significant platform for promoting regional cooperation, security, and development among its member states. As the organization expanded its membership and influence, Iran emerged as a crucial and steadfast partner in this evolving landscape. Since joining the SCO as an observer member in 2005, Iran’s active involvement has strengthened the bloc’s ability to tackle a wide range of regional challenges and the country made significant contributions to the regional bloc’s objectives and initiatives.

Significance of Iran’s membership

Considering Iran’s strained relations with the west, SCO’s portrayal of itself as a counterbalance to Western global influence and the organization’s anti-US ideological stance, encouraged it to join the forum. The formal inclusion of Iran into the SCO marks a significant milestone in the Eurasian political, economic, international security, and defense landscape for both the country itself and the broader Eurasian region.

For Iran, joining the SCO opens up new economic opportunities for it. The country has been struggling economically with repeated western sanctions for decades. As SCO emphasizes economic cooperation among its members, Iran can tap into the vast markets and resources of the SCO countries. This can help Iran diversify its trade partners, increase export destinations and reduce the overall effects of western sanctions. Especially its oil export, where it could easily supply its oil to the energy hungry China and India and create energy cooperation with the members. Moreover, as a regional player, it now can play a more active role in shaping regional policies and strategies within the SCO framework and elevate its regional status with direct help from global players like China and Russia. It would facilitate formulation of security and defense cooperation with these countries that would help to strengthen its own security and defense potential.  Given the shared security challenges faced by SCO members, Iran would be able to participate in joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism efforts can enhance internal stability and security.

On the other side, Iran’s alignment with the forum’s ideological factors bolsters the forum’s collective effort to counterbalance western influence in the region. It would enhance the forum’s diplomatic leverage at the global stage and strengthen security efforts in countering terrorism, extremism, and separatism. The collective security architecture of the organization gains further strength with Iran’s active engagement in addressing common security threats. Which eventually would help to expand regional cooperation. With Iran’s participation, the SCO can expand its regional cooperation efforts. Its strategic location at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia has bestowed it with a unique geopolitical advantage, making it an essential player in the SCO’s efforts to foster economic cooperation and connectivity in areas such as infrastructure development, trade corridors, and joint investment projects. Leveraging its geographical position, the members can facilitate trade, transportation, and infrastructure development among SCO member states, enhancing regional trade dynamics and promoting economic growth. Moreover, Iran’s abundant energy resources can significantly contribute to meeting the energy demands of the SCO nations.

Regional security

Iran’s joining the SCO has significant implications for regional security, encompassing conventional and unconventional security matters, alliance formation, and other related aspects. It adds complexity to the ongoing tensions surrounding the geo-politics in the region and beyond. With SCO’s portrayal as a counterbalance to Western global influence and Iran’s well-known ideological anti-western stance and strained relations with Western nations, the inclusion is set to flare up the regional security dynamics.

Iran’s membership in the SCO reinforces the perception of the organization as an alternative power bloc challenging Western dominance. By forming an official bloc with China and Russia, Iran becomes a part of a trio that is seen as a critical resistance bloc against NATO and Western interests. This alignment surely will strengthen the SCO’s collective stance on global issues, further entrenching the bloc’s position in the geopolitics of the Eurasian region. Iranian state media also lauded the issue in telecasting the news and labeled the formation of the trio and Iran’s inclusion in the SCO as a major diplomatic success for the country.

Iran’s engagement with like-minded countries within the organization will allow it to play a more influential role in the neighborhood’s security settings. Its political-military implications are also huge. As an emerging power with technologically advanced military capabilities and involvement in regional conflicts such as in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and in global geo-political issues like the Russia-Ukraine war, Iran can further advance the anti-west bloc’s interest. However, with the recent turn of events in Middle Eastern politics, with Iran normalizing its relation with its regional arch rival Saudi Arabia, and the latter also being interested in joining SCO as a dialogue partner, with intention to join as full member in the future, the scenario is bound to change drastically. The SCO platform will provide the breathing space for bilateral relations to flourish and can contribute in creating an environment of stability in the region as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran all the conflicting parties will be on the same table.

Moreover, Iran’s membership strengthens SEO’s collective security framework allowing for enhanced intelligence sharing, joint counter-terrorism operations, and collaborative efforts to tackle common security threats. The framework also provides a platform for member states to address common security challenges. This expanded security cooperation reinforces alliance stability collective bargaining and contributes to global efforts in combating transnational security challenges.

Iran’s inclusion in the SCO alters the geopolitical dynamics in the region. It brings Iran together with its like-minded revisionist countries with varying strategic interests like India, China and Russia. Iran’s engagement with the SCO will allow for better understanding, dialogue, and cooperation with the partners on regional and global issues, enabling it to play a more active role in shaping the regional and global geo-political agenda. The regional security paradigms are also on the verge of being affected as Iran’s input will seriously confront the western security priorities and activities with its global allies like China and Russia. The SCO provides Iran just the perfect stage to assert its dominance and make its presence effective in the region’s security domain.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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