Sunday, June 4, 2006

MOSCOW — An obscure regional security group will consider admitting Iran as a member at a summit this month, accelerating its transformation into a political and military bloc with the potential to challenge U.S. interests.

U.S. analysts think Russia and China already are using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — which links the two with four Central Asian neighbors — to try to squeeze the United States out of the region.

SCO foreign ministers said at an earlier meeting that consideration is being given to extending membership to four countries with observer status — Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to attend the summit on June 15 in Shanghai.

Expansion of the organization into Iran and other countries could make it “an enormous power,” said David Wall, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s East Asia Institute.

“An expanded SCO would control a large part of the world’s oil and gas reserves and nuclear arsenal. It would essentially be an OPEC with bombs,” he said, referring to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld alluded to the coming summit on his way to a weekend security conference in Singapore. Comparing the openness of the Singapore meeting to other unnamed gatherings, he said: “There are some efforts and systems that leave us out, and we obviously favor institutions that are inclusive, rather than exclusive.”

A warning shot was fired at last year’s SCO summit, where the group issued a declaration calling for the United States to set a timeline for withdrawing from air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, established to support the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Delegates from Kazakhstan, Washington’s closest friend in the SCO, argued at that meeting to head off an even stronger resolution.

Uzbekistan subsequently evicted the United States from its base in that country, and Kyrgyzstan demanded a 100-fold increase in the rent on its base when the lease expired May 31. Negotiations are continuing, but Kyrgyz visitors to Washington say the government could find another tenant for the base, possibly China.

Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan founded the group as the “Shanghai Five” in 1996. It was expanded to include Uzbekistan, renamed the SCO and given a written charter in 2001.

The organization’s members insist its main goal is to foster cooperation by working to resolve cross-border disputes, promote economic links and support joint efforts to combat regional problems, such as drug trafficking.

But the SCO has increasingly provided the basis for military cooperation among its member states. A military exercise last year involved more than 10,000 troops from SCO member countries, and another set of war games is planned for next year.

“They say they don’t want to form a NATO of the East, but the question remains: Why conduct these military exercises under the auspices of the SCO if it’s not meant as a counterbalance to NATO,” Mr. Wall said.

Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, complained in March that the United States had been denied permission to observe the SCO exercise.

“There was a Sino-Russian military exercise last year which we wanted to be observers at, and the Chinese declined to invite us,” Mr. Rodman told a congressional China commission hearing.

Mr. Rodman said Russia is “very tight” with the Chinese on a number of issues and the two nations have been “trying to push us out” of Central Asia through the SCO.

Chinese President Hu Jintao confirmed the closeness last month, when he praised Russia as China’s most important strategic partner and described the SCO as “an important force for promoting peace and stability in the region and throughout the world.”

“Relations between the two countries have reached unprecedented levels,” Mr. Hu said in comments posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site.

• Bill Gertz in Washington contributed to this article.

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