- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2021

Iran looks likely to get a long-delayed invitation to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization when leaders of the 20-year-old Chinese-led security forum meet over the next two days in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

The expected invitation would be a coup for new hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who will be making his first foreign trip since taking office to Dushanbe to confer with leaders and officials of the current eight-country pact.

Tehran first applied for membership in the SCO in 2008, but its application has long been complicated by international sanctions it has faced over its suspect nuclear programs.

The move also could put a dent in U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran and maintain sanctions on its economy, as the Biden administration struggles to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump repudiated in 2018.

Although it has not developed into what some feared would be a kind of China-dominated NATO, the SCO has proven a useful if limited negotiating and coordinating forum for regional military, economic and political issues.

China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were founding members in 2001, and Pakistan and India joined in 2017.

“We attach great importance to regional cooperation, and the SCO is among the active organizations for regional cooperation,” Mr. Raisi told reporters accompanying the large Iranian delegation to Dushanbe Wednesday, according to the Iranian Tasnim News Agency. “Relations with countries of the region are among the Islamic Republic of Iran‘s priorities.”

Iran has had observer status at the SCO, and summit organizers were openly optimistic that a formal application to join — a two-year process — would be approved at the Dushanbe gathering.

“There is a general disposition for [Iranian membership], there is no doubt about that,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Kahtibzadeh said in his weekly briefing Monday that “Iran‘s request will be considered at the SCO summit, and we hope this review will lead to the result we expect.”

The Russian newspaper Izvestiya, citing diplomatic sources in Moscow, said an invitation to join the SCO was likely at the Dushanbe gathering.

The instability in Afghanistan, with which Iran shares a 570-mile border, will be a central concern of the summit in the wake of the chaotic U.S. and allied military withdrawal and the struggles of the new Taliban leadership to form a new government.

Despite marking its 20th anniversary this year and adding members, the SCO has repeatedly found its effectiveness limited by clashing interests among key members.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to skip the summit to avoid an awkward meeting in the midst of bilateral tensions, and SCO members also are torn over recent events in Afghanistan and whether to reach out to the new Taliban leadership.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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