Russia and China today host Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a summit of a Central Asian security club designed to counter U.S. influence in the region.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization invited Iran to become an observer in 2005, sparking concern in the U.S., and Ahmadinejad called for closer ties to the group when he attended last year’s summit in Shanghai. Kyrgyzstan is hosting the one-day annual meeting in its capital, Bishkek.
China and Russia, which are competing with the West for access to Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves, are positioning the SCO as a counterweight to the U.S., said Andrew Kuchins of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Russia and China never tire of reiterating their commitment to a multipolar world and opposition to a unipolar one,” he said in a telephone interview. “The SCO is a manifestation of that in Eurasia.”
The U.S., whose relations with Russia have deteriorated, accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism. Ahmadinejad has said the Central Asian group can help fend off “outside interference” in the region.
Chinese and Russian officials say the SCO, set up in 2001 with the stated goal of strengthening regional cooperation and combating terrorism, is focused on maintaining stability in the region. Its six members include the four Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose country is battling a resurgent Taliban, is a guest at the summit. Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Li Hui said Aug. 11 the group wants to cooperate with Afghanistan in fighting drug smuggling and terrorism.
The SCO in 2005 called for a timetable to end the U.S. military presence in Central Asia. Within six months, Uzbekistan ordered out U.S. forces stationed at its Khanabad airbase. The U.S. has a remaining airbase in Kyrgyzstan, which is used to support operations in Afghanistan.
Leaders of the SCO will tomorrow fly to the Urals region of Chelyabinsk to attend large-scale war games involving 6,000 soldiers and 100 aircraft called “Peace Mission 2007.”
It marks the first joint military exercises on Russian soil between Russia and China, once rivals during the Cold War. Two years ago, the two countries staged major war games in China, causing concern in the U.S.
In another unwelcome development for the Americans, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov also accepted an invitation to attend the summit. His long-ruling predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died last year, had kept the energy-rich country isolated and resisted Russian influence.
Russia in May secured a deal to build a new pipeline to import more gas from Turkmenistan, bolstering its dominant hold on supplies to Europe and heading off a competing U.S.-backed plan that would bypass Russian territory.
Ahmadinejad has been pushing for full membership in the Shanghai group. Analysts say this probably won’t happen because Russia and China aren’t willing to risk a rupture with the U.S. by inviting its arch-enemy into their club.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met Ahmadinejad last year in Shanghai, will not hold talks with the Iranian president in Bishkek.
Admitting Iran, which is under United Nations sanctions over its disputed nuclear program, “would create more trouble than it’s worth,” said Michael Denison, a Central Asia analyst for the U.K.-based security research company Control Risks.
Still, they might promote closer ties, short of actual membership, he said in a telephone interview. At a meeting of SCO foreign ministers July 9, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said observer countries expressed “disappointment” at being limited to a “ceremonial presence.”
Along with Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia have observer status in the six-member group.