President Rouhani Visits Central Asia
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani recently joined his fellow Heads of State in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek from June 13-14 for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) 19th Council of Heads of State summit. He subsequently visited the fifth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) from June 14-15 in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Both visits represent Iran’s commitment to breaking out of its current international isolation, and presenting itself as a respectable, if not cooperative, member of the international community.
Rouhani in Bishkek
President Rouhani gave a speech at the 19th SCO summit, after being invited by Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to Bishkek. President Rouhani’s appearance in Bishkek was aimed at obtaining full membership in the SCO and building bilateral relations with Kyrgystan. While there, he also held a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had advocated for Iran’s full membership in the SCO during the 2018 Qingdao summit.
Rouhani in Dushanbe
President Rouhani spent June 15 and 16 in Tajikistan attending the fifth CICA summit, having received an invitation from Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. Bilateral relations were the focus of this trip. In late 2015, relations between Iran and Tajikistan suffered serious setbacks. After Tajikistan banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) on charges of extremism and sedition, Iran invited leader of the IRPT Muhiddin Kabiri to attend a conference on Islam — provoking outrage in Dushanbe. Dushanbe then demonized Iran, President Rahmon himself suggesting that it was the primary force behind Tajikistan’s devastating civil war in the 1990s. The Saudis took advantage of this situation to bring Tajikistan, a Sunni-majority country, into the anti-Iranian, Gulf State orbit.
Now, with Presidents Rahmon and Rouhani having held bilateral talks, Iran and Tajikistan seem to be rehabilitating their relations. Tajik Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Muhriddin’s visit to Tehran on June 1, instead of the foreign minister summit of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia, is an indication of this turn. On Iran’s part, the news site Farsnews removed an old interview with Kabiri earlier this month. The Iranians have sought to build on the historical ties between the countries, with President Rouhani earlier this month noting the shared cultural, linguistic, and literary relations between the countries.
President Rouhani’s primary focus in attending the SCO and CICA summits in Bishkek and Dushanbe was to break Iran out of its isolated status, and there are certain successes Iran can be proud of. Iran’s tentative reset of relations with Tajikistan is a first step towards breaking out of the Saudi-ring. Additionally, when Iran first applied for SCO membership in 2008, the process was frozen due to United Nations sanctions against Iran. As these were lifted with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a major impediment to Iran’s accession to the SCO has been lifted.
Still there are issues hindering Iran’s membership bid. First, Iran still suffers from a reputation as an international maverick. Another issue is the fraught relationship between Iran and SCO member Pakistan. Given that all SCO members are required to provide assent when admitting a new member to the SCO, this will provide an obstacle for Iran to overcome. Thus, President Rouhani is set to woo the SCO members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While Iran should not expect membership in the short term, it will be interesting to see whether President Rouhani can parlay President Putin’s support into obtaining full SCO membership.