Shanghai group mulls expansion as Iran snubs gathering
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where heavyweights Russia and China play a major role, meets Thursday seeking to lift a moratorium on expansion and open its doors to new members, officials said.
The Kremlin's top foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko said the summit would take place amid "an escalation of a number of problems," including new tensions on the Korean peninsula and Iran's defiance in the face of new sanctions.
The six-nation group includes four ex-Soviet Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while Iran, India and Pakistan have observer status and have in the past expressed interest in joining.
A major outcome of the two-day summit in Uzbekistan is expected to be the adoption of a blueprint for expanding membership, Prikhodko said.
He refused to say which country has the best chance to join the SCO in the near future, simply noting a number of countries have expressed keen interest.
"Iran wants to be in, Pakistan wants to be in, Afghanistan wants to be in," Prikhodko told reporters ahead of the summit.
But while Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari are both expected to attend and may have separate meetings with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, whose country is facing the threat of fresh sanctions, will conspicuously be absent.
By contrast, he chose last June's SCO meeting in Russia for his first foreign trip since his disputed re-election victory last year.
Since then, ties between Russia and Iran have dramatically worsened as Medvedev called Iran's behaviour "irresponsible" and signalled that Russia will support fresh UN sanctions against the Islamic republic.
Ahmadinejad is planning to stay away from the two-day summit, even though he was scheduled Wednesday to visit neighboring Tajikistan. On Thursday he will head to China for a visit to the Shanghai Expo, an Iranian diplomat said.
In any case, Iran would not be the first candidate to win membership, analysts say.
"Iran -- with its relations with Russia, its relations with America and its nuclear drive -- is not the best candidate for the SCO," said Alexei Malashenko, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Malashenko said the configuration of the regional grouping is unlikely to change dramatically in the near future even though they may be open to the idea of expansion.
"It would be naive to speak of any expansion without China's permission," he told AFP. "And I have not heard of their readiness" to welcome new countries, he said.
The SCO was set up in 2001 as a security counterweight to NATO that would allow Russia and China to rival US influence in Asia but is increasingly looking to cooperate on economic brass tacks, analysts say.
"The longer the European Union puts its relations with Russia on hold, the more actively the SCO will work," said Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Institute of CIS Countries.
The summit is also expected to adopt a political declaration mapping out the member countries' future cooperation, the Kremlin said.
Instability in Afghanistan and fragile Kyrgyzstan, where bloody protests toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, are also expected to top the agenda.
© 2010 AFP