Which matters more, if at all?

TEHRAN, Iran – More than 100 nonaligned nations backed Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear power on Wednesday, an endorsement sought by Tehran in its standoff with the U.N. Security Council over its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment.

[ . . . ]

Senior Iranian officials depicted the support from a high-level conference of the Nonaligned Movement as deflating claims by the U.S. and its allies that most of the international community wanted Iran to stop enrichment.

The conference’s backing, which echoes the group’s previous declarations, acts to “remove this notion that the international community opposes the nuclear activities of Iran,” said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Nonalligned countries back Iran’s nuclear program,” George Jahn, AP, 30 July, 2008.

The unnamed Russian diplomat said the SCO foreign ministers at a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a week later would decide on whether to lift a moratorium on bringing in new states. “The moratorium has lasted for two years. We have now decided to consider the possibility of the SCO’s enlargement,” he said. It appeared that weathering US opposition, Moscow was pushing Iran’s pending request for SCO membership. Founded in 2001, the SCO currently comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran has observer status.

However, in the events, following the meeting in Dushanbe on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that the foreign ministers did not discuss the enlargement of the SCO, while finalizing the agenda of the organization’s summit meeting on August 28, and that Iran wouldn’t be able to get the status of an associate member.

[ . . . ]

Since such issues are invariably decided within the SCO on the basis of a consensus between Russia and China, it stands to reason that either Russia didn’t press Iran’s membership case or China disfavored the idea. On balance, it seems to be a combination of both. Conceivably, Moscow didn’t press after informally ascertaining Beijing’s lukewarm attitude. Tajikistan, which hosts the SCO summit in August, has openly favored Iran’s membership. If the two Big Brothers had given the green signal, Tajikistan would have asked Iran to come in from the cold. No doubt, Tehran, which openly canvassed for SCO membership, has suffered a diplomatic setback.

Snub for Iran eases nuclear crisis,” M K Bhadrakumar, Asia Times, 29 July, 2008.

So we figure that the SCO has passed over Iran’s bid for full membership (for which it applied in March) as punishment for its belligerence and for its increasing use of Turkey as a go-between with the West. This is a set back for Iran, because membership would have been a medium sized victory for the country, showing just what Mottaki proclaimed in the AP story, after having gained the support of NAM — that at least two of the most relevant actors in the international community did oppose its nuclear activities. It would have also offer the Iranians access to the security of a regional umbrella with powerful patrons, making American or Israeli bobombardment more difficult politically. It is unlikely, though, that either China or Russia would want to take on any pretensions of formal “alliance” with Iran, despite their continued arms and nuclear sales. The litheness of their ties to Tehran make their leverage heavier.

The SCO’s decision is also indicative of Russia and China’s desire to maintain a decent position with the West on the Iranian problem. They would like Iran to continue to tone down its rhetoric and conform more to international expectations. It is a sound decision, as SCO membership would be interpreted in the West (particularly the United States) as a “reward for bad behavior” and the Iranians would undoubtedly tout it as such.

Having gained no ground in the SCO, but having “gained” the support of NAM, of which neither Russia or China are member states, are the Iranians better off? Not really. Many NAM members have supported Iran’s nuclear program in the past, especially the more high profile ones (Algeria, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, etc.), as well has the body itself in the past. I would have been surprised if NAM had not behaved as it has. NAM importantly lacks any real agency or, in the eyes of many, relevance. (Note that another document coming out of the NAM meeting included a round condemnation of the ICC’s decision on the Sudanese president and criticism of Israel “on a broad range of issues.” Both are predictable, with the latter edging on being customary at such meetings.) No NAM’s member state, or combination of member states, approach the prestige or dominion of either China or Russia. Their support does not boost Iran.

If, however, Iran had been given the go-by by both NAM and the SCO, the diplomatic damage would have been much more severe. It would also signal a major shift in the evolving Sino-Russian backed consensus in the developing world. That scenario is beyond all likelihood. Another scenario, in which Iran gained the support of both NAM and the SCO would have been a victory for Iran, encouraging its course, and perhaps causing it to tame its leader’s tongue as a result of its new association with Eurasia’s increasingly relevant and credible regional body. China and Russia, as recent event show, did not want that.

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