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June 15, 2006
Iran Turns East

Facing a showdown with a delicate coalition on the UN Security Council demanding a cessation of its uranium-enrichment program, Iran has decided to do its best to split the East from the West before answering the offer it received this week. The Times of London reports that Iran has opened talks with Russia and China concerning the creation of a diplomatic and military bloc that would oppose the US and the West:

MAHMOUD Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, held talks with Chinese and Russian leaders at a summit meeting yesterday to build up a security grouping in opposition to the US and Nato.

Mr Ahmadinejad was invited to address a meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), a China-sponsored proto-alliance that aims to strengthen defence links across Central Asia.

In an implicit reference to the US and its pressure on Iran to end its nuclear weapons programme, he said that the SCO could “ward off the threats of domineering powers to use their force against and interfere in the affairs of other states”.

The summit was also attended by the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, India and four Central Asian former Soviet republics. A joint declaration signed by those attending appeared to back the Iranian President.

“Differences in cultural traditions, political and social systems, values and models of development formed in the course of history should not be taken as pretexts to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs,” the joint declaration said.

No one expected Iran to sit quietly and wait for the deadline to pass without trying for a little more brinksmanship. However, if the SCO offers anything more than lip service to multiculturalism, I'll eat my hat. Three of the four other countries named as attending members of the SCO have more to lose by alienating the US than they have to gain by befriending Iran. India wants the treaty Bush engineered to get through the Senate, already a dicey affair, and they will not risk American ire just so the nation that provides inspiration and funding to India's own Islamists can develop nuclear weapons. Pakistan's Musharraf has already cast his lot with the US irrevocably; a change on his part to support Iran will put a squeeze on Pakistan from two sides and make the US forces in Afghanistan a lot more cavalier about border crossings to chase al-Qaeda suspects than before.

In effect, though, Iran has set itself up as a pawn for the two Asian nations. Neither China nor Russia want Iran to have nukes any more than they wanted Kim Jong-Il to have them. They don't mind playing Iran as a bargaining chip in their diplomatic efforts to hamstring the US. After all, an Iranian crisis means that the US has to shift focus from the Central Asian republics, allowing Russia to entice them back into the fold. China also need Iranian oil output to keep energy prices as low as possible for its efforts at rapid industrial expansion. A resolution to the Iranian crisis means that the US has time and energy to increase its influence in Central Asia, and that will force Russia and China to cosy up to Ahmadinejad.

Iran may get a symbolic boost from its membership in the SCO, but in the end it won't make much difference either way. Russia and China need the UN to act as a brake on American ambitions, making the SCO irrelevant in this context anyway. If the SCO attempts to create a NATO-like alliance, the US and UK might be tempted to declare Turtle Bay a failed experiment and do all of their diplomacy through NATO instead. That would be the end of their political leverage against American action -- after all, they do not belong to NATO themselves -- and they will find the SCO cold comfort when that happens.

Iran is stalling, and the Russians and Chinese are acting as enablers, at least for a while. Ultimately Iran will still have to provide an answer to the West, and the SCO will not alleviate that responsibilty.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 15, 2006 9:18 PM

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