Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a campaign rally in the capital Tehran on April 29, 2017. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

Like in a Wagnerian music drama, there is an associated melodic theme that accompanies the situations behind the two big regional developments last week – the announcement of the AUKUS security alliance of three “maritime democracies” on September 15 and Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a full member on September 17. 

Both developments broke a glass ceiling. AUKUS is projected as a template of US-China rivalry, but equipping Australia with a fleet of submarines is no small matter.

Australia struggles to keep its six existing Collins-class submarines operational and it now is being groomed to build a fleet of nuclear-powered subs, for which it has neither the trained manpower nor the nuclear infrastructure necessary. The terrible beauty of AUKUS is that it is scanty on details.

The timeline of AUKUS must be in the range of 10-20 years, no less. By then, God only knows where China will have galloped away. Surely, AUKUS cannot be about a nuclear war against China. 

On the other hand, nuclear submarines can operate completely submerged at high speed almost indefinitely. They could equip Australia with the capability to provide security for the exploitation of the vast ocean beds of the western Pacific and South and East China Seas – and the Indian Ocean – in a timeline of the next 10-20 years with the futuristic tools of artificial intelligence. 

The scramble for resources is accelerating and emerging as, arguably, the most crucial aspect of the post-pandemic economic recovery of the big powers.

Similarly, the SCO’s formal approval for Iran’s membership also has a geo-economic impetus. The China and Russia-led SCO dragged its feet for a full 13 years to reach this defining moment. 

The SCO even adopted at the 2010 Tashkent summit, after Tehran’s application for membership in 2008, new criteria stipulating that an aspiring member state “should have no sanctions imposed on it by the United Nations Security Council,” whose very purpose was in effect to disqualify Iran.

This file handout picture released by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows atomic enrichment facilities at Iran’s Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

Although the UN sanctions against Iran were removed in the wake of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the SCO still dragged its feet for another six years before changing course. Believe it or not, Tajikistan, which is seldom credited with an independent foreign policy, blocked Iran’s membership.

Evidently, powerful considerations have come into play for Beijing and Moscow to coordinate and quickly roll out the SCO red carpet for Tehran. 

Three considerations need to be weighed in. First and foremost, the Western sanctions against Iran are going to be removed soon. Iran has seized the initiative to calibrate its uranium enrichment at will, which leaves the US with only two options – attack and destroy Iran’s nuclear assets (which means all-out war), or give up the bluster and realistically arrive at a deal so that Tehran is bound by its JCPOA commitments. 

Tehran’s dependence on Russia and China’s help at the Vienna negotiations has diminished, while Washington’s desperation is palpable.

Moscow and Beijing are in a hurry to get Iran into the SCO tent. Early birds catch worms. Moscow and Beijing are making their moves before the highway to Tehran gets crowded with Western companies.

Moscow hopes to strengthen the trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran and have a chunky piece of Iran’s reconstruction pie. As for China, it hopes to implement the so-called 25-year, US$400 billion economic deal with Iran that will soon begin to generate big income. 

Meanwhile, the ascendance of the new “conservative” government in Tehran becomes a reassuring factor for them. President Ebrahim Raisi’s government has shown interest in forging close ties with the countries in the East and it makes sense for Moscow and Beijing to strike when the iron is hot. 

The worrying fact, however, remains: The Raisi government is also a staunchly nationalist regime that treasures the country’s strategic autonomy and can be expected to negotiate hard to secure national interests, and it has set ambitious goals for the country’s economic regeneration with the infusion of Western capital and advanced technology. 

Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference in Tehran on June 21, 2021, after winning the presidential election. Photo: AFP / Shota Mizuno / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The choice of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as Raisi’s foreign minister is itself an utterly fascinating development.

Here is a highly experienced professional diplomat with impeccable political credentials as regards his unwavering commitment to the ideals of the 1979 Revolution, who was also a close associate of the legendary head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, the late General Qasem Soleimani – with a shared perspective both on the raison d’être of Iran’s politics of justice and resistance as well as Soleimani’s innate pragmatism to have waged a titanic struggle against ISIS in Iraq on a forceful track parallel to the US efforts. 

Abdollahian is familiar to American diplomats, having negotiated in the Green Zone in Baghdad in 2007 the ground rules of cohabitation in a turbulent Iraq under US occupation, which worked well for Tehran.

Finally, Iran’s attitude toward the highly volatile situation in Afghanistan is going to be hugely consequential to the SCO’s own future. Russia and China are harping on their anti-terrorism concerns, but that is not the whole story – or even the real story.

As any great power in history would have done, they also are moving with an eye on Afghan reconstruction.

They are intensely conscious that the US, the UK and other Western countries too will wet their toes sooner rather than later to access Afghanistan’s trillions of dollars worth of mineral reserves. 

Russian commentators are increasingly talking about the need for special forces operations inside Afghanistan. A brutal big-power struggle for mineral resources as in Mali or in some other African countries may well erupt over Afghanistan, too.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch over miners at a gold mine on a mountainside near the village of Qara Zaghan in Baghlan province, Afghanistan in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Shah Marai

Russia and China are coordinating their policies. Iran becomes an “X factor” here. The expectation that the SCO membership will incentivize Tehran to team up with Moscow and Beijing remains a hypothesis as of now. So far, Iran has largely pursued an independent policy toward Afghanistan. 

For the first time, on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Dushanbe on September 17, Iran appeared on an exclusive foreign minister-level format with Russia, China and Pakistan. But it was a perfunctory performance. Abdollahian had already left Dushanbe en route to New York. 

Quintessentially, Iran remains a “swing state.” It lacks herd mentality, given its proud civilizational heritage. Growing integration into the world community will not dilute Iran’s strategic autonomy – be it in Syria and Iraq or in Afghanistan. The ball is now truly and squarely in the Western court.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.