Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Stir Over Iran President's Trip to 'Terror' Conference

Geoff Dyer and Andrew Yeh, The Financial Times:
A central Asian summit to discuss security issues is likely to be overshadowed by the presence of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the controversial president of Iran, who arrives in Shanghai on Wednesday. He will be an observer at Thursday’s summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. The five-year-old grouping is one of China’s first attempts at playing a bigger diplomatic role in the region but it is prompting growing concern in the US.

Much attention will be focused on how China and Russia behave towards Iran and whether the countries discuss Iran’s nuclear fuel programme on the sidelines. READ MORE

China and Russia, both members of the United Nations Security Council, have been much less keen than the US or European governments to seek tougher action against Iran’s nuclear programme.

China has been trying to build closer relations with a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, because of its ever-growing demand for oil. Iran provides about 13 per cent of China’s imports of oil and Beijing has signed a deal to buy liquefied natural gas from Iran and to allow a Chinese company to exploit the Yadavaran oilfield in Iran.

However, China will be keen not to let the presence of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad eclipse a diplomatic event that has been meticulously planned and which is one of its main strategies for projecting political influence in Asia.

Analysts in the US had already expressed concern that the SCO was becoming a bulwark against US interests in the region, even before Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s visit was announced.

In addition to China and Russia, other SCO members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India, Pakistan and Mongolia have observer status. The organisation was designed to combat terrorism in the region and claims not to be a military alliance, although the member countries have conducted joint military exercises.

But at a conference in Singapore last week, Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, said it was strange that China and Russia would invite “a leading terrorist nation” to “an organisation that says it is against terror”.

In the run-up to the meeting, there has been speculation that Iran will be offered permanent membership of the SCO.

However, in recent days officials have played down the prospects of new members joining this week. Li Hui, China’s assistant foreign minister, said a number of countries had applied to join but there were several obstacles, including the absence of a clear application procedure.

Yang Guang, head of a Middle East research institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a state think-tank, said Iran’s attendance at the SCO was normal and a chance for more diplomatic progress on the nuclear issue. But he said now might not be the time to allow Iran permanent member SCO status.

In his first visit to China since being elected last year, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is scheduled to meet President Hu Jintao.