Ministry plays down talk of Iran joining group

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 August, 2007, 12:00am

One of Beijing's top foreign ministry officials has played down speculation that Iran could be joining the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation soon, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying the SCO still lacked a legal basis for taking in new members.

Speaking ahead of President Hu Jintao's visit next week to the annual SCO summit, assistant Foreign Minister Li Hui said it was premature to say whether Iran would become a member of the six-nation group. This year, the summit will be held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attending as an observer.

'On the one hand, the SCO is not an enclosed grouping. It wants to develop and expand. Now, the SCO is looking at how to enhance co-operation with observer states,' Mr Li said. 'But on the other hand, the SCO still lacks the legal documents needed to admit new members.'

When it was established, in Shanghai in 1996, the group had five members - the mainland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - and was called the Shanghai Five until the admission of Uzbekistan in 2001.

Concerns over the possible inclusion of Iran, which received SCO observer status in 2005, emerged when Mr Ahmadinejad attended last year's summit, in Shanghai. The US and some European countries have expressed concerns that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran says it has the right to enrich uranium for fuel.

Increasingly seen as a counterbalance to the United States' interests in Central Asia, the grouping has attracted some countries in the region vying for full membership. Apart from Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia have also applied to be full members.

In addition to the leaders of the six member states, leaders from Mongolia, India and Afghanistan will also attend next week's summit in Bishkek.

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and UN undersecretary-general for political affairs Lynn Pascoe will be making their first appearance at a SCO summit this year, according to Mr Li.

Mr Hu's trip next week will also take him to Russia, where he will preside over a military exercise jointly held by the SCO's six member states, and then to Kazakhstan.

The military drill, dubbed the Peace Mission 2007, is the first anti-terrorism exercise jointly held by the SCO member states.

'Central Asian countries have been under the threat of three forces, namely terrorism, separatism and extremism,' Mr Li said. 'Through the exercise, the six nations hope they can strengthen their security and improve co-operation and capacity in the joint fight against terrorism.'