By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 16, 2006
SHANGHAI, June 15 -- Overshadowing a regional summit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested Thursday that China, Russia and neighboring Central Asian nations should help Iran resist growing pressure from the United States and Europe to limit its nuclear development program.
The appeal, in a speech to leaders of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization, seemed aimed in particular at China and Russia. The two nations, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have been reluctant to endorse the threat of U.N. sanctions and other steps being pushed by the Bush administration to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium and submit its nuclear program to international controls.
Ahmadinejad's remarks were also framed to portray the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a bloc opposed to the threats that have accompanied the U.S. and European campaign against Tehran's nuclear program. In addition to China and Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan make up the group, which was founded five years ago under Chinese leadership to foster regional security and economic cooperation.
"We want this organization to develop into a powerful body, influential in regional and international politics, economics and trade, and also serve to block threats and unlawful strong-arm interference from various countries," Ahmadinejad declared.
The five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- along with Germany recently proposed a new package of incentives designed to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment and begin negotiations on its nuclear ambitions. Although Russia and China signed on, they have signaled reluctance to approve sanctions or other punitive action that Washington has warned could follow unless Iran buys into the proposals.
Iran has insisted that its program is aimed exclusively at producing energy and that it is within its rights to develop nuclear technology like other nations. But U.S. and European officials have suggested that the ultimate goal is nuclear weapons.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, urged Iran to accept the incentives package. In keeping with the Chinese position, he said diplomacy, not force or threats of sanctions, was the way to deal with the standoff. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing met with his Iranian counterpart to foster a favorable reply from Tehran, Liu said. But he added, "They still need a little time."
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hu Jintao of China did not respond publicly to Ahmadinejad's appeal, but Putin told reporters that Iran was favorably disposed to the U.S.-European offer.
Appearing uncomfortable with the focus on the nuclear standoff, Liu suggested that reporters here were paying too much attention to Iran and not enough to festivities marking the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's fifth anniversary. Iran was invited as an observer nation, along with leaders from Pakistan, Mongolia and India. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was also on hand, at the invitation of China, because joint action against drug smuggling was high on the agenda.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested recently that Ahmadinejad should not have been allowed to attend because one of the organization's main goals is to fight terrorism -- and according to the Bush administration, Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Rumsfeld's comments also highlighted a more general U.S. uneasiness over the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group with growing influence revolving around Chinese and Russian leadership and excluding the United States.
In a communique, the participating heads of state said they intended to work out a mechanism "to adopt measures in response to developments that threaten regional peace, stability and security." While vague, the agreement suggested more formal military cooperation among Russia, China and their Central Asian partners. Hu also proposed that the body's six members begin negotiations toward a friendship and security treaty.
Recognizing U.S. concerns, Hu and other leaders emphasized in speeches that the organization was not aimed against any other countries.
But the background music of independence from U.S. influence seemed clearly audible as the six nations celebrated their cooperation. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, for instance, complained that "foreign forces stationed in the region" had failed to dampen drug smuggling from Afghanistan and had sought to "rope in" Central Asian nations to advance their own interests.
Uzbekistan, along with Kyrgyzstan, accepted U.S. military forces on its soil to support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Uzbekistan has since expelled the U.S. military from its base in the country, and Karimov's relations with Washington have soured. At a summit last year, Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders called on the United States to set a deadline for the withdrawal of military installations from all member states.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said his country was keen to upgrade its status in the organization from observer to full member. Musharraf portrayed Pakistan as an "energy corridor" for the movement of Persian Gulf oil into the giant Chinese economy, reflecting the organization's strong appeal to the nations surrounding China that are eager to share in its growing prosperity.
China has helped finance a port at Gwadar, in southwestern Pakistan, and planning is underway for a road link between Gwadar and western China. Similarly, China has given low-interest loans for several projects in the Central Asian nations belonging to the organization.
Ahmadinejad suggested that Iran, with its large oil reserves, was also eager to play a part. He called for a regional energy conference to be held in Tehran, an idea that Liu said appealed to China.