Iran-US tensions dominate two Central Asia summits

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) during their meeting before the start of the fifth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 15 June 2019. EPA- [Kremlin pool/EPA/EFE]

This article is part of our special report EU and Central Asia: A new strategy.

Two regional summits held in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last week had a common denominator: the support from Russia and China to Iran in the face of US threats after two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the other leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan – attended the annual summit of this organisation in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on 14 June.

The eight-member group is a political, economic and security alliance led by China and Russia, which represents 43% of the global world population. Their members create strategic alliances and are supposed to support each other.

The group is open to forge new trade ties in the Central Asian region and build a common counter-terrorism strategy. But there are continued differences that cause rivalry in the group – between India and Pakistan or between China and Russia, which are both trying to reinforce their influence in Asia.

The outcome of the summit was a declaration calling for greater cooperation and sustaining security in the region.

Rohani: US is “a serious risk to stability” 

Iran has observer status in the Shanghai group whose summit was attended by the country’s President, Hassan Rohani.

In his speech, Rohani refuted US allegations that Iran was involved in the attacks on a Japanese and a Norwegian oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. He then described the USA as a threat to global stability.

“The US government over the last two years, is violating all the international structures and rules. Using its economic, financial and military resources, it has taken an aggressive approach and presents a serious risk to stability in the region and the world,” Rohani said.

Rohani found support from China and Russia, which both have heavy agendas with the USA. The US military released a video with poor resolution, which showed a crew allegedly from an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from the side of one of the ships. Rohani denied any connection with the attacks.

Russia takes over the SCO chairmanship and the next summit will be held in Chelyabinsk on 22-23 July 2020.

Central Asian leaders then flew to Dushanbe, the capital of neighbouring state Tajikistan, for the 5th summit of  the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), on 15 June. The CICA is an Asian regional grouping for enhancing cooperation, promoting peace and common development. Currently, the organisation has 27 members.

In presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Rohani repeated the ultimatum he made in May: Iran will continue to pull back from its nuclear commitments unless other countries protect it from American sanctions.

“It is obvious that Iran cannot unilaterally remain committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and it is necessary that other countries contribute to the survival of this important agreement,” Rohani told participants at the summit.

“With our good will and strategic tolerance on one hand and the US lawlessness on the other hand, [Iran] has decided to reduce its obligations under the plan of action to restore a balance,” he said.

This nuclear agreement restricts Iran’s ability to enrich uranium in return from relief from US led sanctions, but the Trump’s administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal last year.

The CICA summit addressed issues of security, including counter-terrorism and the situation of Palestine, which was highlighted in the final declaration. CICA questioned its own possible role on the matter, referring to the UN’s long history of failure in finding a solution to the conflict.

“We see it as necessary to resume negotiations on the Middle East peace process in order to achieve a two-state solution based on international law, the relevant UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative, for two sovereign states to live side by side in peace, harmony, comfort and security,” the declaration says.

Erdoğan: Russian missile issue “is settled”

Several bilateral meetings were also held after the summit, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan talked with Vladimir Putin about the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. US-Turkey tensions have mounted in recent months because the Russian missiles are not compatible with NATO’s own defence system.

“We discussed the S-400 subject with Russia. Indeed, the S-400 issue is settled,” said Erdoğan on his way from Tajikistan to reporters. He also expects the first missiles will arrive in July.

US acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan this month outlined how Turkey would be pulled out of the F-35 fighter jet program unless Ankara changed course from its plans to buy the Russian missile system.

The summit in Dushanbe coincided with the birthday of China’s President Xi Jinping, to whom his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin offered boxes of Russian ice cream.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Frédéric Simon]

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