Blocks Shaping Up
It hasn't made much news, but there is an important development with Iran requesting to join the "Shanghai Cooperation Group," even as that group takes the first steps in becoming a military alliance. (The account in the Kommersant is best, as well as being a good sample of the much racier, more tabloid style of Russian journalism. Only in Russian papers do foreign ministers "snap" their comments about other countries. Another account here.)
The organization was previewed in 1996, and became formal in 2001, a few months before 9/11. By all accounts the driving force was China, who was seeking to cooperate with Russia and the new Central Asia republics on her border (except for isolationist Turkmenistan). (Boring, but important, facts from Wikipedia here.)
The question from the beginning was, is this an anti-American alliance? After 9/11, there was a(short-lived) change of US attitude towards Chinese presence in Xinjiang and Central Asia: human rights and geopolitical rivalries were temporarily downplayed, while anti-terror cooperation was put first. The Shanghai Cooperation Group suddenly focused on terrorism and Islamic radicalism, something that all members felt threatened by.
Another thing that unified the members, soon enough, was an increasingly hostile attitude to democracy. Significantly, Mongolia, the only country in the region that is democratic, has no significant Islamic issues, and is friendly to the US, did not join at first, although she became an observer in 2004. India, Pakistan, and Iran became observers a year later. Belarus shares nothing with these countries except hostility to the United States and democracy and it too wants to become an observer. Of these countries, Pakistan and Iran seem strongly interested in full membership, with India's attitude a bit more stand-offish. (As far as I tell Mongolia seems uninterested in raising her status to membership.)
China in particular seems concerned that broadening the organization's membership will diffuse its focus and slow progress in its intensification of cooperation. It was in 2005 that the organization held its first formal joint military exercises, and they are being repeated this year.
Iran is now formally been considered as a member. The organization focus is fighting "terrorism, extremism, and separatism" -- the irony of Iran's current government being pledged to fight terrorism and extremism seems lost on many. The admission of Iran would be a virtual public admission that the organization's real purpose is as a counter-block to the United States.