SHANGHAI, China—One of China's pet foreign-policy ventures, an alliance of largely authoritarian-led countries in Asia, is flying higher, and Iran is trying to catch the updraft.
Iran's leader will be a guest of honor Thursday as President Hu Jintao of China opens a daylong summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is made up of China, Russia and four Central Asian nations. Iran and other countries want membership in the 5-year-old alliance, a sign that China says underscores the group's expanding clout.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's interests include joint military exercises, energy cooperation, enhanced trade and extensive intelligence-sharing on restive groups deemed a threat to the rule of authoritarian leaders.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to speak at the summit and to hold sideline meetings with Hu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, presumably to appeal for ways to shield Iran from criticism over its nuclear program.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in February that it couldn't confirm whether Iran's nuclear program was aimed entirely at generating civilian electrical power, as Iran contends. It called for Iran to cooperate more in its investigation and to suspend uranium enrichment. The United States and other countries suspect that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.
An informal focus on Iran at the summit is likely to solidify an impression that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization carries an anti-U.S. tinge.
"The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, rightly or wrongly, has acquired the image as a phalanx of countries determined to check American influence in the Central Asian region," said M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador in Uzbekistan.
China denies that the alliance seeks to become a military bloc or target any country, saying its aim is to enhance strategic cooperation and fight the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Attending the summit are leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, all Central Asian members of the group. Also attending are leaders of Pakistan and Mongolia and a Cabinet minister from India. Those three countries and Iran have observer status in the alliance. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is an official guest.
Last year the alliance called on the United States to set a deadline for removing American bases from Central Asia. Uzbekistan later ordered the closing of a U.S. base on its territory. Kyrgyzstan is seeking a hundredfold increase in the rent that Washington pays for an air base.
The grouping of six members and four observers comprises four nuclear powers, more than 40 percent of the globe's population and nearly a quarter of the world's oil reserves.
Many members are communist or formerly communist countries led by authoritarian leaders who are coordinating to ensure continued rule and who fear Muslim extremism at home.
"The kinds of terrorists they are interested in are not the kinds that we are worried about," said Charles E. Morrison, the president of the East-West Center, a Honolulu-based research and dialogue forum partly funded by the U.S. Congress.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said Wednesday that the alliance's members had "committed serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the name of counterterrorism."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said earlier this month that he found it "strange" and "unusual" that Iran would be invited to a summit of "an organization that says it's against terrorism."
Successive U.S. governments have accused Iran of sponsoring terrorist groups in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.
China has refused to identify which other nations are seeking to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Assistant Foreign Minister Li Hui recently said, "A lot of countries . . . have expressed a strong interest . . . and we are happy about it."
"The SCO is gathering momentum," said Bhadrakumar, the former Indian diplomat.
In pulling out the red carpet, authorities declared a three-day holiday in Shanghai, China's financial capital, closing schools and government offices and clearing the streets.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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