Ahmadinejad to Attend Security Summit
BISHKEK (AP) -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived yesterday in Kyrgyzstan to join the leaders of Russia and China for a summit of a regional group seen as a platform for countering US interests in strategic, energy-rich Central Asia.
The United States, which maintains an air base in the host country, is keeping a close eye on Thursday's gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which also includes four ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia.
The SCO emerged 11 years ago to address religious extremism and border security issues in Central Asia. China and Russia have been pushing for strengthening the group since the US military set up air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to support the anti-terror campaign in nearby Afghanistan.
In recent years, with Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia signing on as observers, the group has been emerging as potentially a broader and more powerful bloc aimed at resisting US domination in world affairs. Ahmadinejad is attending the annual summit for the second year in a row.
At last year's summit in Shanghai, the Iranian president called on the SCO to become "a strong, influential economic, political and trading institution" that could act to "prevent the threats of domineering powers and their aggressive interference in global affairs."
Although the SCO has welcomed Ahmadinejad, accepting Iran as a full member will not be on the table any time soon, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal. "Making Iran a member would be seen as an open challenge to the United States, a call for confrontation," he said.
The organization, whose members are some of the world's biggest energy producers and consumers, also has begun to embrace economic cooperation. At Thursday's summit, the leaders plan to discuss the creation of an SCO Energy Club, a Kremlin official said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
A further sign of the group's intention to influence energy markets is the participation in the Bishkek summit of Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, whose country is the second-largest producer of gas in the former Soviet Union after Russia. Turkmenistan is not a member of SCO; the president is attending as a guest.
Ahmadinejad stopped in Turkmenistan on his way to Bishkek to meet with Berdymukhamedov.
The Turkmen president also received a visit this week from Daniel Sullivan, US assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs. The United States wants Turkmenistan's support for an undersea Caspian gas pipeline, which would circumvent Russian-controlled export routes.
For Washington, a more immediate worry is the fate of its military base in Bishkek. Neighboring Uzbekistan kicked US troops out in 2005 after the SCO called on the United States to set a deadline for withdrawing its troops from the Kyrgyz and Uzbek bases.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov said the organization's opposition to a prolonged US military presence in Central Asia has not changed. "It is still in force," he said in an interview published Wednesday in the Vremya Novostei newspaper.
Denisov also warned against attempts to pull the Central Asian countries away from Russia.
US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said during a visit to Bishkek in June that the US air base there was a bilateral issue and "not an issue for discussion between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization."
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabayev has signaled in the run-up to the summit that his country is not seeking closure of the US base, saying that it is important for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.