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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iran the Fly in Ointment at Asia Security Summit

BEIJING -- China said Monday that a summit this week of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would highlight the group's rising stature, but Iran, with its messy nuclear problems, threatened to highlight its limits.

Leaders of the organization's six members -- China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- will meet in Shanghai on Thursday to plan the future of the five-year-old group, which has been one of China's first concerted forays into regional diplomacy.

"For China, this is one of the most important diplomatic activities of the year," Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Hui said at a news conference in Beijing, adding that it would produce a series of agreements on security and economic cooperation.

"The SCO's influence is expanding and its international status is rising," he said.

But when the SCO meets, the world's eyes will also fall on one of group's four observer states -- Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be attending.

The SCO's other observer members are India, Pakistan and Mongolia. Afghanistan is a guest participant.

Li said participation in the Shanghai meeting would "discuss and exchange views on regional, international and bilateral issues," but he declined to specify whether Iran was one of those issues.

Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, says it has a right to a civilian nuclear program, and denies U.S. accusations it is trying to build an atomic bomb.

Iran is considering a plan drawn up by Britain, France and Germany and approved by the United States, China and Russia. If Iran rejects the package, including incentives and penalties, the Western powers may push for United Nations-backed sanctions, a step China and Russia have resisted.

Any progress in Shanghai over Iran is likely to happen in informal talks, not at the main meetings, said Guo Xiangang, an expert on China and Iran at the China Institute of International Studies, a government think tank in Beijing.

"China and Russia are leading powers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and they'll probably be working on Iran to persuade it that the plan is in its interests," said Guo, a former diplomat who served in Tehran for four years. "The Shanghai meeting isn't in a position to make it a central topic. It's not going to make such a big, complex issue that doesn't involve a full member a focus."

China's long-standing ties and growing trade with Iran give it some leverage in the nuclear dispute, but China depends on Iran for oil imports, constraining that leverage, said John Calabrese of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Iran is China's third-biggest supplier of crude oil imports -- behind Saudi Arabia and Angola -- and imports from Iran rose to 1.63 million tons in the first four months of this year, a 24.7 percent rise on the same period last year and 13.6 percent of China's total crude imports.

"Iran has come to rely on Moscow and Beijing as political shields," Calabrese said. "And it's likely to use Shanghai to remind them of their very important economic links."