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Afghanistan: A Bellwether for Saudi-Iranian Rivalry?

Afghanistan could emerge as a venue for Middle Eastern rivalries.

Takeaways


  • Afghanistan could be a bellwether for the future of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • Mohammed bin Salman is trying to distance Saudi Arabia from identification with austere interpretations of Islam that it has shared with the Taliban.
  • Iran sees its biggest threat in the formation of an anti-Iran political system in Afghanistan.
  • Before 2001, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan could emerge as a venue for Middle Eastern rivalries involving not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but potentially also Turkey and Qatar.
  • Saudi steps to moderate the Taliban and facilitate a peaceful resolution of the Afghanistan conflict are unlikely to have ingratiated the kingdom with the Taliban.
  • Iran and Saudi Arabia might both end up backing a group, the Taliban, with a history of fire-breathing anti-Shiism.

Afghanistan boasts an almost 1,000-kilometer border with Iran and a history of troubled relations between the Iranians and Sunni Muslim militants, including the Taliban.

It could be a bellwether for the future of the rivalry between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s role as a regional chameleon

Had the United States withdrawn from Afghanistan several years earlier, chances are that Saudi Arabia would have sought to exploit military advances by the Taliban in far less subtle ways than it may do now.

Saudi Arabia was still channeling funds in 2017 to anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite militants in the Iranian-Afghan-Pakistani border triangle and further south on the Pakistani side of the frontier.

Sharing an austere version of Islam

This was done despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to distance the kingdom from identification with austere interpretations of Islam that shaped the country’s history and that it shared with the Taliban.

“The Taliban is a religious extremist group which is no stranger to extremism and murder, especially murdering Shias, and its hands are stained with the blood of our diplomats,” noted an Iranian cleric. He was referring to the 1998 killing of eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan as tripwire for Iran

Outgoing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif outlined the potential tripwire Afghanistan constitutes for Iran.

“If Iran doesn’t play well and makes an enemy out of the Taliban soon, I think some Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and the United States would attempt to finance and direct the Taliban to weaken Tehran and divert its attention away from Iraq and other Arab countries.

The biggest threat for us would be the formation of an anti-Iran political system in Afghanistan,” Mr. Zarif said.

Saudi Arabia’s early recognition of the Taliban

It is tempting to compare the potential problems that Iran would have with an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban or a neighboring country at war with itself to Saudi Arabia’s Houthi troubles in Yemen.

Before the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban’s control of the country.

At the time, it saw virtue in stirring the pot on Iran’s borders.

Much has changed not only in the last two decades but also in the last few years, since both Saudi Arabia and some Trump administration officials like then U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton were toying with the idea of attempting to spark ethnic insurgencies inside Iran.

Afghanistan is neither Yemen — nor are the Taliban the Houthis

The Taliban have sought in recent weeks to assure Afghanistan’s neighbors that they seek cooperation and would not be supporting militancy beyond their country’s borders.

Last month, Iran hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that ended with a joint statement calling for a peaceful political settlement and declaring that “war is not the solution.”

It has been war ever since

From the Saudi perspective, it would not be the first time that the Taliban have said one thing and done another. The Taliban failed to keep an alleged promise prior to 9/11 that Osama Bin Laden would not be allowed to plan and organize attacks from Afghan soil.

The Taliban also refused to hand over the Saudi national.

Afghanistan as a venue for Middle East rivalries

Still, Afghanistan could emerge as a venue for Middle Eastern rivalries involving not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but potentially also Turkey and Qatar.

It probably will be such a venue, albeit one in which battles are likely to be fought less through proxies and more economically and culturally. It will be a venue in which alliances look significantly different than in the past.

Vastly different alliances than in the past

A crucial factor in how the rivalries play out will be the Taliban’s attitude towards non-Pashtun ethnic and religious groups.

“If Afghanistan returns to the situation before September 11, 2001, when the Taliban were at war with the Shia Hazara and the Turkic Uzbeks, then Iran and Turkey will almost inevitably be drawn in on the other side—especially if Saudi Arabia resumes support for the Taliban as a way of attacking Iran…

Ideally, a regional consensus could successfully pressure the Taliban to respect the autonomy of minority areas,” said Eurasia scholar Anatol Lieven.

Saudia Arabia’s public relations push

Supporting the Taliban, a group that is identified with violation of women’s rights, could prove tricky for Prince Mohammed.

He is seeking to convince the international community that the kingdom has broken with an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that inspired groups like the Afghan militants.

A beacon of moderate and tolerant faith?

It would also complicate the crown prince’s efforts to project his country as a beacon of a moderate and tolerant form of the faith. And it would complicate relations with the United States.

Moreover, Prince Mohammed’s religious soft power strategy may be working. In a sign of changing times, Western non-governmental organizations, such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation look to Saudi Arabia as a model for the Taliban.

“The way Saudi Arabia has developed in the past 10, 20 years is remarkable. I have seen with my own eyes how much (they) have reconciled modern life, women’s rights, women education, work-life, and still guarding (their) Islamic values. This could be a certain role model for the Taliban,” said Ellinor Zeino, the Foundation’s Afghanistan country director, in a webinar hosted by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRI).

Saudi Arabia has not ingratiated itself with the Taliban

So far Saudi steps to moderate the Taliban and facilitate a peaceful resolution of the Afghanistan conflict are unlikely to have ingratiated the kingdom with the Taliban.

A Saudi-hosted Islamic Conference on the Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan in the holy city of Mecca in June attended by Afghan and Pakistani Islamic scholars and government officials condemned the recent violence as having “no justification” and asserting that “it could not be called jihad.”

Fueling the fire, Yusuf Bin Ahmed Al Uthaymeen, the secretary-general of the 57-nation, Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), told the conference that the Taliban-led violence amounted to “genocide against Muslims.”

Conclusion

The rhetoric notwithstanding, conservative Iran’s inclination to accommodate the Taliban as President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office could see the Islamic republic and the kingdom both backing a group, if it comes to power in Kabul, with a history of fire-breathing anti-Shiism.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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