The Iran-Saudi Arabia Cold War
One of the untold stories about the effects of U.S. involvement in the Middle East has been the escalating power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for control of the region. At the height of the insurgency in Iraq, for instance, Saudi Arabia—a supposed U.S. ally—was funneling money and volunteers to the Sunni insurgency to undermine the Maliki government, which it feared could become too susceptible to Iranian influence. The insurgency was prolonged by both countries funding militants in hopes of filling the power vacuum and/or preventing the other from taking control.
It’s also happening in Afghanistan, as Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken opposing stances on whether the Afghan government should negotiate with the Taliban. From the Diplomatic Courier:
The talks, held at the behest of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, took place in Mecca during the final three days of Ramadan, which ended on September 29 … The prospect of some sort of Taliban rehabilitation received a much frostier reception in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki urged the U.S. against talks, saying that the Taliban’s extremism could not be confined to the Middle East and West Asia. Iran’s ambassador to the UN said that negotiations would make Afghanistan even less stable. The chairman of Iran’s parliamentary foreign policy and national security committee said the talks would spread terrorism.
Iran despises the Taliban for three reasons. The first is sectarian. Iran is a Shia theocracy, whereas the Taliban are Sunni extremists who view Shias as heretics … Not surprisingly, Iran welcomed and assisted the Taliban’s downfall in 2001.
A second reason for Iran’s posture is the Taliban’s involvement in the production and shipment of Afghan opiates. Iran’s impact on the Taliban’s drugs revenue is one of the untold stories of the war on terror. Even the U.S. has praised Iran’s efforts against narcotics.
A third reason that Iran dislikes the Taliban is because it sees the militia as a tool of Arab influence in West Asia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among only three countries, the other being Pakistan, to recognise the Taliban’s government in Afghanistan.
Iran is locked in a battle with the Saudis for influence in Pakistan. Tehran is favorably impressed by Pakistan’s new president Asif Zardari, who hails from a Shia Baluch family. Zardari’s prime minister and foreign minister are both drawn from Pakistan’s majority Barelvi sect, a syncretic form of Sunnism that shares elements with Shiism (such as the worship of saints). Zardari has publicly pledged himself to the war against the Taliban and has also forsworn violence against India, an old Iranian ally. Since he took office in September, Pakistan’s army has waged its most effective campaign against the Pakistan-based Taliban to date, killing as many as 1,000 militants during a summer offensive in the Bajaur tribal agency.
I’m not sure what to think about the Taliban negotiations. That is a group that should never return to power and I have a feeling that if they are given a seat at the table in the Afghan government, it’s only a matter of time before an attempted coup. On the other hand, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan may be the only way to completely marginalize their extremist ideology.
The danger in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that the U.S. will make the wrong decisions simply to counter Iranian influence. We, at times, overestimate our influence in the Middle East. Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons may be in part about defending itself against a possible U.S. invasion, but it is probably more about muscling out Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the region.
If we’re too singularly focused on preventing that, we may end up just replacing one extremist regional power with another.