The Iran-Saudi Cold War
November 6, 2008
James Brazier, Guest Contributor
There has been no Western outcry against Saudi Arabia�s mediation between the
Taliban and the Afghan government. On the contrary, the Mecca talks were
accompanied by senior British and U.S. officials indicating that such
discussions were an evitable part of ending the war in Afghanistan. Only one
country has denounced the meeting as an unacceptable capitulation to terrorism
and extremism: Iran. This position reflects the untold story of Iran�s tussle
with Saudi Arabia for regional influence.
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.
Those present included Saudi Arabia�s intelligence chief Prince Muqrin and his
predecessor Prince Turki al-Faisal; Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan�s
opposition and a man with very close links to the Saudi monarchy; and Wakil
Ahmad Muttawakil, the foreign minister of the former Taliban government in
Though the talks were exploratory and did not mark the start of a formal peace
process, in the days afterwards U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that
negotiations would ultimately be part of the end of the Afghan conflict
likening this to the situation in Iraq, where the U.S. sought peace with Sunni
Muslim insurgents. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the departing British
commander in Afghanistan, declared that the war could not be won militarily.
Karzai said the Afghan people were sick of the conflict. All this implied that
the Taliban could be accommodated in a negotiated settlement.
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
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. In August 1998 Taliban fighters slaughtered thousands of Shia Hazaras
in Mazar-e-Sharif. The Hazaras were closely aligned with the Northern Alliance,
an Iranian-backed rebel coalition dedicated to fighting the Taliban; the
conflict between these sides saw more than a million Afghan refugees flee to
Not surprisingly, Iran welcomed and assisted the Taliban�s downfall in 2001.
Writing in the Boston Globe in late October, Lawrence Korb, Ronald Reagan�s
former assistant defense secretary, noted that Iran helped U.S. forces to
depose the Taliban regime and then pledged $560 million in reconstruction aid
to Karzai�s government, which lifted the restrictions imposed on Shia practises
by the Taliban. Iran has no desire to see this situation reversed.
Stopping the Drugs Money
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. �There is overwhelming evidence of
Iran�s strong commitment to keep drugs leaving Afghanistan from reaching its
citizens,� said the U.S. State Department�s 2008 International Narcotics
Control Strategy Report (INCSR). �As Iran strives to achieve this goal, it also
prevents drugs from reaching markets in the West.�
The report noted that Iran has recorded �excellent� rates of drug seizures in
recent years and that the U.S. has approved licenses for U.S. anti-drugs NGOs
to work in Iran. It also noted that Iran has deployed unmanned surveillance
vehicles, real-time commercial satellite imagery, and night vision equipment
against the smugglers�and that some of this equipment was supplied by the West.
Iran has been particularly blighted by the $4 billion Afghan opium trade. The
Taliban receive money and arms from heroin smugglers in return for protecting
their poppy fields and trade routes. Typically, the smugglers pack bails of raw
opium or semi-processed heroin onto trucks or camel trains in Pakistan and then
try to cross Iran�s south-eastern border. Once in Iran, the heroin travels
north-west towards Europe via Turkey, but hundreds of thousands of young
Iranians have become addicted en route. Parts of the south-eastern state of
Sistan-Baluchistan are a virtual warzone due to battles between state forces
and heavily armed smugglers. Thousands of Iranian security forces have been
killed in these encounters.
The INCSR report made no reference to an alarming development in the drugs war,
one that threatens the political stability. It is Jundallah, a rebel group
fighting for an autonomous Baluchistan, but one clearly connected to the heroin
rings. Jundallah is drawn from Iran�s Baluch minority, a mostly Sunni ethnic
group, which straddles the Iran-Pakistan border. Some in the U.S. and Pakistan
have suggested the Baluch rebels are a tool of the Central Intelligence Agency,
perhaps controlled from the CIA�s station in Muscat, but the Iranians have
another theory: Saudi Arabia is behind Jundallah.
The Battle for Pakistan
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. The name �Taliban��the students�stems from the
original Taliban having studied at Saudi-funded religious institutions set up
in Pakistan in the 1980s. Despite the Taliban�s many atrocities, Riyadh only
broke relations with the Taliban government two weeks after September 11, 2001.
Iran sees a Saudi hand in Jundallah, another Sunni group connected to the
Taliban and its opium revenue. On October 22, 2008 Press TV, a mouthpiece of
the Iranian government, published a commentary entitled, �The princes of
shadows: How to sponsor terrorism Saudi style.� Its author, Arash Parsa,
accused Arab governments of colluding with Pakistan�s notorious Inter-Service
Intelligence (ISI) in the Jundallah rebellion.
Parsa queried the ease with which reporters from the Dubai-based al-Arabiya
television arranged interviews with Abdul Malik Rigi, Jundallah�s leader, even
though Pakistan has been unable to trace him. Al-Arabiya referred to the group
as a �popular resistance movement� and broadcasted footage of Jundallah
beheading captured Iranian servicemen, prompting Iran to expel al-Arabiya�s
Tehran bureau chief. Parsa went on to allege that Pakistan�s ISI is financially
supported by Riyadh and is in league with Jundallah.
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.
The Saudis, on the other hand, are heavily invested in the career of Nawaz
Sharif, Zardari�s main rival. Sharif lived in well-appointed exile in Riyadh
for seven years until 2007, when the personal intervention of King Abdullah
forced Islamabad to allow Sharif�s return and his resumption of political life.
The former prime minister is viewed with great suspicion by the U.S., which has
great reservations about his record, not least his decision to conduct nuclear
tests in 1998 and his courtship of Islamist votes.
Sharif is a vocal critic of Pakistan�s role in the war on terror and he is a
leading advocate of talks with the Taliban. Sharif was instrumental in bringing
about the Mecca meeting and his role helped to boost his political stature at
home. Sharif is also leading efforts to persuade the Saudis to allow Pakistan
to defer paying for oil shipments, which Saudi Arabia used to tolerate while
Pakistan was subject to its post-nuclear sanctions.
Riyadh has so far refused to extend this �oil facility� to Zardari�s
government, which faces an economy close to collapse. Sensing an opportunity,
Iran has stepped in to offer a similar deal. In June Iran announced it would
begin to export 1,100MW of electricity to Pakistan each year. One hundred
megawatts would go to the new Gwadar deep-sea port on Pakistan�s Makran coast,
despite the port being in direct competition with Iran�s India-backed Chahbahar
port. Iran is also eager to pipe natural gas through Pakistan to India, though
this project has been delayed by Delhi�s stalling.
Iran hopes that such endeavors will encourage peace between India and Pakistan
and allow the latter to devote more resources to destroying the Taliban.
Conversely, Sharif and his Saudi backers hope to preserve the Taliban in some
form as a means of projecting influence into Afghanistan. This explains their
eagerness for a negotiated settlement, and Iran�s opposition to such a deal.
Ultimately, the winner of this strategic tussle will be decided by the U.S.,
whose dedication to destroying the Taliban is beginning to wane. Some in
Washington, like Korb, believe that Barack Obama�s new administration should
embrace Iran, whose strategic priorities clearly overlap in part with those of
the U.S. Others, however, remain convinced that Iran is a greater long-term
problem than the Taliban, and that the U.S. would be wise to balance Iranian
influence with the Sunni hardliners preferred by Riyadh.
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