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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