Saudi Arabia- Iran Rivalry in Afghanistan
Halford Mackinder’s concepts have assumed classic status in the world of political geography today. One of the most significant ideas of Mackinder, which is often referred to, states that control of Eastern Europe would bring command of the ‘Heartland,’ thus control of the ‘World-Island’ (Eurasia), and ultimately the ‘World’. The South Asia, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan being part of the ‘Heartland,’ face the complex web of conflicting interests and competing rivalries amongst regional as well as trans-regional actors. With US led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) undertaking drawdown from Afghanistan, the tendency among the countries of the region, both near and distant, to hedge their bets in the war torn country is expected to accelerate. Iran and Saudi Arabia, each proclaiming to be the rightful leader of the Muslim World and rivaling the other, are no exception to this phenomenon and continue to challenge each other for influence in this region. The ensuing paragraphs will identify conflicting interests that fuel Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry with particular reference to Afghanistan. The competing rivalry among Persian Gulf giants dates back to ancient history of ‘Arab’ and ‘Ajam’ ethnic concept. In the modern history, the discovery of oil in Persian Gulf initiated the competition for the domination of global energy markets between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, the real hostility between both leading Muslim countries commenced with the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran that brought Shia clergy in power in place of pro-West monarchy, something common between both countries till that time. The views of Ayatollah Khomeini on Saudi monarchy in the early days of Iranian revolution and later, turmoil during Hajj in 1987 by Iranian pilgrims, has shaped Saudi perception of Iran as the major threat to Kingdom’s security.
In an article ‘Iran- Saudi Relations: Past Pattern, Future Outlook’, by an Iranian career diplomat Hossein Sadeghi, and an academic Hassan Ahmadian, published in Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 2011, the authors identify five areas of contestation between both the countries. These include: religious-sectarian rivalry, relations with the US and West, supremacy in the Persian Gulf region, expansion of regional influence, and rivalry in the Organization of the Petrol Exporting Countries (OPEC). Afghanistan thus inevitably turns into a natural contesting ground between both rivals due to its peculiar history, ethnic composition, religious affinities and linguistic makeup. The bilateral suspicion and rivalry led Saudi Arabia and Iran to patronize respective sectarian affiliated proxies in different Muslim countries to curtail opponent’s influence, though in Afghanistan both countries supported anti Soviet Jihad in 80s. Saudi Arabia mainly sponsored Sunni Jihadi organizations through Pakistan which mostly comprised of ethnic Pashtuns while Iran backed Persian speaking Sunni Tajiks and Shia Hazara groups. After the Soviet withdrawal, Iran and Saudi Arabia supported opposing camps during Afghan civil war. Non-Pashtun groups were the natural beneficiaries of Iranian support while Taliban who were largely Pashtuns and fiercely anti Shia, won Saudi backing. These trends continued untill American involvement in Afghanistan post 9/11 brought both rivals in the same camp, though for varying reasons. Saudi Arabia, despite having recognized Taliban Government and supported it against pro Iran groups, sided with its traditional ally US against Al-Qaida – a common enemy. While Iran, notwithstanding anti US stance, found removal of Taliban regime and coming in to power of Northern alliance in Afghanistan in its national interest.
With Coalition Forces’ drawdown scheduled to be completed by December 2014, both Iran and Saudi Arabia compete to shape Afghan domestic politics and the possible future dispensation, using their connections with various ethnic and religious groups. Iran overtly, stands against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan but at the same time does not want to jeopardize the Coalition’s stabilization efforts, given that a total collapse of present dispensation would be against its interests. While asserting to be the part of solution, Iran bills itself as a neighbor with natural and longstanding ties with Afghanistan, which has the potential to act as a spoiler if its interests are not taken into account by international community. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is strategically interested in limiting Iran’s influence in Afghanistan while maintaining Kingdom’s relevance as the most prominent American ally in the Muslim world. Compared to Iran, Saudi Arabia is presently handicapped in Afghanistan as its natural allies i.e. Taliban and Hizbe Islami (Hekmatyar) are among armed opposition groups and fighting against Coalition Forces. With regards to the negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict, Saudi Arabia has long been considered prime candidate to facilitate the reconciliation process, however, despite being involved in the talks as early as 2008, the Kingdom has lately displayed a lukewarm response on the issue. At the moment, if internationally accepted, Iran is comparatively better placed to assist in the peace process as it has developed reasonably good relations with some Taliban leaders besides maintaining traditional audience among erstwhile Northern Alliance factions.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Afghanistan is detrimental to the interests of entire region as besides current feud in Middle East, the prospects of proxy war between both the countries are a reality in this part of the world also. In the face of conflicting Saudi-Iranian interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan would find itself in catch 22 situation. Notwithstanding traditionally cordial relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is regionally not in a position to annoy Iran. With hostile India, unfriendly Afghanistan and concerned China in the neighborhood, possibility of inhospitable Iran will be a nightmarish scenario for Pakistan.