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The Iran-Saudi cold war
Nov 10, 2008

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Saudi Arabia's Mecca talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are welcomed by the West as an evitable part of ending the war, James Brazier writes for Diplomatic Courier.

By James Brazier for Diplomatic Courier

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 US 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 29 September. 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 Afghanistan.

Though the talks were exploratory and did not mark the start of a formal peace process, in the days afterwards US 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 US 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 US 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. 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 Iran.

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 US forces to depose the Taliban regime and then pledged US$560 million in reconstruction aid to Karzai’s government, which lifted the restrictions imposed on Shia practices 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 US 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 US has approved licenses for US 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-Balochistan are a virtual war zone 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 Balochistan, but one clearly connected to the heroin rings. Jundallah is drawn from Iran’s Baloch minority, a mostly Sunni ethnic group, which straddles the Iran-Pakistan border. Some in the US and Pakistan have suggested the Baloch 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 recognize 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 9/11.

Iran sees a Saudi hand in Jundallah, another Sunni group connected to the Taliban and its opium revenue. On 22 October 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 Baloch 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 US, 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 US, 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 US. Others, however, remain convinced that Iran is a greater long-term problem than the Taliban, and that the US would be wise to balance Iranian influence with the Sunni hardliners preferred by Riyadh.

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