Afghanistan Tries to Strike Balance in Escalating Iran-Saudi Rivalry

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani (right) during an official welcoming ceremony at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran on 19 April 2015. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani (right) during an official welcoming ceremony at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran on 19 April 2015. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

By Farhad Peikar

By supporting Saudi Arabia’s operation against the Houthi, a Yemeni Shiite rebel group backed by Iran, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani risks dragging his troubled country into a Sunni-Shiite proxy war. If Afghanistan fails to strike a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, it runs the risk of polarizing its people and getting caught in the crosshairs of a regional power struggle. But if Kabul plays its cards right, Afghanistan’s historically ambivalent role in opposing spheres of influence could also be used to maintain balance of power in the region.

While Afghanistan’s relations with the Saudis have been better than ever under Ghani’s leadership, the Afghan leader’s 19-20 April trip to Tehran indicated that Kabul is also seeking to balance its relations with its western neighbour. During this week’s trip, Ghani and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, announced increased cooperation in trade, technology and culture. The two leaders also agreed to share intelligence on terrorism and drug trafficking.

[pullquoteright]As a former chessboard in the 19th-century “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires, the struggle to strike a balance between rival powers is not new for Afghanistan.”[/pullquoteright]As a former chessboard in the 19th-century “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires, the struggle to strike a balance between rival powers is not new for Afghanistan. The country was also caught between the United States and Russia during the Cold War, and more recently between Pakistan and India. To an extent, it has also borne the effects of Iran-US rivalry.

But as it struggles to emerge from its own decades of war, the Riyadh-Tehran matchup could prove devastating for Afghanistan. Even if the current proxy war in Yemen remains within that country’s borders, the same sectarian tensions could erupt in Afghanistan, where both Saudi Arabia and Iran wield significant influence over opposing groups of tribal and religious leaders.

Kabul-Riyadh Ties

Saudi Arabia has a positive image in the minds of many Afghans, who see the country as the holy land that houses the two major Muslim sacred sites in Mecca and Medina. The Saudis also helped Afghan mujahideen in the fight against Soviet troops. Saudi Arabia was also one of the three nations to formally recognize the Taliban regime before it was toppled in 2001.

The influence that Riyadh wields over active anti-government groups including the Taliban, Hezbi Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqani network – as well as other former mujahideen factions that are now part of the Kabul government – makes the kingdom instrumental to any peace deal that could be struck with insurgent groups.

President Ghani has placed a great deal of hope in his administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Ghani has travelled to the Muslim holy land twice since becoming president last September and publicly asked the Saudi monarch to use his influence with Pakistan to kick-start peace talks between Kabul, Islamabad and the insurgent groups.

Kabul’s tacit approval of Operation Decisive Storm on 1 April, which came less than a week after warplanes from Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies began striking against the Houthis in Yemen, should not come as a surprise. In return for backing Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, Ghani hopes to see reciprocal support by the kingdom in ongoing peace efforts with the Taliban …

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Farhad Peikar (MPA/MAIR ’13)—a graduate of INSCT’s CAS in Security Studies program—is a former Afghanistan bureau chief for Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA). This article was written in collaboration with afghanistan-today.org.