Saudi Arabia and Iran’s ongoing proxy war in the Middle East is never far from the headlines. The two countries have sparked or exacerbated various conflicts throughout the region, including in Syria and Yemen, two of the most complex and devastating wars in recent history. But another battle between the two regional powerhouses has gone relatively unnoticed, even though it could further destabilise a key strategic theater for the West: Afghanistan.
Despite all the peace efforts, Afghanistan remains highly volatile, with a weak central government and various insurgency groups that maintain considerable influence in the country. Many of these groups have a long history of working with Tehran or Riyadh and sometimes both. Although both capitals fund Islamic centres and various groups in Afghanistan, their respective strategies for the region diverge considerably.
Iran sees Afghanistan as a primary zone of influence, much as it sees Iraq. The two countries share a porous border, as well as cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and economic ties. Iran is also home to a large number of Afghan refugees, and increased instability and insecurity there translate into even more. Further, narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan fuels Iran’s epidemic of drug abuse. For these reasons, Tehran was already present in Afghanistan when the United States and its Nato allies intervened in 2001. At the time, Iran saw the Nato war as an opportunity and worked with Washington and its partners to defeat the Taliban and stabilise the country. Tehran also leveraged its influence to help build a new national government in Kabul and donated hundreds of millions in aid. Iran has often been a helpful force in Afghanistan, unlike in other similar conflicts it’s involved in, such as Syria.
Saudi Arabia has a long history in Afghanistan as well. Riyadh and private Saudi citizens and charities have spent substantial money in Afghanistan since that country’s war with the Soviet Union. For example, the Saudis promoted Afghan jihad in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the kingdom was the second country to recognise the Taliban government in the late 1990s. Today, Riyadh also has interests in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t see the country as a main theatre of influence. In fact, Afghanistan is to Saudi Arabia what Yemen is to Iran: the top priority for its key adversary, where it can project power without much effort. As a result, the kingdom can use Afghanistan to poke Iran in the eye, especially as Iran does the same in Yemen.
Afghanistan has another key advantage for Riyadh: it is important to the US. Riyadh increasingly believes that it is being abandoned by the US, and so it seeks ways to assert itself. The recently passed Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allows US citizens to sue foreign governments (clearly targetting Riyadh) for terrorist attacks perpetrated on US soil on September 11, 2001, further frustrated the Saudi government, potentially giving it all the more reason to assert itself. Afghanistan is the perfect place to do so. Saudi Arabia can leverage the groups it’s been funding and supporting to further destabilize Afghanistan, especially in the rural areas, challenge the central authority, and thus disrupt US and Nato efforts to stabilise and develop the country.
But Afghanistan could also become a bargaining chip for Riyadh: Saudi Arabia could use it in possible future negotiations with Washington on military cooperation or with Tehran over regional security. The kingdom could leverage Afghanistan to get more support or military aid, equipment, and weapons from the US and a reduced presence in Yemen from Iran.
Tehran’s and Riyadh’s competition in Afghanistan could translate into increased direct and indirect funding and support for various Islamic centres and insurgency groups. Saudi Arabia works mainly with Sunni groups, but Iran works with a number of groups, both Shia and Sunni (even terrorist groups with anti-Shia agendas). The growing presence of the Islamic State could encourage Iran to increase its presence there. Iran wants to avoid being sandwiched between two areas of IS influence or control.
With ISIS still holding swaths of territory to its west in Iraq, Iran wants to avoid having Afghanistan also fall to the group. Moreover, Tehran wants to prevent a rollback in the progress made in Afghanistan and avert further destabilisation. To achieve these goals, Iran might start working with groups that it doesn’t see eye to eye with (such as the anti-Shia Hezb-e Islami) and may begin to let the Revolutionary Guard Corps become more visibly active there, as it has in Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its number one security threat. This perception is reinforced by the conviction that the kingdom is losing its greatest asset: Washington, which it believes no longer cares about the Middle East. As a result, Riyadh is eager to project power and assert itself while frustrating Iran. For its part, Tehran’s main security concern lies in the weakening and collapse of its neighbours’ central authorities, which leaves a vacuum in which terrorist groups can operate and expand freely. Consequently, Tehran sees Afghanistan as its top priority and wants to make sure that IS doesn’t gain a proper foothold there.
A decade and a half after the Nato intervention in Afghanistan, the possibility of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war in the country adds a new layer and threat to an already complex and volatile situation.
The full version of of this article appeared in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, which can be found at http://fam.ag/2djoQ9m