The Iran-Saudi Cold War

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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 Afghanistan.

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 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.

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