Afghanistan: A Battleground for Iranian and Saudi Interests – courtesy of Stratfor

by Marilou Long on November 27, 2013

in Energy,Geopolitical

This article is republished courtesy of Stratfor.

Many observers have overlooked some of the ancillary regional consequences of  the U.S.-Iran deal. As the United States and Iran reached the agreement,  Washington encountered trouble with Iran’s eastern neighbor, Afghanistan. Afghan  President Hamid Karzai would not sign the bilateral security agreement that  would authorize a residual American force in Afghanistan after 2014. The  standoff will be short-lived, but in light of the U.S.-Iran deal, battles will  continue to take place in Afghanistan between two historic rivals: Saudi Arabia  and Iran, which is now poised to play an unprecedented role in the region.

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice left Kabul on Tuesday after warning  Karzai that if he did not sign the bilateral security agreement Washington would  have to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year.  That probably will not come to pass; Karzai is simply posturing to get  additional concessions from Washington, many of which involve Karzai trying to  remain relevant once a successor takes office after presidential  elections in April 2014. Considering that Afghanistan  needs U.S. support to deal with the Taliban insurgency after NATO completes  its drawdown next year, Karzai will sign the agreement sooner or later.

The bilateral security agreement aside, Afghanistan may have just become a  key battleground between Saudi Arabia and its  regional rival, Iran. This geopolitical struggle has played out along the  northern rim of the Middle East and across Iran’s western flank, but the  U.S-Iran deal may have aggravated the situation. Saudi Arabia became wary of  Iran’s ascendance when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and now Riyadh fears that Tehran will  become even more powerful — not as an unpredictable actor pursuing a  radical foreign policy agenda, but as a rehabilitated member of the  international community.

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No longer a pariah of the international community, Iran will be able to  project power with greater ease than before, especially on its eastern frontier,  where Afghanistan represents a potential security threat, because of  long-standing Saudi influence. In fact, the Iranians believe that the recent  surge of attacks by ethnic Sunni Islamist militants in southwestern Sistan and  Baluchestan province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the work of  Saudi proxies that were reactivated after the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

But Afghanistan could also provide an opportunity for Iran. Given its  historic ethnic, linguistic and sectarian ties, Iran has a great deal of  influence in the country. In recent years, Tehran has enhanced its influence in  Afghanistan through the Persian-speaking minority communities, by supporting the  Karzai regime and by developing ties to elements within the Taliban. As  Washington moves toward a drawdown from Afghanistan and improves ties with  Tehran, the Americans and Iranians are likely to coordinate on containing Sunni  Islamist militancy in the southwest Asian nation.

Washington had hoped that Pakistan would help manage Afghanistan after 2014.  However, Pakistan has been severely weakened by the war and is now struggling  with its own domestic jihadist insurgency. Simply put, it has lost  a lot of its leverage in Afghanistan.

However, the Pakistanis are unlikely to sit back and allow the Iranians to  fill the void. The Saudis, who have an especially  close relationship with the current government in Islamabad, will come in  and exploit Pakistani vulnerabilities to further their own strategic imperative:  countering a rising Iran. For its part, Pakistan, having been disaffected by a  long history of supporting Islamist militants and having become a major  battleground for anti-Shia violence, would want to avoid a firm alignment with  Saudi Arabia.

But there is reason to believe Islamabad would cooperate somewhat.  Economically, Pakistan is in dire straits, and its relationship with Saudi  Arabia, a fellow Sunni state, keeps it within Riyadh’s sphere of influence.  Already, the Saudis are working closely with the Pakistanis to support Sunni  rebels in Syria, especially after the United States backed away from the idea of  regime change in Damascus. And because Saudi-Pakistani cooperation against Iran  would very likely take place in Afghanistan, Sunni Islamist militancy in  Afghanistan and Pakistan could increase dramatically.

Such an outcome is unlikely to help Saudi Arabia undermine Iran. In fact,  Washington and Tehran could become even closer if this threat ever materializes.  The ensuing proxy war would lead to a greater rise in Islamist extremism and  terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Read more:  Afghanistan: A Battleground for Iranian and Saudi Interests | Stratfor Follow us: @stratfor on Twitter | Stratfor on Facebook

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