Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Battle Over Afghanistan

May 28, 2013

There’s a newish report from the Peace Research Institute Oslo on the implications for Afghanistan of the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  This is not particularly about public diplomacy but it’s well worth a read. Understanding what’s going on Aghanistan is important in its own right own right but because it provides nice contrast to the typical Anglo-Saxon idea of PD as something that happens far away,  for Iran and Saudi Arabia this is engagement of foreign publics as an instrument of geopolitical competition.  Given that Iran has long land border with Afghanistan it has a direct interest in what happens there.

The report argues that Saudi-Iranian competition is driven by four factors; the struggle for the leadership of the Islamic Community; regional security dominance in the Gulf; political influence in the broader Middle East; and over oil markets.  The overall competition between the two countries drives them towards involvement with Afghanistan.

These elements of competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia are expressed in Afghanistan via five means of influence:

  1. Through the provision of aid – the authors estimate that Iran has been more effective particularly through its regional focus on Western Afghanistan and Herat
  2. Influence on the political process – Iran less than keen on the Taliban but seek to pursue a ‘multi-player’ policy and build contacts with all the groups that are likely to have a role in post-ISAF Afghanistan.  Saudi Arabia has tended to stick with its traditional friends.
  3. Support for ethnic groups.  Iran has played two cards here.  Firstly, support for communities who share its commitment to Shi’ism and secondly, for groups who share linguistic affinities.  The authors note that Saudi Arabia has treated even Sunni Farsi speaking groups with suspicion sticking to their Sunni Pashto friends. Iran’s objective seems to be to maintain a degree of pluralism in a post ISA Afghanistan.
  4. Religious competition – this is given bricks and mortar expression through the construction of mosques and religious centres.
  5. Geographical contiguity:  Iran is interested in securing its borders but the large numbers of Afghan refugees and workers in the country gives it a degree of leverage in Kabul.

The overall impression is that the stakes for Iran are higher and it is using all the assets that it has while Saudi Arabia is playing a more rigid ideologically defined strategy.  As ISAF presence winds down regional factors are going to play a more important role in Afghanistan and there’s more going on than Pakistan vs India.

More broadly Iranian and Saudi Arabian public engagement strategies are neglected topics in the academic literature.  I suspect that there are multiple reasons for this language will be one and, particularly for Saudi Arabia the approach is unfamiliar.

In Globalized Islam Olivier Roy makes the point that in most countries with Islam as the main religion also have a national identity that affects how the religious dimension is expressed.  The exceptions to this are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where there has been an attempt to construct a national project based on a transnational Islamic identity.   Hence if you want to understand Saudi engagement of foreign publics you need to look at it the operation of embassy departments of religious affairs and at the work of organizations like the Muslim World League.

Iran on the other hand has a better defined national identity and sees itself as the inheritor of an ancient civilization as well as being the original Islamic revolutionaries.   Iran has a Public Diplomacy Centre in the Foreign Ministry, an Islamic Culture and Relations Organization – seems to be as much concerned with conventional  ‘cultural programming’ as religion and a fairly extensive programme of external broadcasting – in Europe the latter is being hampered by sanctions but a lot of what is done is actually aimed at Iran’s neighbourhood.


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