The Persian Gulf and Afghanistan: Iran and Saudi Arabia's Rivalry Projected

PRIO Paper

Tadjbakhsh, Shahrbanou (2013) The Persian Gulf and Afghanistan: Iran and Saudi Arabia's Rivalry Projected, PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO.

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Towards the end of 2012, the Afghan government announced that Saudi Arabia would build an Islamic complex in Kabul. The project was to rival the Khatam al-Nabyeen Islamic Un​iversity, allegedly built with the support of Iran in 2006. This raised a question in many Afghans’ mind: Were these two countries ultimately interested in Afghanistan for the sake of peace and stability or for curbing each other’s influence? From a realpolitik perspective, Iran and Saudi Arabia arguably seek increased influence on the Afghan political process in order to ensure, at best, a future government friendly to their interests, or, in the worst case scenario of a renewed civil war, to protect their interests, investments, and, in the case of Iran, potential incursions in its territory.

This final paper, in a series of four devoted to the security complexes surrounding Afghanistan, is concerned with the dynamics within the Persian Gulf region: What shapes the rivalry, how global powers impact on and are impacted by tensions and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the two main players, and how the long-standing rivalry between these two informs their relations with Afghanistan.

Cooperative security arrangements in the region require elements that do not seem readily available at the moment: respect for sovereignty; non-interference by externals, inclusive institutional mechanisms and favourable domestic conditions. Along with the developments in Syria and the future of Islam as a system for governance, the author argues that Afghanistan represents an opportunity for regional cooperation – despite the neighbouring countries having their security focus elsewhere