Riyadh's increasing engagement with Kabul unnerves Tehran

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jun 20, 2018
Riyadh's increasing engagement with Kabul unnerves Tehran

Commentary in state-run Iranian media indicates that Tehran is concerned about Riyadh lately playing a more active role in Afghanistan’s economic development and reconciliation efforts. Referring to a telephone conversation this week between Saudi National Security Advisor Mohammad bin Saleh al-Ghofaili and his Afghan counterpart Hanif Atmar, Tasnim News Agency, an outlet affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, wrote today that Riyadh under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is becoming more engaged in Afghanistan and supports the U.S. policy in the country. The article, entitled “Saudi Arabia’s attempt to interfere in Afghanistan’s peace process”, opined that Riyadh seeks to help Washington and Kabul by isolating the Taliban and provoking division within the Taliban leadership. Another Tasnim article expressed the worry that a new air corridor from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan would also increase Riyadh’s influence in Iran’s eastern neighbor. While Kabul and Riyadh have established the new air corridor to help export landlocked Afghanistan’s saffron and other commodities to Saudi Arabia, Tasnim alleged that the air corridor could be used by terrorists in Syria and Iraq to relocate to Afghanistan.

Comment: Saudi Arabia has lately shown interest in forging closer ties with Kabul. In late March, the national security advisors of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States met at the White House to discuss “issues of strategic importance to the three countries.” The meeting troubled Tehran as the three countries pledged to establish a trilateral cooperation mechanism on counterterrorism and other matters of mutual interest. The readout of the meeting released by the White House even mentioned that the three sides had agreed on “joint efforts to counter the Iranian regime’s malign influence and provocative behavior” among other issues.

Tehran also appears displeased by Riyadh’s latest engagement with Kabul on economic and trade issues, perhaps because Afghanistan’s enhanced trade with Gulf countries would reduce Afghanistan’s reliance on Iran. Because of Kabul’s troubled relations with Islamabad, Afghanistan has increased its exports from Iran and relies on the new Chabahar port in Iran, which is jointly developed with India. The air corridor between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia is scheduled to be inaugurated next week.

Tehran may also be worried that Riyadh’s role in the Afghan reconciliation process may undercut its own leverage both with the Taliban and the Kabul government. In recent years, the Islamic Republic has deepened its ties with the Taliban leadership. In his phone talk with Atmar, Ghofaili emphasized that Riyadh supported Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s latest peace proposal to the Taliban and offered to cooperate with Kabul to pave the way for a political settlement between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

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