March 26th, 2007
Pilgrimage to Karbala
Interview with Vali Nasr

Vali Nasr, Professor, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and author of

March 20, 2007: Vali Nasr, Professor, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and author of THE SHIA REVIVAL, discusses Iran’s emerging regional role and the escalating tensions between Iran and the United States with anchor Daljit Dhaliwal.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Professor Vali Nasr, welcome to Wide Angle.

VALI NASR: Thank you. It’s good being with you.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: What do you make of what you just saw? Put this all into context for us.

VALI NASR: Well, I think it revealed the depth of the emotional attachment to Shiism within Iran. And I think that’s very interesting because most people in the West look at Iran and they think of the country as being ruled by a theocracy [with] a population that has become secular and anti-regime and is disaffected with Islam. And that’s not the picture that we see. We see an enormous amount of attachment and emotion with the core values of Shiism and particularly with the myth of Karbala. And in the film I was particularly amazed and interested in seeing this associated with this social class in Iran that you often associate with secularism. Families with women who are not wearing the head scarf, have dyed hair; have a dog in their house. And yet their son at one point served in the Revolutionary Guards. And he’s so attached to the popular aspects of the religion that he crawls on his stomach towards the shrine in Karbala. And I think that raises a more important issue. Nowadays in the West we talk about how we can extricate Iran from Iraq, as if the relationship of Iran to Iraq is mandated by the highest authorities in the Iranian government. And when we look at this movie, we look at the footage, we see the amount of attachment at the popular level Iranians have to Iraq, where most of the shrines are, where the myths of their religion come from. One wonders how exactly you can exclude Iran from Iraq now. I mean, this goes to the core of the religion that the Iranians and the Iraqis share, that is Shiism, and the fact that the centers of Shiism are in Iraq. And you cannot get Iranians to turn away from Iraq because that’s where their whole religion is.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Well, let’s talk about the religion in a little bit more detail. What are the main differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

VALI NASR: Well, this is the most important sectarian division within Islam. If you were to look at a Christian parallel, it would be something like the Catholic/Protestant division. In Islam it happened very early on. They separated paths over who should succeed Prophet Muhammad. The Shiites believe that the leadership should go to the family of the prophet, the very saints who are buried in Iraq today, like in Karbala. And the Sunnis want to elect the succession to the prophet. Now, in some ways you might say it doesn’t matter what they disagreed on then. They parted ways. And over the years they developed very different interpretations of Islam. So although they agree on over 90 percent of Islam, they disagree on about ten percent. And there are sometimes subtle differences. They may stand differently at prayer. They have different approaches to Islamic law. For instance, women receive a lot more inheritance under Shia law than they do under Sunni law. But in many ways, they’ve developed into very different historical experiences of Islam, just like the Protestants and Catholics are in Christianity.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And Sunnis are in the majority. Talk about that a little bit for us.

VALI NASR: Absolutely. I mean, when we talk about Shia/Sunni division, we’re not talking about equal numbers in the Muslim world. The Shias are, at best, about 15 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. So somewhere about 150 million people. But over 90 percent of that number lives between India and Lebanon. So in the Middle East, the numbers are far more equal. And, in fact, the majority of Shias live from Iran to the east. For instance, after Iran, the second largest Shia country is Pakistan with about 30 million Shias. And India probably has close to as many Shias in it as there are in Iraq.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And talk a little bit about whether most Americans understand the divisions between Sunni and Shia Islam. And is it even important?

VALI NASR: No, we didn’t. We sort of had a sense about this. Outside of academia, most people didn’t understand this. When they looked at the Middle East or the Muslim world, the issues they saw were the Arab-Israeli conflict, was Islam versus secularism, and was dictatorship versus democracy. We didn’t have a sense as to why this division exists and why it does matter. And it matters now because Iraq has opened a gate. The Shiites have got power in Iraq. It’s the very first time in history that you have a Shia state. The shrine cities of Iraq have opened up. There is connection now between Iraqi Shias, Iranian Shias, Saudi Shias, Pakistani Shias, Lebanese Shias. And the way in which the struggle for power in Iraq has collapsed into a Sunni-Shia power rivalry is now affecting the whole Middle East. We can look at Lebanon. We can look at the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. They all are increasingly finding a sectarian tone.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And historically was that true when you talked a little bit earlier on about the theological differences and the fact that even though over large periods of time they’ve co-existed peacefully, they have been falling out? But have they been sectarian in nature historically?

VALI NASR: Well, by virtue of having sects, you have rivalries. I mean Protestants and Catholics fought for decades and then co-existed and then have fought for decades. And you still have Northern Ireland. And you have the same with the Shias and Sunnis. They saw Islam early on very differently. But they’ve fought not always over theology and religion. They’ve also fought over power. They’ve fought over territory. Today in Iraq they’re not fighting over the succession to Prophet Muhammad.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: It’s political, isn’t it?

VALI NASR: It’s political. They’re fighting over the future of a country. Iraq is up for grabs. We shattered the state. There is no state that has replaced it. It remains to be decided who wins it.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: By “we,” you mean the Bush administration.

VALI NASR: The Bush administration and its allies, England, the United States. But it’s the same deal in Lebanon. I mean, the pressure from the Shiites is that they’re the largest single community in Lebanon, but they don’t have a share of the power. So you have another sectarian conflict there. And across the Arab world in particular, Shiites, whether they’re majority or minority, have not enjoyed the seat at the table. And they want a seat at the table. And Iraq has provided that expectation. And that’s exactly what the Middle East is dealing with. With the aftermath of Iraq, of heightened Shia expectations for power and with the disappointment and backlash coming from the Sunnis.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And let’s talk a little bit about that backlash. How has that been expressed and, if you can, talk about that within the Saudi Arabian context.

VALI NASR: Well, the Sunni powers established in the Middle East have had a manifest belief in a manifest destiny to rule since the time of the caliphates when they defeated the Shiites and killed the Shiite saints who are buried in places like Karbala we saw in the film. They have ruled over the Muslim world, particularly over the Arab world. And that comes down right to the modern period. Now that has been changing in a sense that Iraq has opened a new way. Now, what we have seen since the collapse of Iraq is that you’ve had resistance coming from very early on from people like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from the al-Qaeda groups, whose rhetoric in Iraq was very distinctly anti-Shia. They targeted Shias as individuals and they targeted Shia shrines. The shrine that was destroyed on February 22nd, 2006, in the city of Samarra, about a hundred kilometers north of Baghdad was equal in importance for many Shias as Karbala. Imagine the psychological blow that it would be to an Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese Shia to see a shrine destroyed given the kind of attachment we saw in your footage. But it doesn’t remain to al-Qaeda attacks. We’re seeing governments in the Arab world speak sectarian language. We saw the king of Jordan talk about the Shia crescent. We’ve seen the president of Egypt accuse all Shias of being Iranians a fifth column in the Arab world.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Were you surprised that King Abdullah said something like that?

VALI NASR: I wasn’t. I was surprised at how quickly he saw the Shias as a threat. I mean, I think he was correct in identifying that Iraq had changed everything. But I was surprised at how quickly he saw this as a threat. And he’s neither a religious man nor is he a cleric nor is he a die-hard Sunni. He’s a secular Arab king. And that goes to the point that this may be a theological dispute [that is] 1,500 years old. But today they’re fighting about power. What the king of Jordan, the king of Saudi Arabia, the president of Egypt saw in Hezbollah’s victory or so-called victory in the summer war

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Against Israel.

VALI NASR: Against Israel was not that somehow the Muslim world is going to become Shia and you’re going to open the dispute over the succession of the prophet. They saw this as a power shift, that they were being diminished with this surge that is coming up in Iraq, that Shias are more popular. The weight of events is on their side. They’ve gained in Iraq, and the Arab governments that were relying on Sunni leadership in Iraq have lost. And the Middle East is dealing with this.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: But do you think the Sunni elites in countries like Saudi Arabia, for instance, have anything to fear from the Shia revival?

VALI NASR: Saudi Arabia in particular does for two reasons. One is that it is probably the most anti-Shia of all the Sunni countries. It has a Shia minority of about 15 percent that live in the oil-rich eastern province. They have literally no power in that country. For a very long time they were not even allowed to call their mosques, mosques. They are treated as heretics in many ways. So whereas we may look at Lebanon or look at other parts of the Arab world or South Asia and say there is a period of coexistence, and, therefore, sectarianism is somehow counterintuitive to us. That’s not true of Saudi Arabia. So the Saudis greatly worry about what Iraq means for the Shia-Sunni relations within the kingdom. If they gave more power to the Shias, they’d have to deal with the hard line Sunnis in their midst. If they don’t give power to the Shias, how are they going to contain them, given the fact that the Middle East has changed? Secondly, Saudi Arabia and Iran now for over two decades have been rivals. They both have claims to being the leaders of the Muslim world. One as a Shia country, one as a Sunni country. We look at Iraq, we look at Lebanon, we see the glass is half full for Iran. It’s half empty for Saudi Arabia. And, therefore, it’s not surprising that Saudi Arabia sees everything that’s happened since Iraq as being damaging to its national interest, as empowering its main regional rival which happens to be benefiting from this Shia revival in the region.

Vali Nasr, Professor, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and author of

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And how good are we, in terms of our policy, in understanding the regional shifts that have taken place and the new alliances that are being made especially vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia?

VALI NASR: Not very good. First of all, before we went into Iraq, for a good portion of time we went into Iraq, we sort of didn’t really systematically, coherently take sectarianism into account. I know it’s become popular in the Arab world to blame sectarianism on America, that it had a sectarian agenda going into Iraq. But that’s not quite true. I mean, sectarianism was there, was embedded in the Saddam regime, which, for instance, brutally suppressed Shiites in 1991 when they rose up after the First Gulf War, killing something like 300,000 of them. We took the lid off. And then we weren’t careful about what was happening. We were talking about Baathists and we were talking of the insurgency as something that was going to die out at a time when sectarianism was on the upswing. We really didn’t come to terms with sectarianism until it exploded after the bombing of the Samarra shrine in Iraq. Then we were very slow to understand that sectarianism was becoming regional. It’s no longer in Iraq. It’s part of the regional rivalry between Iran and the Arabs. It’s part of the regional rivalry over Hezbollah’s popularity on the Arab street. It is not necessarily coming from below. Arab governments, official clerics in the Arab world have been fairly vocal in anti-Shiism. It’s become a tool of foreign policy in Arab capitals about how they contain the Iranian threat. And we sort of have been playing catch-up with this changing mood. And as a result, I think we have not been well positioned to either contain it, to redirect it, or to avert its worst violence from coming to the fore.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Is the rise of Shia power cause for concern for the West, I mean, it clearly is a cause for concern in the Arab world?

VALI NASR: Well, it shouldn’t have been. And it need not necessarily be the case now. It’s very clear that the Arabs are worried about Iranian power. And they’re using the issue of fear of Shias, particularly among their own population, the sectarian card, to rally the populations against Iran. There are worries that the sectarian conflict has for the United States, for instance, sectarian conflict is a radicalizing force on both sides. It brings out the worst among the Shias, the kind of militia groups radical groups. It also brings the worst among the Sunnis, the so-called Salafi, Jihadi, pro-al-Qaeda types. Those are the ones who bubble to the surface in an environment of sectarian conflict. We saw this happen in India and Pakistan in the 1980s and the 1990s as well. But by itself the current Shia organizations and power do threaten our allies. But our reliance on our allies has to do with our belief in the fact that they represented the power in the region. If they don’t, then the United States has to recalibrate its relationship to the region so that it better reflects where the center of gravity in the Middle East is. And that center of gravity clearly is no longer just in Amman and Cairo. But it’s also in Baghdad and Tehran. The U.S. already has relatively good relations with the Shias in Iraq. It is supporting a Shia government. The question of its relations with Iran so far has not been because of Shiism. It is because of outstanding issues between Iran and the United States that now go back three decades to the beginning of the Iranian revolution, to the hostage crisis and to Iran’s nuclear issue. So, I think the United States should remain focused on issues as opposed to on taking sides in this sectarian conflict.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Why do you say that it’s taking sides? Who is it taking sides with or against?

VALI NASR: Well, the U.S. strategy in Iraq throughout 2006 began to increasingly reflect the anxiety of the Arab world. It gradually became more and more distant from the Shias and more and more critical of Iran. Even though the Arab governments have not been supporting the United States and Iraq. Most of them had not even recognized the government that the U.S. installed in Iraq. A lot of them also are supporting the insurgents in various ways. Yet, the United States adopted, if you would, the Arab fear of Iran as the mantra for its own policy in Iraq and in the region. And that in some ways is playing into the sectarian issue. Because we embrace the Arab position on Iran and Hezbollah, which is highly sectarian in tone as America’s foreign policy in the region.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: You are an Iranian. I mean, you lived there until the revolution in 1979. How do you think that Iran has fared in this conflict?

VALI NASR: Iran has fared well since the Iraq War for the very simple reason that Iran was isolated in the Middle East. It was caged by two Sunni powers around it, supported by Saudi Arabia at least partly. One being the Taliban in an alliance with Pakistan. The other being Saddam. The wars of necessity and the wars of choice since 2001 have removed the stumbling blocks there. What has come in place of what was there before, especially in Iraq, is friendlier to Iran, is open to Iran. Iran had been at war with Iraq for over 50 years, going back to the [Shah Mohammed Reza] Pahlavi period.

Iraq went to war with Iran, annexed a part of Iranian territory. Upwards of maybe a million people died in that war. Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and was a nemesis to Iran. And it had also the largest army in the Persian Gulf area which could contain the Iranian military. All of that went away in 2003. What came to power in Iraq was a group of politicians who were Shia, who were more friendly to Iran, and who had spent years of exile in Iran. And without authority and government in southern Iraq, Iranian cultural, political, and economic influence has been spreading in southern Iraq. So if Iraq was an Arab bastion against Iran until 2003, now it’s at best a neutral area, at worst a pro-Iranian territory. So Iran’s done better. And the Arab governments have been diminished by Iraq. And then they have continued to diminish under the pressure of Shia forces. Look at Lebanon, summer of 2006. A Shia organization, clearly defined as such by the Arabs themselves, did far better in a war against Israel than the Arab governments who can neither fight Israel as well as Hezbollah did, nor can they offer peace. And overnight Iran and Hezbollah basically hijacked a Palestinian issue over the summer. So Iran is doing very well, in a sense. And Iran wants to assume the kind of leadership that the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom you showed in your film, wanted in the 1980s but didn’t manage to do. And Iran is following the same route Khomeini did. Don’t focus on the Shia-Sunni issue. Focus on Israel.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: You mean President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

VALI NASR: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: He has a lot in common with Khomeini?

Vali Nasr, Professor, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and author of

VALI NASR: Absolutely. He not only is trying to sort of equate himself domestically with Khomeini’s period as a way of gaining legitimacy, but the way he sees Iran’s foreign policy as very evidently anti-American as the third world is, as particularly anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, and as somehow Islamic above and beyond the divisions of Shia-Sunni all harking back to the Khomeini period. In fact, at this point in time when we look at the Middle East, it’s not Iran that speaks the sectarian language, nor is Hezbollah, nor are the Shias in Iraq. This sectarianism is largely promoted in the region as a policy of containing Iran and the Shias. It doesn’t benefit Iran and the Shias to speak sectarian language. They’d much rather focus on issues that bring the Sunnis into their fold, which is the Israel issue.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: You left Iran in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Have you been back since?

VALI NASR: I have been back. And I’m following on also very closely. I haven’t been back since the new government has assumed power in Iran. But before that I’ve been back.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And the issues that are raised in the film and will be seen in the film, is that all of Iran today?

VALI NASR: I think it’s very incisive in terms of understanding Iran, that Iran is a very complex country. Iranian people cannot be simply compartmentalized into fanatical pro-theocracy religious people and then secular pro-Western democrats. A large number of Iranians are very difficult to classify.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Who do you think is doing that compartmentalizing?

VALI NASR: The West has been doing it. In fact, it goes to the whole rhetoric of regime change in Iran, the whole idea that somehow there’s going to be a very simple facile solution to Iran’s theocracy in the form of a secular democracy, which would come to power at elections. And then we had elections in Iran and who won? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And then also the idea that we had before the Iraq War, that Iranians won’t care about Iraq. That Iran will not be a threat in Iraq. That Iran will not benefit from the war in Iraq. And if anything, it is Iraq that will influence Iran. That democracy in Iraq will undo the theocracy in Iran.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Do you believe that?

VALI NASR: Well, look at the evidence. It didn’t happen that way. Iraq has had zero influence on Iran. Iranians don’t look at Iraq and say, “We want that.” They don’t look at even democracy in Iran as something to emulate. They’ve done more voting than Iraqis have. They don’t look at regime change in Iraq and take heart that this is somehow a cost-free, easy thing to do, let’s do it. On the other hand, it is Iranians who are influencing Iraqis at every level. They are influencing them economically. The volume of trade between the two countries is now exceeding $1 billion. That’s formal non-oil trade. There are millions of Iranians going on pilgrimage to Iraq, booming Iraq’s economy in the south. And Iraqi politicians, militia forces, security in the south are largely infiltrated and influenced by Iran. In many ways, it is not Iraq that’s influencing Iran; it’s Iran that’s influencing the future of Iraq.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And do the policy makers in Washington understand these complexities, the relationship between Iran and Iraq? And how does that factor into our policy making vis-á-vis Iran?

VALI NASR: No, I don’t think so. I think still in the West, both in London and Washington, they look at Iranian influence in Iraq through the very narrow prism of Iran’s support for militia and the supply of munitions that could be used against British or American troops in Basra. That is there. But I think they would do very well by looking at your program. That, first of all, Iran’s involvement in Iraq is not necessarily government driven. The Iranian people want access to those shrines. They want to go there. They are risking death and car bombs as you showed in your film in order to go to Karbala and back. And then they go again and again and again.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And they are all so very diverse groups of people as well, aren’t they?


VALI NASR: Absolutely. In other words, they were fanatical revolutionaries like the brother of the fanatical former Iranian president whom Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually is emulating as his model. He was in that group, coming from the bazaar, from the traditional classes. You had the cleric going there. You had the traditional, probably middle-class people there.


VALI NASR: Kamran was I think a fascinating example of the complexity of Iranian society. A former Revolutionary Guard. Extremely pious, at least at a folk level, with religious attachment to a shrine. And yet look at his mother. Look at his fiancée. His fiancée is sitting in front of cameramen without head cover, is wearing Western makeup. And his mother is telling you that Kamran likes to wrestle with the dog, a little puppy. For any pious Muslim household, a dog is an impure taboo. That tells you that people don’t probably pray in that house.


VALI NASR: So we cannot say that, is he secular? Is he the kind of Iranian youth that the West constantly speaks of? Or is he one of the fanatical people that voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? It’s not that simple. And if anything, Iraq has even raised these issues in Iran because it has allowed that kind of popular attachment to the shrines to be revived. I mean, polls done in Iran now find Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a moderate quietest leader of Shiites in Iraq, to be the singularly most popular leader of any kind in Iran. He now receives more money from Iran in form of religious taxes than he does from anywhere else in the world. So, you know, these things are very deeply interconnected between Iran and Iraq. And if policy makers think that by arresting a few Iranian operatives and putting some pressure on Iran that somehow you can eliminate Iran’s influence or Iranians’ interests in Iraq. They are misguided in that.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Some of the pilgrims in the film, one in particular, believe that the United States is going to attack Iran. Talk about that. What are your thoughts on that?

VALI NASR: I think a lot of Iranians are expecting this. Maybe they’re hoping against hope it won’t happen. But they’re expecting it. And the government in subtle ways is preparing them for that. It’s part of the rhetoric of Iranian leaders who, unofficially, often say that, you know, within the next two years the United States may very well take action against Iran.

And therefore, this is part of the Iranian political fears and insecurities right now. The Iranians, in many ways, feel very much surrounded by insecurity. They look at Afghanistan. They see it as a country that’s collapsing under the Taliban. And there’s huge amount of drug trade that’s coming from Afghanistan into Iran.

They look at Iraq and they see it as a threat. And then many Iranians say that if your neighbor’s house is on fire, your house is threatened. So they don’t look at Iraq in some way and feel safe. And then this whole nuclear issue and the ratcheting up of rhetoric between Iran and the US and threats of use of military force, including, for instance, the sending of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, does create a lot of political anxiety within Iran. Now, how will that play itself out remains to be seen. I mean, some would say that partly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered in recent polls as a consequence of that anxiety. Others would say that Iranians, like every other people, tend to rally to the flag and support their government whether they like it or not, if they’re on a war footing.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: At a recent lecture you presented two very different images of Iran. One you said is a stable authoritarian regime inspired by Islamic ideology. And the other was a state teetering on the verge of collapse. Talk about that a little bit. What did you mean by both of those very different examples?

VALI NASR: Well both images have been dominant in the West. In other words, on the one hand, we believe that this theocracy is weak. The majority of Iranian population is opposed to it. The majority of Iranian population doesn’t want religion. They’re looking past it. They want a secular democratic country that’s part of the world order. I think in some ways your footage does debunk some of that myth, that’s not as simple. This image came under a lot of question when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the elections in 2005 and an election that over 60 percent of the Iranians eligible voters participated in.

The second image that has been there is that this is a brutal authoritarian dictatorship that aside from its radical ideologies and aside from its hostile foreign policy, it nevertheless has the capability to survive and stay in power. It has powerful revolutionary guards. It has powerful intelligence capabilities. And it has a certain base of power among the die-hard revolutionary groups. I think elements of both pictures are there. And that’s, again, why we cannot think of Iran simply as Ukraine, ready to have a velvet revolution. We cannot think of it also as a popular government that’s impervious to pressure from below. I think both elements are there. In fact, both are sort of vying for each other. There is a vibrant civil society in Iran that wants more freedom. It may not be totally secular. It may not be totally anti-regime, but it definitely likes more than what it has. And on the other hand, you have a brutal regime with an enormous amount of capability of suppressing its population.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Well, let’s talk about US foreign policy in the region. You have said that the Shia revival could present Washington policy makers with a real opportunity to pursue its interests in the region. How come? And what should they be doing?

VALI NASR: I think to a good extent that moment has passed. That moment passed in 2006, by and large. I would say 2006 is the year the United States lost the Shias. When the war in Iraq happened, regardless of who instigated the war, what the justification there was, the US had, by and large, if not the goodwill, at least the tacit support of Iraqi Shias. They didn’t resist the US. They didn’t join the insurgency. They didn’t have militias in the very first year. They participated whole heartedly in elections in Iraq. They joined the security forces. They joined the police. They supported the U.S. And the Shias across the region did so. It might be amazing to Western observers to know that the senior conservative ayatollahs in Iran issued religious fatwas, religious decrees, encouraging Iraqis to vote in an election which boldly says on the side “made in America.” I mean, they issued fatwas encouraging them to do so. Groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon supported the changes in Iraq. In fact, they adopted for a while the mantra of one man, one vote. The mantra that came out of Iraq, what Shias demanded. In Iran between 2003 and 2005 you still had the reformist president who, at least in 2003, made a peace offer to the United States, an offer of comprehensive negotiations over a host of issues.

Hezbollah was not yet at war with Israel. In fact, it was hedging. It was trying to decide which way it wanted to go: greater participation or greater radicalism. Now, the U.S. did not take advantage of that opening. It did not use Iraq and the fact that Iran was the only neighbor of Iraq to support the US in Iraq, the only neighbor of Iraq to actually recognize the Iraqi government, the only neighbor of Iraq which is even to this day supporting the same government that the United States and United Kingdom are. The U.S. did not use that occasion to create an opening with Iran. And also in 2006 the U.S. decided that it wanted to follow a different policy in Iraq. The U.S. began to distance itself from the Shias and began to try to woo the Sunnis into laying down their arms. As a result, a rift began to open. The rebuffing of the 2003 peace treaty from Iran and the fact that the reformists in Iran could not even use Iraq to approach the United States led to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election to some extent. And in Iraq, you had power shifts to radicals like Muqtada al-Sadr.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: If we’ve lost all these good opportunities, what do we do now?

VALI NASR: Well, you know, you’re correct. In other words, we lost the goodwill of the Shias in Iraq. We also lost the opportunity to try to help Shias and moderates in Iran and Lebanon. And we also have never had the support of Sunni world since Iraq began, whether it was in Iraq or in the larger Sunni world. So, we basically are in a situation where both sides are opposed to the U.S. or at odds with the U.S. What we can do is not to aggravate it further, at this point in time, is not to take sides. And I think a foreign policy on the part of the West, of picking the side of the Arab governments and Saudi Arabia, to do their fight against Iran for them, will only inflame sectarianism and will really divide the region along these lines. In many ways, the way the West deals with the Middle East, is that you’re dealing with an ascendant force in the region. Shias in Iraq, Shias in Lebanon and Iran as a country, and you’re also dealing with the anxiety of the Sunni/Arab world for having lost its position of prominence. We have to deal with each of these challenges differently. We cannot use one against another.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And just this month, the United States began conversations with Iran and Syria over Iraq. Were you surprised by that?

VALI NASR: I think it was surprising. Because the opportunity to talk to Iran was laid out by the Iraq study group in January. And they did not take advantage of that. In fact, they very clearly adopted a confrontational policy with Iran arguing that they’re not going to talk to Iran until Iran changes its behavior in Iraq and suspends its enrichment of nuclear fuel. And then they made a turnaround and arguing that Iran had learned its lesson or had been softened by American confrontation, that they were going to talk to Iran. So, it was a change in tactic, not a complete change in strategy.

But it hasn’t gone very far. And also, another important issue is that we often look at Iran and Syria as if they’re a package deal. In Lebanon, they are part of the same team. But in Iraq, they’re not. Syria’s actually part of the Arab team. It’s doing what also the Arab street wants. Even though its support for militants is not the same as Saudi Arabia or Jordan, ultimately they are supporting the same side too.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And why is it a mistake to see them as a package deal in the first place?

VALI NASR: Because Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Syria are seen as an axis in the region. And we often talk about peeling Syria off of Iran. But in Iraq, they are peeled off. They’re not even one. We have to have a very different conversation with Iran over Iraq than the one with Syria. Syria’s supporting the insurgents. Syria’s opposed to the central governments in Iraq. Syria supports the Baathists. Syria supports the very people that Iran’s clients are fighting. Iran, on the other hand, is supporting the same government as the United States is, supporting the Shias, not the Sunnis, is supporting Shia militias, not the insurgency. And therefore, Iran’s role, Iran’s objective, Iran’s interest, are exactly opposite those of Syria. And yes, we ought to talk to them. Because ultimately, every problem in Iraq right now has to do with the fact that there is no state in Iraq. We shattered the state. There are no security forces. We are it. There is a playing field. There is a prize to be won. It’s called Iraq. And until the day that there is a political agreement about the future of Iraq, there’s going to be fighting. And the future of Iraq is going to be decided either around the table or in a battlefield. And ultimately, if we don’t want the future of Iraq to be decided in war, we have to facilitate a political solution. And we cannot have a viable political solution unless it has the buy-in of the countries that have most vested interests in Iraq. And those are the neighboring countries and none more so than Iran. Even your footage, look at how many Iranians are in Iraq as visitors. Look at how many Arabs from other Arab countries are in Iraq. They’re only there as foreign fighters not as participants in pilgrimage, economy, business, et cetera. So there is not going to be a political solution to Iraq unless the Turks, the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Saudis and especially the Iranians, have a buy-in. The idea of having a future of Iraq that excludes Iran is dead on arrival in many ways.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And what does Iran gain?

VALI NASR: So, the idea of having a political solution for Iraq that excludes Iran in many ways is dead on arrival.

Vali Nasr, Professor, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and author of

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And what do you make of these talks? Do you think that in some ways, they indicate a shift in U.S. policy towards Iran?

VALI NASR: Yes, it does. And it might indicate a shift in policy towards Iran. When we began this surge strategy, the assumption was that the biggest hurdle in Iraq would be the Shia militia, that the job of this surge was going to be eliminating the Shia militia. Well, the Shia militia has disappeared. They were nowhere to be fought. The U.S. went straight into Sadr City without any resistance. On the other hand, it is the Sunni insurgency that mounted a surge of its own against the U.S. and against the Shiites, shooting down seven helicopters, using chlorine gas in bombings, attacking pilgrims to Karbala, Shia universities, even exploding bombs in the middle of Sadr City. So, the assumptions that this surge began with, namely that the security problem in Iraq are the Shias and Iran, is not there. And therefore, we have to sort of recalibrate the way we approach this issue. Iraq now does need a tactical shift in terms of strategy; the United States has to make a decision. Either it’s going to war with Iran, or it has to engage Iran. And it can.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Well, what does it want from Iran? What do you think the United States wants?

VALI NASR: Well, the United States has a host of things it wants from Iran. It wants it to suspend its nuclear program. It wants it to extricate itself from Iraq. It wants it to stop meddling in the Palestinian issue and stop supporting Hezbollah. And then there are those in the West who want basically the Iranian government to dismantle and to go away. But let’s at least say in this order of priority. But the question is not what we want from Iran. The question is: what can we get from Iran? And do we have the means to get it from Iran? And one of the important questions is: can we go to war with Iran? The answer is I don’t think it is very feasible. Because we don’t have the capability to deal with a country of 70 million people which is, you know, three times the size of Iraq. It’s sophisticated. It’s probably even despite all of its misbehaviors, still right now a force for stability in the Middle East. Because it has a government and it has somebody control that huge territory. Secondly, can we get from Iran what we want by confrontation and threat? There is no evidence of that. The Iranians believe rightly or wrongly that they are holding the cards. And the U.S. can try to extricate them from Iraq and escalate. At the end of the day, the Iranians are not budging. As we’re talking, they are not budging. So, if you cannot get what you want by confrontation, you probably have to find ways to influence their behavior otherwise. And the only other way is to begin talking to them.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And so, if it’s not military confrontation and the dialogue has sort of been blowing hot and cold how do you sort of take it forward and work towards some kind of solution without people dying?

VALI NASR: Well, there has been no dialogue between the U.S. and Iran recently. I mean, whenever you have a two-minute conversation over orange juice between an American ambassador and an Iranian representative making world headline news, you know there’s no dialogue. And that’s probably a good beginning that the U.S. and Iran need to begin talking about outstanding issues. There are areas of common interest like Iraq, like Afghanistan. They actually may find themselves to be roughly on the same side in these areas. And there are areas where they are very far apart, like on the Palestinian issue, on Hezbollah, and on the nuclear issue. But ultimately, the task of managing Iran is probably the single biggest challenge for U.S. and European foreign policy in the coming years. Iran is probably now the most important country in the region in terms of land mass, in terms of influence, in terms of population size, in terms of military capability in the Persian Gulf. So, I mean, we in the West have to address hard questions about what level of commitment, what amount of resources we want to employ with what effect, in order to manage the largest country in the region, which happens to be also the biggest challenge to us on multiple fronts.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And you think it’s a bigger issue than the Palestinian/Israeli conflict?

VALI NASR: No. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is an important issue. And its resolution will do much to shore up the legitimacy of our allies and to also ameliorate the anti-Americanism on the Arab street. But it does not change the strategic balance of the region. The rise of Iran does. That’s why the Arab world is so viscerally reacting to the rise of Iran, much more so than it is due to the Palestinian/Israeli issue. What you have in the Middle East is a complete change in the balance of power. You have a claimant to great power status in the Middle East. It doesn’t mean they’re going to get it. But in demanding it, Iran is completely changing the balance of power. And it presents a challenge to the United States and Europe, which is of a different order of magnitude than the challenge of Arab/Israeli issue. The challenge there is to get Israelis and Palestinians talking. We know what the end result would be. It will have a major impact on the region, how the region thinks about the West. But it’s not going to change the balance of power in the region, about who’s the top-tier country, who’s the second-tier country, which country gets to dictate to whom, which country gets to decide oil policy, which country gets to decide who does what. The Palestinian/Israeli resolution of that conflict will not decide these things. The resolution of Iran’s challenge to the region will decide these things.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: And what does Iran have to gain from having a conversation with the United States?

VALI NASR: I think the Iranians are debating that point. I think there was a point where the Iranians were more afraid of the United States in 2001, 2003, where they assumed that regime survival and protection of their interests in the region would not be possible without ultimately accommodating the West. But now after Iraq, after Lebanon, you also have a different trend in Iran reflected in the behavior of the current Iranian president who would like to borrow more from Ayatollah Khomeini, saying the West can’t do a damn thing. And therefore, Iran can get whatever it wants without accommodating anybody. And he almost flaunts, if you would, his disregard for international opinion. I mean, when he held a Holocaust conference in Iran, irrespective of the offense that he gave to many people in many quarters, what he was really saying is that he really doesn’t care about what the public opinion is, that Iran doesn’t have to listen or accommodate anything or anybody. So, he represents one faction. The other faction does believe that Iran is ultimately part of the region, is ultimately part of the world system, and ultimately Iran’s ambitions have to take account of those things. And it would be better for Iran to talk to the United States and get the United States to a point which would benefit Iran’s interests rather than to try to fight against the United States. And I think U.S. policy in the coming months, as well as dynamics of Iran’s own internal politics, will decide which faction in Iran is going to come [out] on top, the rejectionist or the accommodationist.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Some people suspect that the overall U.S. policy to put pressure on Iran is just a prelude to a military engagement of some sort or another. What do you think about that?

VALI NASR: I think there is a chance for a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Either a premeditated attack on Iran, to take out Iran’s nuclear sites or that you might have an escalation as a consequence of the tensions between the two, out of a place like Iraq. In some ways, Iraq is like Europe in 1914 where you have mistakes made or you can have unintentional crossing of red lines between Iranians and Americans that can then escalate into a conflict. The problem is that a conflict will actually destabilize the region far more. And it will not serve what the United States and the West want from Iran. In other words, attack on Iran would only solidify the position of the Iranian government within Iran. And it’s likely to take away any incentives it has to play by the rules of the game, maintain the diplomatic relations that it has with its neighbors, and it may very well retaliate by escalating support for Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as for militias within Iraq itself.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: So, in your opinion, what would the correct approach be then?

VALI NASR: Well, we’re stuck between a stone and a hard place. In other words, our ability to coerce Iranians into a position that we want, is now rather limited. They’re far less than they were in 2003 or in 2001. Iranians look at the public mood in the U.S. or the Congress, and calculate that the American people really don’t have the stomach for another major conflict, that the United States already has 150,000 troops in Iraq and may well have to put additional troops in there. And then there is Afghanistan looming on the horizon, that the U.S., at best, can strike Iran. It cannot invade Iran. And that gives the Iranian leadership a lot more breathing room. They didn’t think like this in 2003. Because America’s military power was untested. We didn’t know whether it was capable of actually carrying out a successful regime change or not. On the other hand, there are things that we want from Iran and we legitimately should want from Iran, namely that it should not pursue a nuclear weapons program, that it should stop supporting radical groups in the region, that it should not support violence.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Well, you know what? The Iranians say that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. It’s all about energy. Do you buy that?

VALI NASR: Well, no. I think there is a will within Iran to have nuclear weapons capability, if not nuclear weapons itself. In fact, many Iranians may look at Japan as a model, one screwdriver short of a bomb. You have the capability. You have the knowledge. But you don’t build it. So, you remain within the international norm. It doesn’t matter what the Iranians say or don’t say. The question is: can we get them to change their behavior on a host of issues? If coercive capability is limited, there is no point in us continuously relying on it. We have to adopt a broader set of tools to influence Iranian behavior. We cannot, at the current moment, force Iran to do what we want.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Do we have those tools within our arsenal?

VALI NASR: We do. The other tools are diplomacy. The other tool is the fact that the current Iranian leadership, because it has no relationship with the United States, has nothing to gain from a relationship with the United States or from preserving that relationship with the United States. Iranians assume that the United States is only interested in regime change, that it doesn’t want to talk with Iran because it doesn’t want to legitimate the Iranian government, which means that it wants the Iranian government to go. If that’s the case, then what’s the point in conceding to the U.S.? The other important issue for us is that what comes after an attack on Iran? Since 2001, what we should’ve learned is that the greatest threat to the West does not come from world regimes, per se. It comes from no regime. We have been hurt by areas of the world which have failed states or don’t have governments. It was Afghanistan that hurt the U.S. ultimately, not Iraq. And therefore, an Iran that falls apart because of a massive military campaign will be a far greater danger to the region than it is today. And Iran without a government, the territory, the size of Iran with 70 million people, with the amount of weapons, nuclear material, its just strategic location, will only destabilize, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: that’s a total doomsday scenario, isn’t it?

VALI NASR: It is. But it is something we need to think about. Because we often think about the military punishment of Iran in a uni-dimensional way, namely you either do what we want or what the international community wants, or you pay the consequences. But there is also a set of consequences to the consequences that we will visit on Iran. Namely, we have to be prepared to deal with the post-conflict era. If we aren’t successful in war, we’re going to deal with a belligerent, radical, vindictive Iran. If we’re successful in destabilizing and dismantling this regime, what comes next? I mean, we should have learned from Iraq that regime change is not that, you know, dictators leave out of one door and democrats coming out of the next one. We’re going to be dealing with a messy Iran that may well make Iraq look like child’s play.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Okay. Professor Vali Nasr, thank you very much for joining us on Wide Angle.

VALI NASR: Thank you for inviting me.

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