The Levant Exclusive –
Catherine Shakdam, the editor in chief conducted an interview with Professor Vali Nasr earlier July 2014.
If you don’t already know, Professor Vali Nasr is an American academic and author specializing in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Professor Nasr is currently Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. and a Senior Fellow in foreign policy at Brookings Institution
Professor Nasr is a member of the State Department‘s Foreign Affairs Policy Board and served as senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, between 2009 and 2011. He is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
A political scientist by training, he has focused on comparative politics and international relations of the Middle East. He is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It will Mean for Our World, The Shia Revival, The Islamic Leviathan, Democracy in Iran, among others …
Professor Nasr’s writing has addressed politics and Islamic activism in Pakistan, in Iran and throughout the Arab world. He has highlighted the role of states in Islamization and the importance of sectarian identity in Middle East politics, including the growing importance of Shia politics following the Iraq war. His book Forces of Fortune focused on the importance of a new middle class to future of the Muslim world.
In his last book, The Dispensable Nation, Mr Nasr make a compelling case that behind specific flawed decisions lurked a desire by the White House to pivot away from the complex problems of the Muslim world. His argument has proven to be rather insightful when looking at current events in the Middle East and how the White House has sought to disengage militarily and politically, preferring instead to allow regional powers to step in.
Below is the transcript of the interview
Catherine Shakdam – Mr Navi Nasr thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today, it is a real pleasure to have you today. Allow me to jump right in and ask you for your opinion in relation to recent developments in Iraq and what it will ultimately mean for the Middle East.
Catherine Shakdam – In your book you make a compelling case that behind specific flawed decisions lurked a desire by the White House to pivot away from the complex problems of the Muslim world. With that in mind, can you please comment on Washington’s position toward Iraq? Do you see Washington delegate its role to regional powers when it comes to direct intervention on the ground?
Professor Vali Nasr – Washington made a decision to reduce its footprint in Iraq in 2010 and withdrew its troops from that country, now the rise of ISIS is challenging the United States to get engage in Iraq in a manner it has decided it was not going to do. So in some ways it’s [the situation] demanding a reversal of American policy and I think the U.S. is reluctant to do that. But also I think the U.S. is not willing to do that without some political concessions from Iraq Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, so the belief is that Mr Al Maliki went back on the political deal which was negotiated with the U.S. in 2006-2007 … that going back on that deal alienated part of the Sunni public opinion which has helped ISIS gain easy access to northern and western Iraq. So I think they are trying to negotiate a political deal as a prelude to any kind of a military engagement which would lead to pushing ISIS back.
Catherine Shakdam – So do you think the United States will try to delegate more when it comes to the position in the Middle East? Do you think it would be possible to imagine a situation where the United States will attempt to broker a regional coalition of sort with maybe the Kurds and Prime Minister Al Maliki to break/oppose the advances of ISIS? Do you this happening?
Professor Vali Nasr – I think that’s desirable but it’s going to be difficult. First of all because there is no regional mechanism to help in that regard, there is no organization to work with, African Union type to handle such tacks. You will have to have individual diplomacy with on the one side of the picture – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait … they are allies of the United States for example – the other important actor, Iran does not have direct relations, which will make any diplomacy difficult. Added to that you have intra-regional rivalries … Saudi Arabia and Iran are at odds…there is a lack of communication as well in between Turkey and Saudi Arabia as a consequence of developments Egypt. Regional powers don’t have natural relationships in between them so it’s not going to make the situation easier. It’s a very difficult task for the United States. It is a great idea to work through the region to solve the current crisis, but the region does not have the set up and is not prepared to assist in this.
Catherine Shakdam – Ok thank you for that. What about sectarian tensions? We’ve seen how Syria influenced Lebanon in terms of a breakdown in relations and rising tensions in between Sunnis and Shias. How do you see this manifest in Iraq, bearing in mind that ISIL declared war against Shia Islam. We have seen how Shia militias have formed and rallied around across Iraq to oppose ISIS. How do think sectarian tensions will play out?
Professor Vali Nasr – In Iraq and Syria it is going to play out militarily for some time. There is no natural way to stop this, so tensions will endure unless a breakthrough is made in between regional actors. There is no way now to stop the fighting. Now in Iraq sectarian tensions and feelings are deeply embedded within the population therefore it is going to be difficult to diffuse the situation. Sunni Iraqis understand PM Al Maliki as a Shia dictatorship … Shia Iraqis perceive ISIS as an anti-Shia terror group. The Shia see ISIS as a power bent on destroying their shrines, places of worships and communities, there is a lot of anger on both side of the fence so bringing back dome level of harmony or at least neutrality will be difficult, especially there is no real communication in between the two parties.
Sectarian tensions are an issue which will play an important role in the region and largely influence the outcome of the current crisis.
Catherine Shakdam – Will Iraq crisis play into Iran nuclear negotiation and its position vis a vis Syrian President Al Assad?
Professor Vali Nasr – This I think is completely divorced from the developments in Iraq; it’s a priority for Iran. Both parties have agreed from the beginning that developments in the region should not weight in negotiations or somewhat interfere with negotiations.
Nuclear issue is the most important issue and negotiations have been structured in a way just to deal with the nuclear issues. While such talks could lead to other conversations by acting a springboard of sort, it will help to build the trust in the nuclear issue but Iraq or decision regarding Iraq will not have an impact on nuclear negotiations.
Catherine Shakdam – There is a matter that I feel most media have shied away from in regards to developments in the region. We have seen how western powers have military and financially enable militias in Syria and we know now that that support has somewhat found its way to ISIS. ISIL men have largely benefited, directly or not from western funding and military support to “moderate groups” in Syria. Do you think we could see a sudden turn-around in Washington with maybe the White House changes its tone toward Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and maybe attempt to use him as a mean to restore security in the region? Do you think that in view of recent developments western powers could abandon their crusade against President Al Assad and maybe use Iran to pave the way for greater cooperation against ISIS?
Professor Vali Nasr – No I don’t see that. I think it has been the Russian argument all along and so far the United States has not bought into that. It would be very difficult for Washington to come back from its declaration against Al Assad government, especially in relation to allegations of chemical attacks and so on … What we might happen is if Iran decides to put pressure on Al Assad to come to the negotiation table for an honest discussion about power sharing then western governments would have a difficult decision to make – either to support the political process or not. Western powers will not support Assad in destroying terror but there could be a situation where western powers will support political negotiations for the resolution of the conflict in Syria that as a result of it would have two casualties — one ISIS the other one President Al Assad himself. But I don’t see that moving forward.
Catherine Shakdam – With your experience and expertise how would handle ISIS? How do think the international community should handle ISIS?
Professor Vali Nasr – The immediate task is to prevent ISIS from progressing further and from consolidating power because I think right now ISIS speaks the language of helping disenfranchise Sunnis in Iraq from being able to govern over themselves. But down the road it is a terrorist extremist organization and it poses a threat to the whole region and ultimately the top priority is whatever grievances the Sunnis are, ISIS cannot be their representatives, and ISIS cannot be allowed to march militarily in Iraq and ISIS can control territories. Down the road I think the region will have to come to some kind of an agreement I relation to the future of Iraq and Syria in a way which guarantees the territorial integrity of those two countries, while addressing the unhappiness of the Sunni population in both countries and make sure that there is real power sharing. This would negate ISIS raison d’être as Iraqis or Syrians would not have to resort to violence to make their voices heard.
Catherine Shakdam – Just one final question. Some analysts have suggested over the past weeks that Shia Muslims might create a Shia ISIS to oppose the rise of Sunni radicals. Many have suggested that we could soon witness a sort of opposite Jihad the Sunnis on the one side and the Shias on the other. Do you think that’s feasible?
Professor Vali Nasr – I don’t think that would be possible. The Shia-Sunni conflict has existed since Iran 1979 revolution. The al Qaeda model does not work on the Shia side. Shia populations are not tribal. That model does not actually work. I think that matching radicalism with radicalism will only create a spiral of sectarian violence which will devastate the Middle East.
This is all we have time for today, Professor Nasr thank you very much for your time and insights.