Jere Van Dyk Interviews Vali Nasr

May 17, 2006

"For the Iranians, the Taliban and Saddam were a problem, and the United States removed both of them," says Nasr. "[T]here is an opportunity for Iran to become a regional power . . . because of the 2001 attack on Afghanistan and the 2003 fall of Saddam. So they benefited from what the United States did."

JERE VAN DYK: Today we have with us Dr. Vali Nasr, Professor of National Security Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Dr. Nasr is a graduate of Tufts and has a master’s degree from the Fletcher School and a Ph.D. from MIT. A most prolific writer, he has numerous books to his credit, the most recent being one coming out this week, as a matter of fact, called Democracy in Iran, published by Oxford. He has written on Maududi, the prominent Islamic scholar from Pakistan, on the Shia revivalism, as well as on the Jamaat-e-Islami, the prominent political party in Pakistan. He has published numerous times in academic journals. He has appeared on NPR, CBS’s 60 Minutes, NBC, the BBC. His works have been translated into Turkish, Chinese, Arabic, and a number of other languages.

We are very, very fortunate to have with us today Dr. Nasr. We are going to talk about a most important subject on the minds of a great many people: Iran.

VALI NASR: Nice to be with you.

JERE VAN DYK: Thank you for joining us.

Now, Iran, a nation of 68 million people, is an ancient and very proud culture. There is a lot about Iran, I would imagine, that we in the West really don’t know about. What do you think is most important that we in the West may be missing about Iran?

VALI NASR: First of all, that we have a long history with Iran. That was interrupted about twenty-seven years ago, at the time of the Iranian revolution. But the relations between the two countries went a long way back. It was not always that they looked at each other as enemies.

JERE VAN DYK: You mean the United States and Iran.

VALI NASR: The United States and Iran. There was a time when Iran was the United States’ closest ally in the region.

Secondly, Iran is the most important country in the region. If you look east from Egypt, it is the largest country in the region in terms of size. It is the one with the most interesting, most dynamic society and culture. Much of what we talk about in the Middle East as being a problem—in other words, anti-Americanism, illiteracy, religious bigotry, radicalism—they are all absent in Iranian society. We should not always look at Iran through the angle of what its regime looks like, but pay more attention to what Iran looks like.

JERE VAN DYK: Iran as opposed to its regime, meaning that the president may be right in some respects, that the people feel one thing and that the regime exemplifies something different?

VALI NASR: That’s true, absolutely true. In fact, the challenge before Americans is how to be able to build a relationship where you don’t lose the people of Iran as you try to deal with this regime.

JERE VAN DYK: In terms of the people of Iran, in the 16th century Iran became Shia. Yet Iran existed long before that. Which is most important, religion—in this case, Shiite Islam—or Iran as a nation, insofar as the people are concerned?

VALI NASR: I don’t think it’s always that easily separable. Iranians have a national identity that precedes not only Shiism, but precedes Islam itself. It was a glorious empire at the time of the Romans and Byzantium and Egyptian empires. It was a superpower in the ancient world. That’s important to the Iranians. They see themselves as an ancient civilization. They don’t want to be judged only through what has happened in the past twenty years.

But at the same time, they are Muslims. They are very much like Italians or Greeks. Italians are Catholics, even if you don’t think of them as practicing Catholics. The Italians are also the inheritors of the Roman Empire, which existed before Christianity. Similarly with the Greeks. They are very passionately Greek Orthodox. They are very attached to their religion. It’s their identity. But at the same time, there is Ancient Greece.

At times, in the case of Iran, these identifies can clash, but at times they can also come together.

JERE VAN DYK: It sounds to me like it’s a matter of respect. They demand and feel that they are justified in having respect, and they may not be getting enough respect insofar as the West is concerned, insofar, particularly, as Ahmadinejad, the president, is concerned.

VALI NASR: You are absolutely correct. In fact, a lot about this nuclear issue has to do with the respect that Iran believes, as a great power, it should have. There are people in Iran who want to export the Iranian revolution, but the average Iranian believes that Iran is a regional power. It is not the countries around it. It is not Saudi Arabia. It’s not Kuwait. It’s not Jordan. It is something much bigger. It has to be recognized that it is much bigger. That is a nationalistic demand.

That’s exactly where this regime is able to tap into that demand in order to resist Western pressure with regard to nuclear technology.

JERE VAN DYK: That’s interesting. In terms of nationalism, I want to go back a bit. You left Iran in 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.

VALI NASR: That’s correct.

JERE VAN DYK: Some observers say that what he did was unleash sort of a modern international Islam, rather than a pure nationalist Islam which may have existed in various countries before. Is there any truth to that?

VALI NASR: Yes. The Iranian revolution was much like the Russian revolution. At the beginning, it was all about ideology. It did not recognize national boundaries. Khomeini believed that his ideology would travel, there would be other revolutions, and they would all sort of meld together under his leadership, which is very much the way Lenin saw the Soviet revolution. But then after Lenin passed away, you had nationalism come back. People would ask, “Is Stalin really a communist or is he really a Russian nationalist? Is he the last tsar, if you will?”

You could ask that about the leaders of Iran: To what extent are they really Islamic fundamentalists, and to what extent have they now become the embodiment of Iranian nationalism? It’s not secular nationalism. It’s a nationalism that finds its language in the revolution that Khomeini brought about.

But Iran’s history sort of parallels what we saw already in China, what we saw in Russia, what we may have even seen in the French revolution—that idealism ultimately settling back into national identity.

JERE VAN DYK: That’s fascinating.

Along those lines, the other day we had here at the Carnegie Council Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate. Perhaps you know one another. She said if the West—in this case, if the United States—were to attack Iran, the entire Iranian nation would come together as one, even though it may be divided now, just as Americans are divided. Is there truth to that, that it would unite as one people against the United States?

VALI NASR: I believe so. I think so. I think the response of the Iranian people to the way in which the United Nations or the United States is handling the nuclear issue will come down to whether they believe they are being treated equitably and who is being reasonable and who is not. Is their government more reasonable or the international community?

I think any people with a nationalist feeling is going to rally to the flag. At a time of war, you come together and you are not going to support the one that’s destroying your bridges, your roads, your factories, and your children are dying in the war.

So she’s correct. I think Americans can look at themselves. When there is war, it doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn’t matter if you voted for this president. It is unacceptable that you would take the cause of the enemy.

If the United States becomes the enemy in Iran, then people are not going to be caught between choosing democracy or nationalism. They are all going to be nationalists.

JERE VAN DYK: And they’re all going to rally around the Iranian flag, if you will, and behind the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Is that right?

VALI NASR: Because, much like the United States, the president of the moment symbolizes the flag. It doesn’t mean that you endorse him completely. When the United States went to war in Iraq, the Democrats rallied around the president. They hadn’t voted for him. They were not going to vote for him. They have disagreed with a lot of his policies on domestic issues. But on that single issue, America came together.

Ahmadinejad is not going to be liked anymore. He may even be resented for having precipitated the war. But he is the president of Iran, and the people will come together, and they will come together in the name of the country. They will defend that government.

JERE VAN DYK: If he is responsible for the war, if one were to come, that leads to a very interesting subject here. Did he reignite, in many ways, the Khomeini revolution? In fact, the other day I read that the former head of the Pakistani intelligence agency, Hameed Gul, said that Muslim youth around the world now are looking to Iran, particularly the new president, because he’s standing up to the West. Is that true?

VALI NASR: Yes, it is true. I think the reaction inside Iran to what Ahmadinejad says on things like the Holocaust or his letter to the president is very different from the reaction in the rest of the Muslim world. First of all, the rest of the Muslim world doesn’t live with Ahmadinejad. It’s always okay to cheer him saying these things. A lot of the gripe that he talks about is sort of the gripe on the street, if you will, about American policies. So his talk is sort of appealing to the bleachers, if you will.

But Khomeini’s revolution had many facets to it. One of the most important facets, we forget, is that Khomeini was an egalitarian. His revolution was a revolution of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. In the past two decades, we didn’t notice that Iran largely became like the Soviet Union after the fall of Communism. You had oligarchs. There was a middle class. The rich got a lot richer and the poor stayed poor.

Ahmadinejad’s main appeal is really back to Khomeini’s economic message of supporting the small man, of supporting the poor, of empowering them. His message of reviving the revolution is really that aspect of the revolution.

JERE VAN DYK: In other words, his power is probably great among the lower classes or the middle class and the working classes of Iran today. Is that right?

VALI NASR: Absolutely. If you listen to every one of his speeches, against Israel, against the Holocaust, about nuclear weapons, they are all given in these faraway provinces of Iran to cheering crowds in small towns.

Iran also is benefiting from an enormous amount of oil wealth right now. It has something like $30 billion to $40 billion in oil reserves, which is a far cry, say, from five years ago. Iran’s policies, domestic and international, greatly resemble Venezuela’s. This is an Iranian version of Chavez.

In this kind of environment, you don’t need the middle class. You don’t need the reformists. You don’t need the private sector. You can promise the poor, you can organize the poor, and you can channel the oil money to them.

It’s a policy that may not work in the long run. In fact, he has really no way of delivering what he is promising, in terms of job creation and wealth creation. But in the short run, it is working because he is essentially galvanizing the poor, and he is promising them no more privatization in this country: “I’m going to protect state subsidies for a variety of things that may have come under threat. I’m going to also commit this much money to these projects in your far-flung provinces.” That’s popular.

JERE VAN DYK: Fascinating. Now, you said he may not be able to deliver. Chavez in Venezuela can deliver, more or less, because he is the supreme leader; he is the president. Who is in charge, really, in Iran? How does that work? Can you explain that to us? There is a revolutionary council. There’s the president. How does that work?

VALI NASR: There are, first of all, three branches of government in Iran. There is a judiciary, whose head is appointed by the supreme leader. There is a parliament, which is elected. There is real contestation between reformists and conservatives, and they have swung back and forth.

JERE VAN DYK: So it’s a real democracy in that regard.

VALI NASR: Well, yes—or at least you can look at it this way. A lot of the Iranian people take it seriously as a democracy. That’s always something that we didn’t understand. Iran secularists or middle-class Iranians or Westerners can look at Iran and see all the flaws—the veto power of the supreme leader, the Guardian Council not allowing people to run. But the majority of Iranians who are poor and religious don’t see these as problems. They don’t see a problem when the Guardian Council disqualifies secular opponents. In their eyes, it’s genuine democracy, because they have three or four choices. How those three or four choices came there doesn’t bother them, but they know that their vote makes a difference as to which of those three or four will actually win.

So, ironically, in Iran, the lower down in society you go, the more there is democracy practiced. They have been voting longer than the upper-class Iranians. It’s the reverse of the rest of the Middle East, where you might say the elite, educated abroad, have seen democracy, but the poor are completely oblivious to it. In Iran, the further down you go, the more they have been engaged, and the more they believe that this is genuine and they take it seriously.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters really believe this was a genuinely good election. He mobilized them. He brought them out. There was good campaigning. The vote was what put him in office. That has a psychological impact on Iran.

The two executive functions in Iran—you have the presidency, which, in many ways, in the past two decades, has become much more like a French prime minister.

JERE VAN DYK: As opposed to the French president.

VALI NASR: When Ahmadinejad was running for office, actually, he put it very nicely. He said, “I’m not going to be an administrative president. I’m going to be a political president.” Administrative president means that you basically just implement decisions or policies that are handed down either by the Parliament or by the supreme leader. He wants to be the policymaker.

But, ultimately, the supreme power in the country is the supreme leader, because he holds all the levers of power. He controls the powerful foundations that have most of the wealth of the country. He appoints the head of the judiciary. He appoints the membership of a lot of these councils, which then can have veto power over the president. Also, most importantly, since 1989, after Khomeini died, the supreme leader appoints the commanders of the revolutionary guards and the military. He is the commander-in-chief, if you will, of the Iranian forces.

There is a competition. It existed under President Khatami.

JERE VAN DYK: Khatami, the previous president, before Ahmadinejad.

VALI NASR: The previous one. But it also exists under Ahmadinejad as well. Even though they are both conservative, there are turf battles about who sets the course.
You are correct. This sort of division of branches in Iran, the fact that there is competition, is actually what has allowed for this open space in Iran, because nobody dominates. When there are parliamentary elections, you may not have liberals, but you have six different conservatives. The competition between them is genuine. Nobody can rig the elections in that regard.

But it also causes confusion. In dealing with Iran, for the United States, there is ambiguity as to who is in charge, how quickly he can make decisions. A lot of decision making in Iran is consensus building. Nothing moves fast. At the same time, once they make a decision, it’s very difficult to change it.

JERE VAN DYK: Who makes the ultimate decision?

The reason I ask that question is, not so long ago, the supreme leader Ali Khamenei said that Iran will not be aggressive against any nation. On the other hand, we have the president, Ahmadinejad, saying that Israel should be wiped off the map.

Who’s in charge here? Who makes the ultimate decision? Or is there something in between, something we don’t really realize or understand in the West?

VALI NASR: In the way they are talking, there is no discrepancy. Ahmadinejad says that he was merely quoting Khamenei when he said “wipe off the map,” that it was not his idea. Also his rhetoric against Israel, his position, is, “I’m merely either stating issues or this is a defensive posture by Iran.”

So at least at the formal level, this is not seen as a discrepancy.

Because of the division of power, you cannot silence Ahmadinejad. So when he’s on the road as the president of the country and says something—or when he is in Jakarta or Riyadh and he says something about Israel, or when he is at the United Nations—you cannot simply muzzle him. But technically, constitutionally, the supreme leader is the ultimate decision maker in Iran. That doesn’t mean that, either like Venezuela or like Iran under the shah, this is a command relationship. In other words, Iran is more like an aircraft carrier. It can be turned only so slowly. It can’t turn on a dime. There are too many factions, and it takes a lot of persuasion, arm twisting, negotiation, to get all of these on board.

JERE VAN DYK: Good analogy.

How pragmatic is Iran? We know that in 1986, during the Iran-Contra affair, Iran actually worked with or bought weapons from Israel. After Ayatollah Khomeini died — this man hated Saudi Arabia — I think the Iranians started to move diplomatically towards the Saudis. Are they more pragmatic than revolutionary? We should not, perhaps, be so worried, after all?

VALI NASR: They are pragmatic, but pragmatism does not mean that you cannot follow dangerous policies. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev was very pragmatic. It depends on what kinds of assumptions and factors you are basing your decisions on. The Iranians also negotiated very aggressively with the United States after the fall of the Taliban. The Iranian ambassador at the United Nations, Mr. Zarif, and Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador in Iraq, negotiated the Bonn Conference.

The problem right now is not that the Iranians have some kind of an idealistic view of world revolution or Armageddon. It is that looking at their environment, they think the pragmatic decision is to push very, very hard, because they believe that they can either get away with it or that the United States is weak because of Iraq, and that they have room to maneuver.

Or they perceive that the United States would want to topple them; therefore, there’s no point in compromising. In other words, I don’t think that they are in a kamikaze mode with the West. It is, rather, that the way they are seeing the world and then making decisions on that basis leads them to believe, much like the Soviet Union when they decided to go into Afghanistan, that this is the rational thing to do in order to maximize their interests.

JERE VAN DYK: You mentioned Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. He said, at least a year ago now —or he at least implied—that the United States should negotiate, and he would be happy to negotiate on behalf of the United States, with the Iranians. Do you think we are doing that? Do you think it’s a good idea to do it? What do you think would transpire as a result?

VALI NASR: We’re not doing that. Actually, initially, the Iranians didn’t pick up on it. But later on, the head of Iran’s Security Council went before the conservative Parliament and announced that Iran is ready to have high-level negotiations on Iraq with the United States. The supreme leader, in what in Iran is believed to be a path-breaking speech, said that he now officially permits the government of Iran to talk to the United States. That’s a first, if you will, in the twenty-seven years since the revolution. But nothing has really happened since then.

I do think it’s a good idea.

JERE VAN DYK: Why do you think it’s a good idea?

VALI NASR: First of all, because I think it’s good for Iraq. Let’s put aside U.S.-Iranian relations. The United States and Iran are the two most important governments that will decide the fate of Iraq.

JERE VAN DYK: Iran and the United States? Not Saudi Arabia, not Egypt, not Syria, not anyone else. They are the two principal countries that are going to decide that.

VALI NASR: Exactly, partly because, even though the insurgency is a very troubling event, the Sunnis are a minority. The majority of Iraq are the Shiites. The Kurds, obviously, don’t fit in this. They have a different set of regional relationships.

But ever since 2003, when the Saddam regime fell, the United States and Iran sort have been in the same room but ignoring each other. They have been working with the same government. The actual allies in Iraq are the same people. Iranians patronized Jalal Talabani for some twenty years. That was their client in Iraq. Barzani was with Saddam. Talabani was with —

JERE VAN DYK: Barzani, the Kurdish leader.

VALI NASR: The other Kurdish leader. Talabani was the Iranian client. Now he is the president of Iraq, one of the two most important American allies among the Kurds. In the south, we have been working with the Shias. They are the ones who participated in election after election, forming the government. The Shias are also connected to Iran.

So it’s almost like the United States and Iran have been in the same room, dealing with the same mess, dealing with the same characters, but not talking to each other. For stability in Iraq, it’s important that at some point the United States and Iran talk. The United States already talks to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the like. How effective that is, what they can do, that is a different issue. But it’s not talking to Iran.

So I think the first thing is, it’s good for Iraq.

Secondly, I think, ultimately, nothing is going to get solved until the United States and Iran engage directly. That does not mean that everything is going to go away. We had a détente process with the Soviet Union take twenty years to negotiate arms control. It doesn’t mean that there is a silver bullet here. But the Iranians clearly want to talk to the United States. They clearly believe that the only solution that will come is from that direct negotiation.

Ultimately, we don’t have anything to lose. If the talks don’t go anywhere, we are back to where we are right now. It’s an option that we haven’t explored.

JERE VAN DYK: In your view, unless the United States and Iran sit down and talk to one another, the war in Iraq—this war that is draining the United States, and where soldiers are being killed daily—is going to continue?

VALI NASR: Partly because the Iranians right now have no incentive to help the United States. They want to help the Shias in Iraq, but they don’t want to help the United States. When Saddam fell, the word was that Iran was next. If you were in Iran, you would have every incentive to make Iraq unsuccessful—first, to bog the U.S. troops down; secondly, to make sure that nobody thinks regime change is easy, cost-free, or something that you want to do again.

But beyond that, Iranians have an insecurity about U.S. intentions towards them. They have been on the “axis of evil.” Possibly they deserve it —

JERE VAN DYK: So when the president said that, they started to think that the United States had intentions to topple the regime.

VALI NASR: Absolutely. The largest reason for why you want a nuclear deterrence is because you believe the United States wants to overthrow your regime. The saying in Iran is that the difference between Iraq and North Korea is that North Korea had it; Iraq didn’t have it. If you have it, then it’s a whole different ballgame. If you don’t have it, you are vulnerable.

As a result, everything that has happened since 2001 has encouraged them to build, and build faster. Ultimately, what they gain by talking with the United States is a recognition of the Iranian regime that currently doesn’t exist. Currently, our policy has been to demand concessions from Iran, but no recognition.

JERE VAN DYK: No recognition of the regime, of Iran as a country?

VALI NASR: To the extent of even talking to them. For a long time, we didn’t know if, actually, the Iranians would talk to us. But now they say they will. But the United States believes that if it talks to Iran, it legitimizes them. That legitimacy is exactly what the regime wants. It has no incentive to negotiate unless it gets that legitimacy.

JERE VAN DYK: In terms of its nuclear technology, its nuclear politics—that’s what we are starting to talk about now—did they start to get their technology from A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear blackmail person, if you will? Did they start on their own? Did this precede any American involvement? How did it start, and why did it start?

VALI NASR: There was a nuclear program in Iran under the shah. It was very similar to this one. In fact, the shah’s last foreign minister has come out publicly and said that the Iranian plan and the Iranian strategy are identical to the one the shah had.

JERE VAN DYK: The shah’s prime minister when the shah of Iran was in power.

VALI NASR: That’s right.

JERE VAN DYK: His prime minister has come out and said —

VALI NASR: That’s right. He is an eighty-year-old man. He was the last foreign minister. He lives in Montraux in Switzerland. He has given a number of interviews, with Le Monde in particular, saying, “Look, everything they say, the way they are handling NPT, is exactly what we did.”


VALI NASR: The Nonproliferation Treaty.

The shah had ordered something like twenty-three nuclear reactions from France and Canada. He wanted to build civilian nuclear technology. He invested in building nuclear research centers. It was the shah who sent tons of students to the West to study nuclear physics.

The last chief negotiator of Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations, which is in Vienna, is a Ph.D. from MIT, who was an assistant professor of nuclear physics at the premier technology university in Iran under the shah.

The program went by the wayside during the early years of the revolution, like everything else in Iran.

So there was a history there. The personnel were there, some of the programs. This is not like Libya, where everything is bought in a box and you need foreigners to come and unpack it for you. That’s exactly where Iran is different. It has the know-how. It has the depth. It has the technology basis. Even if you looked in areas of theoretical physics in Iran, some of the Iranian institutes rank among the top ten in the world in research, in applied mathematics and theoretical physics. It’s a very, very sophisticated scientific scene.

JERE VAN DYK: Why don’t we know that in the West?

VALI NASR: Partly, it’s a matter of distance. Partly, it’s because we don’t have relations. Partly, it’s because none of those physicists come to the United States because of visa issues. Some of this does feature in the discussion when the president says Iran is ready for democracy.

But there was sort of an interjection of A.Q. Khan, or possibly others. We don’t know. We don’t know, really, where this program is at. We really don’t know when it actually began. We only found out the Pakistani connection through Libya. But, ultimately, we at least know one track that exists, and what that track may very well be. But how much indigenous effort there was, how far along they are, what else they may have acquired after the Soviet Union fell—none of this we really know. It’s all an enigma.

Actually, this could go the other way around, that there is a lot less than we assume, that it’s not really as far along, it’s not as advanced as Iranians claim, and, in fact, that much of what Ahmadinejad has been doing in the past two months is bluffing.

JERE VAN DYK: Just like Saddam Hussein did not want to appear weak, and he was bluffing.

VALI NASR: Absolutely. That they don’t have as many centrifuges as they say, that they have not amassed 164 centrifuges, that it’s not as advanced, there aren’t as many, it’s not as prolific as they claim.

So it may very well be in either direction. It’s just that we don’t know.

JERE VAN DYK: How do we find out? On the one hand, we have the United States and Israel saying that there’s a problem, and we have to do something about this within three years, five years, perhaps sooner than that. But now you are saying that perhaps it’s not nearly as bad as we think.

VALI NASR: Iranians are not going to let us know. That’s the idea about intrusive inspections. The red line in this whole issue is that the Iranians want enrichment on Iranian soil, and the United States says, “You can have whatever you want, but you cannot enrich on your soil.”

JERE VAN DYK: Can you explain that to us? What does that mean?

VALI NASR: It’s a technology capability. You really don’t have to build a bomb. You want to be one screwdriver short. That was the shah’s strategy. He signed a nonproliferation treaty. But he was pursuing nuclear capability.

In other words, the model is Japan. Japan could go nuclear very quickly if it decided to—within a year or two. It has the infrastructure, it has the know-how, it has the technological capability.

For Iranians, the enrichment process is really to create that indigenous capability. When enrichment is outside, you buy the product, but you don’t know how to make it. It is like saying, “I want to build cars here,” as opposed to saying, “No. I’ll build the cars. I’ll send them to you. If you really want to drive, I’ll send you cars.” The Iranians are saying, “No. It’s not just driving. I want to know how to build it.”

JERE VAN DYK: Listening to you talk, I get the impression that you are not as concerned as most people are in the West. You teach at a military institute. You talk to various people. Do other people accept your thoughts, or are you on your own?

VALI NASR: No. It all depends on how you look at Iran. You could look at Ahmadinejad and assume that he is sitting somewhere with his finger on a red button and he’s just waiting for the bomb to get ready, and the minute it’s ready, it’s going to be launched. I don’t believe that is the case. I believe that the Iranians are driven by ego, by nationalism, by ambition, by wanting to throw their weight around the region, and also by fear, fear that unless they have a capability deterrent, they might be toppled through some kind of outside intervention. Also domestically, they believe that once they are nuclear, they will be a lot more stable at the top than when they are not.

JERE VAN DYK: Domestically?

VALI NASR: Because the regime will become a lot stronger, whether it’s nationalism, whether it’s having that kind of capability.

But I don’t believe that they are ready to launch into an offensive war. I think the Middle East will become a lot more complicated, and Iran will be a lot more difficult to deal with, if it has nuclear weapons. But that does not necessarily mean that you are going to have a war.

Maybe I’m sanguine because, as you have said, I worked in Pakistan, and I know that India and Pakistan would have been in many more wars if there was no nuclear deterrence there. In some ways, no government is going to commit suicide. That’s what has kept the Indians from finishing Pakistan off.

JERE VAN DYK: Talking about Pakistan, you raised a very, very interesting, but perhaps even delicate subject. When you go to Pakistan, they say, “Well, the Americans and the Westerners—the French, the British—have a bomb. You don’t call it a Christian bomb. The Israelis have a bomb. You don’t call it a Jewish bomb. When the Pakistanis have a bomb, you are afraid because it’s an Islamic bomb.”

Do you think that same thing applies with the Iranians, that there is an inherent fear there?

VALI NASR: Yes. Actually, the term “Islamic bomb” had a different history. The Pakistani prime minister in the 1970s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, called —

JERE VAN DYK: A secularist.

VALI NASR: A secularist. He called it an Islamic bomb, as opposed to a Hindu bomb. He was trying to say that India is not a secular country; it is a Hindu country. So the bomb that exploded in India he called a Hindu bomb. Then he said, “We’ll have an Islamic bomb.” He thought that the idea of an Islamic bomb was good, because he wanted uranium from Libya and money from Saudi Arabia. It was a marketing scheme. Why would Libyans give uranium or money to Pakistanis, unless he created a sort of “we’re all in it together” aura.
But then it sort of found a life of its own. When Islamic fundamentalism happened, then the Islamic bomb became the worst-case scenario.

Yes, it has to do with the Iranian regime. In fact, when the shah’s foreign minister gives that speech, he is underscoring it. In other words, the same strategy was okay when the shah did it; it’s not okay when the Islamic Republic does it. The dilemma for Iran is that, with Ahmadinejad’s election, its regime has become more problematic. Actually, Ahmadinejad’s election has not helped the case.

JERE VAN DYK: Has not helped Iran?

VALI NASR: Has not helped Iran. In the vein that you are mentioning, people don’t think in terms of rights of nations. They look at a militant fanatic, ranting and raving at the United Nations when he claimed that he saw the Messiah over there or the kind of preaching he does. Then, clearly, that becomes the dominant issue.

Iranians themselves, those who live in Iran, might have a much more sophisticated approach to nuclear technology and Iranian power. But outside, everything gets summarized into a caricature of Ahmadinejad.

JERE VAN DYK: I have to bring up the recent letter that he wrote to President Bush, this eighteen-page letter, in which he talked about the importance of, in effect, coming to Islam or embracing Islam. But the Ayatollah Khomeini also sent a similar letter, did he not, to the then-leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

So is he crazy or not crazy? Is this something else here? What is going on?

VALI NASR: First of all, Ahmadinejad does come from a very fanatical, marginal, right-wing, radical political faction within Iran. We have had similar kinds of phenomena in Europe. If Austrian neo-Nazi, right-wing politicians win or if the French Le Pen wins—Ahmadinejad has that quality about him. He has not traveled. The very first trip he had outside of Iran, other than battlefield experience he had crossing the border into Iraq, was when he came to the United Nations during the General Assembly meeting last year.

JERE VAN DYK: That was the furthest trip he has ever made.

VALI NASR: That was the furthest trip he has made. It was the first trip he has made to the West.

JERE VAN DYK: To New York City.

VALI NASR: To New York City. In many ways, he also doesn’t know the world. He comes from sort of a hibernated radical environment. Therefore, his vocabulary, his tone, are not diplomatic.

Secondly, his movement has a lack of respect for professional diplomats in Iran, in a manner, you could say, as when the Pentagon had a lack of respect for the CIA three years ago. The reason for that is that they believe they have achieved nothing during the previous two years of negotiations. Since he came to power, as you know, he expelled forty ambassadors and senior diplomats.

So first of all, there is this kind of dismissal of the diplomatic corps. He didn’t ask their opinion. He doesn’t believe in the protocols. He believes he ought to say what he believes.
A lot of what he says you can find on any street corner in the Middle East—conspiracy theory, anger at U.S. policy, some absurd ideas, mixed in with preaching.

There were some things that were surprising in the letter. I thought, for instance, unlike the communiqués of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or bin Laden, this was clearly written not with a heavily Arabic language, quotations from the Koran. It was deliberately written for a broad audience.

I also think the audience was not the White House.

JERE VAN DYK: What was the audience?

VALI NASR: The audience was the Arab street, the Muslim street. What Ahmadinejad did was, as I said, to express what you might hear at every street corner. He equated himself as an equal with the president of the United States. This is appealing demagoguery to the streets. His pictures are sold in Damascus and Beirut.

JERE VAN DYK: His portraits are sold in the street.

VALI NASR: His portraits are sold in the street. He has become very popular.

When he went to Jakarta, Indonesia, right after writing this letter, he was very well received on university campuses. Hundreds of people went to a mosque where he gave a talk.

He reveled in the reaction of the street. This is a popular stance. In some ways, it was a very clever move. It was a public relations coup.

It might be counterproductive, in terms of not eliciting a response from Washington, not bringing about a breakthrough, as Iran was hoping, angering the Western countries, making more people believe that, even if he’s not crazy, he shouldn’t be president—if he’s not crazy, he’s reckless—and also creating a lot of anger in Iran. There were a number of op-eds written in different newspapers criticizing him. Even a number of senior clerics have very quietly questioned him: “What authority do you have to preach Islam? You’re not even a cleric.” They have criticized him very quietly, even on his dismissal of the Holocaust. One senior cleric even said to some of his followers, “We shouldn’t be in the business of statistics. What does it matter if 6 million people have died or 100 people have died? What is it to you, to be number counting and dismissing whether an event happened or not?”

So within Iran there was even a lot of anger. But in the larger Arab world—and as I said, they don’t have to live with Ahmadinejad. They could stand on the sidelines and applaud somebody saying what they want to hear.

But it was not as wanton as we would like to think. You have to recognize that ever since he has become president, Ahmadinejad has struggled with the supreme leader and is trying to build a base of support.

JERE VAN DYK: For himself.

VALI NASR: For himself.

JERE VAN DYK: Against the supreme leader.

VALI NASR: Against the supreme leader.

JERE VAN DYK: It’s a power struggle inside the country.

VALI NASR: A power struggle. It’s not an open power struggle. But he clearly is trying to build his own constituency. It’s not enough if he is a good servant of the Islamic Republic. That makes him, as I said, like the French prime minister. He can be dismissed. That can be like a chief of state at the White House. He doesn’t want to be the supreme leader’s chief of staff. He wants to have an independent base. He has discovered this populism, promising money to the poor, attacking Israel, playing to the bleachers in the Muslim world, as his way of gaining an independent base of power.

JERE VAN DYK: You wrote a very interesting op-ed piece, to follow up on what we’re talking about right now, in, I think, March 2004, in The New York Times, in which you talked about the dangers—if the United States works with the Shia, then this would cause a problem among Sunni militants. The president of Iran goes to Jakarta, goes to Indonesia. That’s primarily a Sunni nation. He is received well. Is he able to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap in some ways throughout the Muslim world? Is there something new at play here?

VALI NASR: That’s a very important point. First of all, the Sunnis in Indonesia don’t feel like the Sunnis in the Arab world, because they don’t even know what a Shia is. There are no Shias over there. It’s all a distant power struggle for them. But having said that, part of the reason Iran is following this anti-Israeli policy is because the Iranian government wants to minimize resistance to Shia empowerment and Iran’s rising power in the region. They are very well aware of the anxiety that Iraq has created on the street in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia. They also read when President Mubarak of Egypt criticizes the Shias of Iraq.

Their strategy is the one that Khomeini had or the Hezbollah in Lebanon has. The best way is to focus attention on America and Israel. So Ahmadinejad’s letter is also really a play to the Arab street.

As Iran begins to confront the United States over the nuclear issue, it wants the support of the people in the region.

JERE VAN DYK: Sunni or Shia?

VALI NASR: Everybody, but particularly Sunnis, in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the like, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia and Nigeria. They are not going to get it if they are identified as a Shia country, as a partisan country involved in Iraq. That doesn’t benefit Iran. So the Iranians deliberately are following a policy of trying to cast the limelight away from the Shia-Sunni issue, even as they benefit from the Shia-Sunni issue.

That is part of the reason why Ahmadinejad has been following this policy in the region. All of the other pronouncements of the Iranian government—they constantly blame what is happening in Iraq, the bombings, the killings, on, quote/unquote, Zionist agents. They don’t want to raise this issue.

There was a poll done on the Arab world which suggested that the Arab public is not concerned about Iranian nuclear weapons. They are more concerned about Iranian regional power. So the nuclear issue is the West’s problem, but an ascendant powerful Iran scares not only Arab governments, but Arab people. Iran wants to say, “Look, my power is not a threat to you, because I’m involved in a fight with the one who you think is your enemy, which is Israel.”

JERE VAN DYK: Are those fears that emanate from the Arab street against Iran because the Iranians are not Arabs or because they are Shia? You also have, if I’m not mistaken, particularly in a place like Saudi Arabia—the Shia in Saudi Arabia are on the oilfields. In Iraq, you have tremendous amounts of oil. The Shias are there also. Is there something else at play here regarding oil?

VALI NASR: You’re right. The Middle East has four major ethnicities in it. There are the Kurds, which are a captive minority everywhere. The other dominant ones—and I’m excluding Israel, as sort of a separate case — there are Turks, there are Iranians, and then there are Arabs.

The legacy of the past three decades, four decades has been that Arab nationalism evolved as anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish. It was anti-Turkish because the Arabs separated from the Ottoman Empire and resented the Turkish overlordship of the Ottoman Empire.

JERE VAN DYK: But the Turks were the last caliphate.

VALI NASR: That’s right. At that time, they were the last caliphate. The Arabs did not identify as Arabs; the Arabs identified as Ottomans. But when modern nationalism came, the Turks began to think of themselves as Turks, the Iranians as Iranians, and the Arabs as Arabs. In other words, the Middle East broke up. That harmony that had existed sort of broke up, as modern nationalism came.

But Arab nationalism was particularly anti-Iranian also. This also had to do with the fact that the shah was very pro-American, was pro-Israeli. Therefore, there is always this barrier, that all Arabs are brothers. So if Egypt interferes in Iraq, it’s okay, but if Iran interferes in Iraq, it’s a foreigner interfering in Iraq.

Then the Shia, who always were treated as a suppressed minority—one of the ways in which the Sunnis in the Arab world treated them was to say, “Because you share a religion with Iran, you are an Iranian fifth column.” So anti-Iranianism went with anti-Shiism, and vice versa. Now that’s where the big headache is. The two have come together in Iraq. The Shia got the government, and the Iranians are in. So the worst nightmare of the past thirty or forty years has sort of been realized in Iraq.

JERE VAN DYK: I know the United States went into Iraq, and now, in many ways, it’s trying to surround Iran. It’s in Afghanistan. We have soldiers, actually, in Pakistan, on the southern border. Is Iran being surrounded by the United States, or is Iran surrounding the United States?

VALI NASR: Iran is surrounded by the United States. But it believes that this is not a permanent condition, and that ultimately the United States will leave Iraq and it ultimately will leave, at least, Afghanistan. The United States may stay in the Persian Gulf for longer, in Bahrain, but it’s going to leave those places.

For the Iranians, the Taliban and Saddam were a problem, and the United States removed both of them. So, actually, if there is an opportunity for Iran to become a regional power, it came because of the 2001 attack on Afghanistan and the 2003 fall of Saddam. So they benefited from what the United States did.

JERE VAN DYK: The unintended consequences.

VALI NASR: Unintended consequences. But then, at the same time, the same superpower that gave you room to breathe is the one that actually is constricting you. That’s why there is this confused policy in Iraq. The Iranians like the consolidation of power under the Shias quickly, but at the same time, they don’t benefit from a quick fix to Iraq.

So this is going to be ongoing. This has to do with that whole sort of insecurity that Iran feels towards the United States.

JERE VAN DYK: Insecurity or — some people think that Iran is trying to re-create the Persian Empire. You talked about Hezbollah, and even Hamas. It backs these two entities in Lebanon and all the way down towards Israel. You have the common language. It extends all the way to Tajikistan on the other side of Afghanistan. So in many ways, its power is perhaps greater, or potentially greater, than it ever has been in its history.

VALI NASR: You’re absolutely right. In fact, whether secular or religious nationalist, that’s the way the Iranians see themselves. They see themselves as the Germany of the Middle East. They don’t want to conquer. You know Afghanistan. They have had a zone of influence in western Afghanistan now in Herat. It is tied to the Iranian economy. The Iranians build roads in there. It is much better managed than the rest of Afghanistan.

They don’t want to put their flag there. It is the way, say, the Germans deal with Eastern Europe now. It is an economic zone. That’s the way the Iranians see southern Iraq. It’s a zone of influence. And you’re right—Lebanon, with Hamas, Tajikistan.

Iranians see themselves as more than just a little nation-state. Domestically, they believe they have the economy, they have the know-how, they have the intellectual, scientific, cultural classes. Look at Iranian cinema—it’s a global cinema.

JERE VAN DYK: It’s world-renowned.

VALI NASR: It’s world-renowned. Look at the number of books that are translated in Persian. Look at the level of intellectual activity in Iran. The scientific part I just mentioned earlier.

The society is also supporting this. This is not like a project of the government that has no reflection in society. Iranian society is also—its dynamism is elbowing its way up, and it is bumping its head against the United States. That’s part of this whole dilemma.

JERE VAN DYK: In the end, now, it doesn’t sound to me, based on our conversation here today, that you are as worried as a lot of people in the West—as the Bush administration or as many European governments.

VALI NASR: I am worried about the conflict happening.

JERE VAN DYK: An actual conflict.

VALI NASR: An actual conflict. In other words, I’m worried that if this nuclear issue continues to escalate to war or to military strikes on Iran, then we will be in a completely new period of the unknown.

JERE VAN DYK: And you think it may go there.

VALI NASR: It’s always a possibility. The two sides are fairly well entrenched. The United States has not indicated that it is willing to, in any way, recognize or engage Iran, with or without Ahmadinejad. It has said that the military option is not off the table.

Also we have the experience of Iraq. I think in all of consciousnesses you cannot discount it, when the same sort of process ended up in a war. But a war with Iran—basically, we will be entering a dark tunnel. We don’t know what is on the other side and where we are going to come out.

Right now there is a lot more that is known politically than there is unknown. I do think that Iran has a heinous, fanatical regime. There was a huge setback when Ahmadinejad became president. But I don’t see that essentially translating into an imminent threat, unless other things happen. For instance, if Iraq breaks into a civil war, everybody’s going to be in, including the Iranians, and we are going to have a very different sort of scenario.

But I don’t believe that the Iranians are interested in starting a war. They are interested in throwing their weight around. It doesn’t benefit them to start a war.

JERE VAN DYK: You were born in Iran. You’re American now. Do you still feel a tie to Iran?

VALI NASR: You always have, as part of your—when I talk about Iran, I don’t talk about the Iranian government. I talk about the country, the history, the legacy. I think the best interest for both countries is to finish this animosity. I think the best scenario for everybody is if there was a way forward.

JERE VAN DYK: And that’s what you are looking for and that’s what you hope for.

VALI NASR: Exactly.

JERE VAN DYK: Great. Thank you very much, Dr. Nasr.

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