Vali Nasr on the Conflict between Shiites and Sunnis: "We Need Engagement with Iran"

American political scientist Vali Nasr discusses the bloody sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq as well as Tehran's rise as a regional power.

Vali Nasr: "Violence in Iraq is producing more and more radical ideologies on both sides."
Martin H. Simon

Vali Nasr: "Violence in Iraq is producing more and more radical ideologies on both sides."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Nasr, in your book "The Shia Revival," you paint a dire picture of the future of the Middle East. You predict that the conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis will dramatically increase.

Nasr: Sectarian identity and sectarian tensions will be the backdrop of all the other issues in the Middle East. We saw this in Lebanon where a war that was initially an Arab-Israeli war -- a war that belongs to the old conflicts of the region -- very quickly became all about the Shiite-Sunni issue. Some Arab governments and radical Sunni clerics came out and characterized this as a Shiite power grab and said Hezbollah cannot legitimately fight for the Palestinian cause because it is Shiite and a heretical organization.

SPIEGEL: What caused the revival of the Shiites?

Nasr: First, there was Iraq, but also it's Iran's influence in the region. Everything has to do with what happened in the past few years -- the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran was contained by these two Sunni powers, but the United States removed the barrier. Now Iran was provided with elbow room to expand its power because the United States' own ability to contain Iran has been limited by its involvement in Iraq. It's an opportunity for Iran to expand, a sort of Prussian moment.

SPIEGEL: And Shiites all over the region feel emboldened?

Nasr: They represent about half the population in the countries of the Middle East. When President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt says that the Shiites are more loyal to Iran than their own countries, he is saying that the Shiites are not genuine Arabs, that they are somehow Iranian tools. They are not accepted as members of the nations, they don't have a share of the wealth. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there is no Shiite ambassador; in Lebanon, they are the largest community and the most they have is the speakership of the parliament.

SPIEGEL: Tensions between the two religious groups have existed for centuries.

Nasr: The relationship between these two sects is somewhat like those that existed earlier between the Protestants and Catholics. Germans must be able to identify with this since they were at the heart of the Thirty Years' War. It's never about theology alone, it's also about power. The Shiites don't want to split from the region, they want a seat at the table. But the real drama is the conflict is Iraq, which has ended up the worst way in which this could have happened.

SPIEGEL: Because of the open violence between the ethnic groups?

Nasr: It is the worst-case scenario for the region because you had a minority Sunni regime that ruled over a majority of Shiites. When the regime change came, the Sunnis refused to accept a change in power, and then things went particularly bloody and badly. In other words, the very first case of a transfer of power from Sunnis to Shiites has ended up becoming the worst nightmare, and the shadow of Iraq now will loom over the region. Iraq is so corrosive to politics there because it raised the Shiite-Sunni issue.

SPIEGEL: What are the consequences?

Nasr: The violence in Iraq is producing more and more radical ideologies on both sides, the kind of activities we haven't seen before: beheadings, large-scale executions, kidnappings. And ultimately that violence doesn't stay there, it is going to travel elsewhere in the Middle East. If Iraq really collapses, it will be difficult to assume that other countries in the region are not going to get involved. The Turks will look after the Kurdish issue, Iran and Hezbollah will be on the side of the Shiites, and other Sunni governments will be on the side of the Sunnis. So the potential to impact public opinion in the region along sectarian lines and to produce a sort of broader struggle of power and regional competition is there.

SPIEGEL: Isn't Iraq already in the midst of a civil war?

Nasr: By some definitions it is, like it was in India in 1947. At the end of the British rule the Hindus and Muslims got involved in a kind of communal violence. There was no civil war as such -- there were no armies, there were no battle lines, and yet millions of people died.

SPIEGEL: The conflict in India ended with the splitting of the country, an idea which is heatedly debated by American politicians.

Nasr: Well, a split happens when one side cannot impose its will on the other, and it is at the same time not willing to submit to the other side's will. Then two things can happen: One is that the conflict will go on for many years to come, like in Lebanon where it took 15 years before they came to an agreement. Or they decide that neither side can win and neither side wants to live with the other side and they will separate.

SPIEGEL: According to US intelligence, Iran already supplies Shiite militia with advanced weapons.

Nasr: Yes. And the Shiites believe that the Saudis, Jordanians and Syrians are supplying the Sunnis with those kinds of things. The hundreds of millions of dollars going into the insurgency has to be coming from somewhere. There is all kinds of evidence that wealthy individuals in the Gulf have been subsidizing the insurgency.

SPIEGEL: Today, the Shiite militias are just as brutal and murderous as their Sunni counterparts.

Nasr: Oh, absolutely, it's a sort of degeneration of Shiite power into Shiite militia rule, driven by the inability of the central government to govern. When you are in a war, power shifts to those who carry the guns.

SPIEGEL: Grand Ayatollah Sistani is considered an influential man by all sides. Couldn't he serve as a voice of moderation?

Nasr: He is a very popular leader, like a John Paul II for the Shiites. But he is exactly like the Pope: He has no army divisions; and when there is a battle on the street, he cannot impose his will. His influence is purely moral.

SPIEGEL: President George W. Bush still hopes that democracy and not sectarian violence will shape his "New Middle East."

Nasr: Democracy is very important to the future, but right now, it is not what is shaping the Middle East. Task number one is to deescalate tensions in the region, create stability for Iraq, making sure that Lebanon does not flare up again, making progress on the Palestinian issue. The most popular Middle East leaders according to a recent poll in Egypt are Hassan Nasrallah, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khalid Meshal.

SPIEGEL: You are an influential voice in Washington, even the president asks for your advice. What do you propose?

Nasr: The two-ton elephant is the Iran issue. War is not an option, we need engagement with Iran. The strategic implications of Iran for the West are far broader than just the nuclear issue. We shouldn't only look at the Iranian government and it's theocracy and authoritarianism. Persian is now the third language of the Internet -- there are 85,000 Iranian blogs, and every Iranian cleric, every Ayatalloh and even Ahmadinejad has his own.

SPIEGEL: You have to cut a deal with the new regional power?

Nasr: Whether you like it or not, they are the new power. It's a matter of overlapping convergence of certain trends -- Iranian society, culture, economy, combined with a turning point in favor of Shiites in the region and America's traditional allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan weakened. We need Iran. It's about the whole stability and future of the Middle East.

SPIEGEL: But the Iranians also have a tendency to overplay their hand.

Nasr: Absolutely. Now, the question is which way Iran will go. Will it be an India, or China, which would be good, or Germany of the inter-war period which ended up ultimately forcing an international alliance against itself. I would like to think that ultimately there is greater realism on the part of Washington, and greater realism means you need to engage Iran. Otherwise you had better be prepared to spend a lot of money on troops for the region for a long time.

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