Council on Foreign Relations
New York, NY
STEVEN COOK: (In progress)—Dillon Fellow here at the council. I’ll be presiding over this meeting.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce Vali Nasr, our newest senior—adjunct senior fellow here at the council. He’s known to many of you, so I don’t need to go through a long-winded introduction.
Just before he begins some remarks, I’d just like—this is an on-the-record meeting. But that being said, if you’re carrying anything that beeps, rings or makes any noise, please turn it off. We also do have folks who are on the phone, who have called in to the meeting. So we’ll be periodically going—during the question-and-answer period, we’ll be periodically going to the phones for questions.
So what that, Vali, please.
VALI NASR: Thank you, Steve. And it’s a great pleasure to be back here.
NASR: Microphone, okay.
I would like to sort of raise a number of issues that—in a way of generating discussion with regard to the impact that Iraq has had, at least in terms of changing the balance of power in the region, and introducing in a major way a new factor into the regional dynamics, which is the Shi’a power, not only in Iraq, but actually as a regional phenomenon. I mean, often people don’t consider that about half the population between Lebanon and Pakistan are Shi’a. And around the Persian Gulf, by most counts, about 80 percent of the population are Shi’a. And the Shi’as themselves would always like to point out that wherever there’s oil, there’s Shi’a essentially. (Laughter.)
Now, this has been seen as both a new phenomenon, a threat, or an opportunity. King Abdullah of Jordan referred to the Shi’a Crescent, the first time in a major way, as at threat, essentially, to the established powers in the region and therefore, by implication, he suggested, to the United States.
There is no, if you would, pan-Shi’a movement in the region. There is no singularly directed, centralized effort to mobilize the Shi’as the way Khomeini tried to do after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
But what we are seeing is a bit more complicated. Namely, we’re—what we’re seeing is that there is possibility for change everywhere in the region. In other words, the mantra is not a centralized revival or empowerment of the Shi’as, as happened with Iran’s efforts in the 1970s, but the replication of what many in the region refer to as the Sistani model, namely, one man, one vote; call for pluralism; call for power-sharing; call for redistribution of power, which in every—most cases, as it was in Iraq, it will benefit the Shi’as. Where they’re a majority or a plurality, as in Lebanon or Bahrain, they can expect to gain control. Where they’re a minority, as in Pakistan, across the Persian Gulf in Saudi Arabia, they’re likely to get a lot more than what they have right now.
And this notion of a sort of an enveloping, cascading Shi’a call and achievement of power is based on not just a political dynamic, but what has happened after Iraq and often we don’t take note of is the much bigger cultural, economic and religious ties that have been spawned since 2003 and are now sort of the underbelly of this movement.
Now, needless to say, Iran is central to this. It was central even right at the get-go in—very soon after the fall of Baghdad, Iran’s president at the time, Khatami, went to Beirut. He was received there with jubilant crowds. He gave a talk at a stadium where 50,000 people attended it. And it’s safe to say that not since Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s has an outside leader generated so much enthusiasm in Lebanon.
And Iran is important to this because it’s obviously the largest Shi’a country, is a single sort of two-ton elephant in Shi’a politics in the region. It’s impossible for the United States to consider what might be the implications of Shi’a empowerment across the region without considering where Iran would fit in it and what it would do to Iran’s role.
The Shi’a empowerment is also happening at a time when Iran’s claims for being a regional power have been ascendant. It sees itself, as we see with the nuclear issue, in a completely different light, and the change in the region, the greater empowerment of the Shi’a’s, fit into that, in that.
And thirdly, because essentially, as relations with the U.S.—between the U.S. and Iran have been deteriorating, Iran has become gradually the bogey for a Sunni call to resist Shi’a empowerment. For instance, already in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain there is resistance to democracy, and the worrying is not because it will empower the Shi’as but because it will empower Iran. And therefore whether Iran wants it or not is going to be central to the debates in the region about democracy, pluralism and Shi’a power.
Now there are key countries that are going to be an issue in the coming years, one of which is Lebanon, about which we hopefully will have a workshop later, in May, where the Shi’as constitute about 45 percent, at least, of the population. Lebanon has been democratizing. The issue of Shi’a power will be on the table, possibly even as a bargain for Hezbollah putting down its arms.
And the other country which is very important, which is the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, is Bahrain, which is three-quarters Shi’a, and will have elections coming—fall.
But the most important case, clearly, is Iraq, which is actually the axis on which this Shi’a empowerment has been based. And it’s where currently, obviously, the issue is most hotly debated, particularly given the pending U.S.-Iran discussions about the future of Iraq.
Now since the fall of Saddam, the opening of Iraq has spawned political, economic, cultural and religious ties between the two countries. And in fact, one can say Iran’s relations with the Shi’as in Iraq is multi-layered. And the most obvious side is the one that we know, that there are political and military ties between political operators in Iraq, most importantly the SCIRI movement, and the Sadrists, as well as Da’Wa, and even some secular politicians, such as Ahmed Chalabi, with the Iranian government. In other words, this is sort of Iran’s ability to exercise hard power in Iraq, through these contacts.
But what is less noted and what would be very important to the U.S.-Iranian discussions is Iran’s soft power in Iraq—in other words, its cultural, economic and religious leverage—that is based on very different kinds of relations.
First of all, they are based on relations of people. There were some 75,000 Iranians or Iraqis of Iranian origin who were expelled from Iraq in the 1970s by Saddam as part of the Arabization campaign. Many of those, as they’re called in Iran, Iraqi returnees are among the most senior officials of the Islamic Republic, including the senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guard. As—one observer in Iran told me that if you were a young person in the 1980s, and you or your family had been expelled from Iraq, you were most likely to join the Revolutionary Guard to fight Ba’athism and to fight Saddam Hussein.
However, they have moved up the ranks. They are—they feel a very powerful linkage with Najaf in particular, and they’re by some accounts the—one of the most powerful men in Iran. Their former deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards was actually born in Najaf and maintains ties there.
On top of these are over 100,000, by some estimates, Iraqi Arabs who were expelled or ran away from Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and, most importantly, after the 1991 Shi’a uprising in southern Iraq. They have returned to Iraq. Among them are senior ayatollahs who have returned to Iraq. And they can be found in every municipality, clinic, school, police station, political party office, at various levels, from Nasiriyah to Basra. And their connections to Iran are deep. There are financial connections to foundations in Iran. There are political connections. In other words—and these connections are not necessarily just with the Iranian regime, they are also with levels far below the Iranian regime—with clerics, with foundations, with businessmen, with bazaars in Iran. In other words, the influencing is not just with the leadership in Iran.
There are also very important religious relationships that have developed since fall of Saddam. Contrary to expectations, the rivalry between Qom and Najaf never materialized. It turned out to be a lot more like Harvard-Yale rivalry than the one that we had in mind. And in fact what we’ve been seeing is much more of a competition between the two cities. It’s very clear that this is not sort of a rivalry over Shi’a theology and Shi’a law, but that there is much more give and take between the two cities.
For instance, Ayatollah Sistani’s headquarters is now very important, Sistani.org, virtual, if you would, Shi’a community website in Qom because the skilled labor that takes to run it cannot be found in Najaf. On the other hand, there are very important Iraqi seminaries in Qom, including the one that Muqtada al-Sadr tried to attach himself to very early after the fall of Saddam, who have been playing the role of economic bridge-builders.
There have been important economic relations that have been built with Iraq. For instance, the border town of Mehran on the Iran-Iraq border now accounts for over a billion dollars in trade. It’s probably the biggest point of entry for goods and services into Iraq, more so than the Kurdish areas or the ports in the south. There is a large volume of now religious donations that go to Iraq from Iran, and in fact, Ayatollah Sistani has rapidly become the top money-getter. And particularly bazaar in Qom, in particular, gives the majority of its religious taxes to Ayatollah Sistani.
And on top of that, various levels of people, from the family of former President Ayatollah Rafsanjani down to smaller businessmen, have invested massively in the shrine cities—apartments, hotels, land. Varieties of investments have been made, if you would, creating a certain dynamic. And some of this dynamic is good because there is now, if you would, much—there is much economic as well as religious pressure within Iran for stability in southern Iraq. There is money that’s invested, and there is enormous amount of interest in the Iranian public in the sanctity of the shrine cities, and there is domestic pressure on the Iranian government to help with that regard or that it’s not easy for the Iranian government to be seen as doing otherwise.
Now, the influence between Iran and Iraq, and often in public discussions we see it running one way, from Iran influencing Iraqi leadership, mostly through the SCIRI movement, although I think Iran’s reach into Iraq is far broader. For instance, the Iranians, I believe, are just as influential over the Sadr group and have been known to be training his people and helping him even sort of completely change from what he was at the beginning to the king-maker that he has become. And that’s all withstanding Sadr’s anti-Iranian and Arab nationalist rhetoric. That, I think, is sort of the surface.
But it is important to also note that the influence also runs the other way, as well. There is a great deal of influence exercised by Iraqis over the Iranian government via channels that are not obvious to us, and the most important of these are Iraqi seminaries in Qom and powerful Iraqi leaders who are now among Iran’s leading politicians. For instance, the head of Iran’s judiciary, one of the most powerful men in Iran, is an Iraqi Arab. He barely speaks Persian. And there is a large number of Iraqi judges in the Iranian judiciary, at various levels in the Iranian judiciary. And one of the most influential clerics in Qom, who is the mentor and teacher of Iran’s minister of Intelligence, and former and current, and Iran’s minister of Interior and the like is one of the returnees from Iraq, and he has returned to Najaf, and the foundation that he has has invested something between $35 (million) to $50 million in reconstruction projects around Najaf.
Those who look at the relationship between Iran and Iraq often point to the Arab versus Iranian dynamic, that ultimately Iraqi Arabs are Arabs, ultimately Iranians are Iranians, and they point to the Iran-Iraq War and the fact that 80 percent of the Iraqi army were Shi’ites and they still fought off Khomeini. But I think, you know, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
First of all, I think generally with Iraq, we tend to overemphasize nationalism, which is—I’m not convinced that it is as powerful a force at all times at all levels as is the case on the ground. We’re dealing with a global jihad that doesn’t recognize any borders, or you know, on the other side Syrian Ba’athists and Iraqi Ba’athists who used to kill each other, now there’s no problem with Iraqi Ba’athists operating in Syria.
On the Iranian side, it also—we can see the same kind of a paradox. Maybe these differences between Arabs and Iranians exist, but there is no problem in Iran with having an Iraqi Arab at head of the country’s judiciary, and most Iraqis look to an Iranian ayatollah with an Iranian passport in Najaf as their religious source of emulation.
So there is sort of this—the Shi’a identity has come, if you would, far along since 2003 to sort of criss-cross the kind of nationalist identity that we assumed would be dominant and that somehow Iraq as a state would have a definition of identity that was based on its—on the way in which it had developed with historical legacy.
The—in many regards, at least in the short run, the relations between Iraqi Shi’as and Iranian Shi’as is going to be less defined by objective connections between them, as it's going to be defined by the Sunni threat that is perceived. Iranians view it differently in terms of what the—the rise of al Qaeda in the region and rise of salafism and jihadism means, but for Iraqi Shi’as it’s very clear that the prospects or possibility of a Sunni restoration or a continuation of insurgency at the pace that it has been occurring and the vehemence that we saw at the Askariya shrine bombing overrides any Arab Iranian divisions that they proceed with Iran.
And in fact, many Iraqi Shi’as would say that there are two pillars to the Shi’a position in Iraq, and considering one can say this is true of everywhere in the region, but more so in Iraq. One is the United States, and one is Iran. And in many regards that’s the reason why many Shi’a politicians have been lobbying for an Iranian-American dialogue because the more these two pillars move away from each other, the more difficult it will be for Iraqi Shi’as to maintain their position.
Now, the key questions for us at this juncture are sort of sometimes much more concrete, and one is that, can Iran deliver on a host of issues? First of all, if there was, as many to perceive to be, ultimately, a showdown between different Shi’a factions, particularly the Sadrists and SCIRI, can Iran play a positive role or what role it might? And can he keep it together? In fact, that would be one of the things that Iran can contribute if there were discussions before. Maybe that’s something that the U.S. cannot referee or keep its hands on, but if the Iranians are capable of keeping the Shi’as from killing each other and a collapse of law and order in southern Iraq, that would be something they can deliver as a bargaining table. It’s something that they have an interest in it themselves.
Secondly is that, can Iran make the Shi’as make concessions at the constitutional negotiations that are coming up? I mean, the most important thing for Iraq in the next six months are those constitutional negotiations. The current position of the Kurds and the Shi’as is that they’re not going to concede anything to the Sunnis regardless of the promises that were given to them before they participated in the elections. Now, the question is, can Iran, you know, lean on SCIRI and Sadr to actually concede something meaningful to be able to divide the Sunnis or to bring them in?
And thirdly is that I think the biggest asset we’ve had in Iraq has been quiet in the southern—in southern Iraq. We have no insurgency. There has not been a major law and order issue, but as the Askariya shrine bombing showed, that the south in Iraq is on the verge of going in a very different direction. And many people, including Ayatollah Sistani’s son, have said that one more bomb like the Askariya shrine, and there is absolutely no way that we can control the militias, the mob, you know, the anger on the street. And Iran in some ways, given its assets, given its soft power, may be able to play a role. So the key question is, can it deliver on containing what might be another provocation from the insurgency?
For us it’s also important because the model that will emerge in Iraq in terms of Iranian-Iraqi Shi’a relations as well as the Iranian-U.S. relations will ultimately be a model that will be important to Bahrain and Lebanon and elsewhere, and it’s not going to end with Iraq. This is not just a discussion about Iraq. Ultimately, it will have implications for where we go from here.
And the Iranians themselves, in addition to Iraq, are engaged in a debate about a lot of these issues. There is, if you would, in response to what happened in Iraq, in response to Shi’a empowerment in Iraq, there is a movement—if you would want to think of it—of a Shi’a chauvinism in Iraq; maybe that—this is a great power, it might have nuclear weapons, this is the Shi’as moment, and it is—you have to take the Ba’athists to the Salafists to the Wahhabis. And this is already reflected in much tighter policy by Iranian government against its own Sunni minority and also proliferation of some anti-Sunni literature that is beginning to come out of Iran.
But more importantly—or the other side of this are those who argue that ultimately Iran does not want to follow a sectarian policy because it does not favor an Iran at a moment that it needs support on the Arab street and support across the region as it’s going up against the United States; and that while Iran should follow a policy of supporting the Shi’a gains everywhere, it should divert attention from sectarianism. And that means focusing attention on, you know, Danish cartoons, on Israel, on a host of issues.
Before Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, went after the issue of Holocaust and called for wiping Israel off the map, when Abu Musaab Zarqawi issued his fatwa to kill Shi’as whenever, however, there was a very rare interview with a deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and he was asked about Zarqawi, and his answer was that Zarqawi does not exist; these are Israeli agents sent to divide Muslims. So the line that Ahmadinejad followed had already—didn’t come as a coincidence with him. I believe that there is a logic to this, and the logic is to popularize Iran’s position on the Arab street and to try to avoid sectarian divisions, which then would characterize Iran essentially as a Shi’a power and deny it support among the Sunni masses.
Why don’t I stop here, and then we can discuss any questions.
COOK: Great. Thank you, Vali.
I will take the first—ask the first question, and then we’ll open it up to the rest.
We have, by my estimation, about 55 minutes for question and answer. So we have good time.
You’ve laid out a tremendous amount in a short period of time. Let me just ask you the basic Council on Foreign Relations question about this. We are in a brave new world in the Middle East. There’s two facts: one, what the United States has done in Iraq, an Iranian revolutionary could only have dreamed of before our invasion of Iraq, and that is create a Shi’a power in an Arab-majority country. The second thing is, by some measures, the United States and the Shi’a world have been at odds for the better part of two decades. Given the new dynamics of power in Iraq and how that is affecting major U.S. allies—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, as you mention, hot spots like Southern Lebanon—how can—or how should the United States adjust its approach to the region to recognize this new reality?
NASR: That’s actually—the greatest difficulty for the U.S. is exactly that; namely, ultimately there are winners and there are losers out of Iraq, not only in Iraq, but across the region. The Shi’as won and the Kurds won, and the Sunnis lost. And if Iraq continues, ultimately when there’s a balance, for Shi’as the glass will be half full, and for the Sunnis the glass will be half empty. And the U.S. has tried to sort of—has been trying to give the Sunnis, if you would, a soft landing, at the same time as it’s—in Iraq it’s trying to hold the hand of the Shi’as being ascendent.
But at some point, we’re not going to be able to do this, and actually, we’re reaching that point, that ultimately in Iraq, and then across the region, there is going to be a winner and a loser. And there is an enormous amount of effort, particularly by regional leaders, to try to influence Washington in this regard. I mean here, for instance, in the council, I think when last year the Saudi foreign minister essentially called for the U.S. to change its tactics and be much more amenable to Sunnis is indicative of that. And part of the problem for us is that we really—for 20-some years, we had no relations with the Shi’as in the region. I think Ibrahim Ja’afari is the first Shi’a leader that the U.S. has dealt with in some way since the Iranian Revolution. And even Ja’afari’s ability to influence, to impact U.S. policy, U.S. thinking, is not comparable to the regional powers, who essentially are arguing against the Shi’a empowerment in the region—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and the like.
My own feeling is that we cannot now reverse what’s happened in Iraq. And I think, you know, this—people do argue that the U.S. did what Iran wanted. But ultimately, the majority in the region, or half the population in the region that was suppressed, at some point in time this would come out. It may not have begun with Iraq, it may have begun with Lebanon, it may have begun somewhere else, it may have begun with a different dynamic, but ultimately, change in the region—democracy, pluralism, change in the structure of that region—would have ultimately broken down the kind of hold that the Sunnis had over the Shi’as.
And I think, you know, not everybody in the region laments the fact that there was de-Ba’athification or the destruction of the Iraqi army. I think the Shi’as and the Kurds were very happy with the destruction of the Sunni officer class. It created enormous amount of goodwill among the Shi’as. The reason that the south in Iraq has been quiet is exactly because of that. And in fact, that whole issue epitomizes America’s problem. There is an insurgency because we destroyed the Iraqi army and de-Ba’athified. But there’s also quiet in southern Iraq exactly because we did that. And ultimately, you know, we’re trying to sort of have our cake and eat it too. So there’s criticism of why that was done, but at the same time, we’re now taking benefit from the fact that there were beneficiaries from those decisions.
I think this—you know, confronting the reality of Shi’a revival in the region I think is the biggest challenge for the United States, having to think through what are the implications if the balance of power continues to shift, which I believe it will. I mean Lebanon, Bahrain, and ultimately Saudi Arabia—all ultimately will have to deal with addressing the demands of the Shi’a populations. And that will change the lay of the land for us. But we don’t have any discussion about this really.
QUESTIONER: It’s pretty clear that the up side in Iraq that people were looking for isn’t going to emerge. But I think there hasn’t been enough attention to the down sides that could really emerge once things start to fall apart, if they do. You said that we could be only an attack or two away from some really kind of serious onset of actual civil war, or communal conflict and so forth. What happens? It seems like the situation in Iraq is quite fluid right now and unsettled, and I agree that working out constitutional arrangements is the key challenge. But what if that can’t be done? What if the communal conflict in Iraq starts to spin out of control? How does that play out in Iraq, and how does that play out regionally, as well? Do other players start to fish in those troubled waters, do you start to get a regional conflict, or is it just a limited chaos and anarchy in Iraq itself?
NASR: Well, there are two things that are bad-case scenarios. One is that another bomb can actually cause the current Shi’a leadership to lose control over the Shi’a population. And we don’t know what leadership will come along, but it’s going to come from the street, it’s going to come from the militias, the lower ranks of the clerics, going to be much more violent, much more unpredictable, much more decentralized. That’s exactly what Sistani is saying, is that, you know, my control over this community is now hair-thin. And that might not mean a political response in the south, it might just mean a collapse of law and order completely.
The second scenario is that it is possible that at some point the Shi’as may opt out of this process. In other words, they have been quiet and participating because they’ve been benefiting, but if they are pushed, if they are threatened or if they don’t see benefit in it anymore or they begin to believe that the process led by the U.S. ambassador of the United States is now—you know, it used to be that the future of Iraq is in shattering of the insurgency, but if they come to see that the United States now believes the shattering of the insurgency means that the Shi’ites and the Kurds have to give a lot more up, is that they may opt out of the process.
In other words, all bets are off, you’re going to deal now with a Shi’a uprising in the south. And that’s not going to look like Al Anbar. In other words, it’s going to look like Iran 1979. The majority of urban centers of Iraq are in the south. And the Shi’ites do not have to pick up arms or, you know, pick up shape charges, they just need to come out in the street. And Ayatollah Sistani has made this point a number of times. When Bremer would not agree to an election, he brought 200,000 people five days in a row, and the writing was on the wall. In fact, many people said, you know, after that point we were in Iraq at Ayatollah Sistani’s pleasure. You know, once large numbers of Iraqis come in the streets, the entire calculus will change; and there’s no way with 130,000 people we can stay in Iraq, and essentially the U.S. would have to depart.
But if things come to an actual blow between these two communities, there are a number of scenarios that can happen. One is that, you know, people talk about Yugoslavia and Lebanon, where you’re essentially going to have demarcated borders and you’re going to have people fight it out, and killing is going to be done by militias and the like. And many people say that that requires a kind of centralized political organization that does not exist in Iraq; I mean, that sort of centralized bureaucratic program is not possible in Iraq.
But actually, I think the model that is more likely in Iraq is actually India 1947, where there was no militias, there was no civil war, there was just killing. So over 2 million people died. And, you know, the British were stuck in the middle just like we were. They made a mistake that we are making; namely, they gave the Muslims more expectations and didn’t get out of the way for the Muslims and the Hindus to negotiate early on, until it was too late and alternately the Muslims separated and, as I said, there was never was an active civil war, there was must carnage.
If the U.S. leaves in either of these scenarios, the rest of the region is going to be in there. I mean, I would say this would be Iran-Iraq War 200 miles to the west. The same array of forces will come in for the same reasons. The Iranians are going to defend the gains made by the Shi’as in the south; they’re going to have something to say about what happens in the north with the Turks and Assyrians in the Kurdish areas; and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt will be in to support whatever constellation of Sunni forces there are, from (Ba’athists ?), to the tribal elements, to nationalist—to al Qaeda. And it will be fought out. And ultimately where the dust will settle at some point, roughly along the lines that you have right now.
And the biggest issue will be control of Baghdad. I mean, the battle will be over Baghdad, not over anywhere else. And there is a huge number of questions about how many Kurds are in Baghdad, how many Sunnis are in Baghdad, and that really will become—it will be like the battle for Sarajevo in that sense.
COOK: Chris Isham.
QUESTIONER: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what you see as Iran’s objectives in Iraq. There’s contradictory evidence of what they’re doing. On the one hand, you mention foreign investment, which would argue for stability; on the other hand, you’ve got evidence of them putting in some very powerful IED technology into Iraq that’s being used; and then everything in between. What do you see as their objectives, both short term and longer term?
NASR: At a very high level, Iran’s highest objective was no return of Sunni rule to Iraq, no return of Ba’athists to Iraq, and that Iraq—this is an opportunity to pacify a country that has been at war with Iran since 1958. So this was objective number one.
Objective number two was to maintain a controlled chaos that would keep the United States busy; that the conclusion would not be that, you know, that you can quickly turn on Iran. And “controlled chaos” means exactly that, means a certain level of crisis that would keep down 130,000 U.S. troops and would kill the appetite for a military invasion of Iran. But that does not mean that Iranians would want to see the controlled chaos go to the next level, which is complete chaos, because that’s then costly, it’s unpredictable, and the like.
Secondly, there are forces that are not necessarily at the government level. I mean the economic pressures, the demand of the population for sanctity of the shrine areas, for instance, ever since the fall of Saddam, there have been hundreds of thousands of Iranians, if not more, who have made pilgrimage to Iraq, I mean among the class that has actually voted for this president—I don’t mean the upper crust of Iran who are reformists, but exactly the same class that has supported Ahmadinejad. You know, people have gone to Karabala four times, five times. You know, they go and come back. And that has sort of created forces on the ground in relationship between the two countries. And those forces are, if you will, are forces of civility. It’s the same forces that, you know, controlled Iran’s behavior in Herat, built on business, built on connections.
But Iran’s objectives are also changing in response to the constitutional debates, and in response to U.S. policy, in response to the nuclear issue, and also in response to what happened after the Askariya Shrine bombing. And the Iranians still would want to protect gains made by the Shi’as, because a Shi’a government in Baghdad or in the south is to Iran’s advantage. As Iranians say, that—one Iranian observer said that, you know, you say democracies don’t go to war with each other, he said we say Shi’a governments don’t go to war with each other; that the Shi’a-Sunni issue is what is the cause of the war.
But you have a situation of flux in Iran. Iranians are managing, if you would, a much larger confrontation with the U.S. which might—which is a threat to regime stability and regime survival itself. And at the same time, they have vested interests in controlling the outcome in Iraq.
COOK: Before I go further down my list, I just want to turn to the phones, if anybody on the phones has a question, please jump in.
Okay, well then I’ll continue down my list with Farhad Kazemi.
QUESTIONER: Your very nice overview presentation, I think you glossed over a bit on the issue of nationalism versus religious identity. While you may be right in the short run, in the long run I think it’s very clear it is in the Iranian case that a force of nationalism will play some role in dealing with the Arabs and with the other. And Iranian nationalism has obviously two dimensions—one is very Shi’a, but there’s a very, very strong pre-Islamic, in fact anti-Islamic dimension—(inaudible). So it may not be so clear-cut. I mean, this is something that is quite fluid. And under lesser extent, some of that could also apply to the Iraqis. So I’d like your comments on this.
NASR: Definitely. I mean, this sort of dichotomy between religion and nationalism in Iran is very strong. It is stronger in certain segments of society as opposed to others.
But also, as far as Iraq is concerned, as far as the Shi’a revival is concerned, this is something that actually feeds Iranian nationalism; it is not one that in some way counters it. In other words, there is no challenge from Iraqi Shi’as to Iranian nationalism. It, in fact, could be construed that it’s the other way around. And some of these, if you would, more moderate conservatives in Iran that talk—very openly talk about a greater Iran, you know, with maps that go from Central Asia to Southern Iraq, clearly see the Shi’a revival as an element of regional control and regional influence for Iran.
But, you know, in the long run, things might change, depending on the shape of the regime in Iraq, depending on—I think also that a very important fact is, is that so long as the Sunni threat is there, it is much easier to sort of gloss over these issues because, you know, the perception is that there is still much closer ties between Sunni regional powers and the United States. And if the U.S. ultimately takes action against Iran to downsize Iran, and then decides essentially to make a deal with the Sunni—you know, in other words, there is that perceived threat still out there. It might be superfluous, but the Iraq Shi’as all the time talk about a second betrayal, referring to 1991 when the U.S. troops failed to intervene. And so for now, at least in the short run where management of Iraq is a concern, this is not a problem. And that’s exactly where, you know, they’re trying to leverage it.
The other side of the issue you mentioned is very important. You know, Iraqi Shi’as don’t want to opt out of Iraq. Saudi Shi’as don’t want to opt out of Saudi Arabia, and Lebanese Shi’as don’t want to opt out of southern Lebanon. They want to redefine what nationalism means. I mean, Hezbollah very openly talks about this as nationalism, but nationalism, they argue, Lebanese nationalism, now must be defined by them. And what they mean is that Lebanon is not just a component of a larger Sunni-Arab world, Lebanon has an identity that is Lebanese, that is Arab, and that is also Shi’a. And whatever you might interpret these to mean. I think Iraqi Shi’as will ultimately come to that definition of Iraq; namely, this is a country, but we will define it not the way Saddam did, as an inheritor of, you know, Sunni caliphates and as an inheritor of—as a component of a larger Arab world. But we will define what Iraqi Shi’ism is. It will have an Iraqi identity, an Arab identity, but also a Shi’a identity.
And—now, how that would turn around and to what extent it will be defined against Iran, as opposed to against the Sunni neighbors, these are all, you know, issues that—you’re right—that down the line will be important.
COOK: (Off mike.)
QUESTIONER: You were saying that the U.S. wants it both ways. They were perceived as allied with the Sunnis. Now they’re pressing—I mean with the Shi’a. Now they’re pressing the Shi’a to bring in the Sunnis.
Do you think the U.S. has to choose or get out of the way? And do you think it makes any difference who is the next Lebanese prime minister, that internal Lebanese politics—should the U.S. be trying to interfere?
NASR: Well, I mean, these—everywhere—I mean, the key issue is that the way we thought Iraq would play as a—the demonstration effect of Iraq was not quite what we anticipated. In other words, it didn’t end up being really about democracy and the individual right. It really became about changing the sectarian balance of the region.
And the lesson among particularly Sunnis, particularly jihadis, is that the U.S. came in and gave one of the three most important Arab countries—the seat of the, you know, Sunni caliphate—come and gave it to this sort of heretical version of Islam, and that is proof of America’s war on Islam, or is if you want a conspiracy theory.
Now early on, we understood that if Iraq divides up or if Iraq becomes Shi’a, there is hell to pay in Sunni countries, because this is going to be seen that that was really the aim, was to dismantle a Sunni government. And therefore, then, you know, Lebanon, Bahrain, you know, wherever else you do this, essentially this was seen as the grand agenda of a war on Islam.
I think we sort of have to accept that cost. We can’t change that, because we’re not going to come out of Iraq in a situation that is going to please Sunni ideology. That cost is already borne. I mean, Zarqawi’s enunciated it, but you know, every Wahhabi, you know, preacher in Saudi Arabia is saying the same thing—in Jordan, in Egypt. That cost has been borne. So we may as well get over it, that—you know, that’s now sunk cost. We’re going to be seen as having damaged Sunni claim to manifest destiny rule in the region.
And—but you know, the pressure, I think, from regional leaders on Washington is that if things go in a particular way in Iraq, which is even if Iraq divides up or if Iraq has a Shi’a government, then it will be destabilizing to the countries around it. Namely, Sunni anger from Al Anbar is going to then travel, is going to travel back to Saudi Arabia, is going to travel back to Jordan, and is going to travel back to Egypt. But I don’t see there is any way we can reverse that. And in some ways it’s a zero-sum choice, because the price that the Sunnis want would be to put the Shi’a essentially genie back in the bottle. And that’s not easily doable for us. I mean, one observer told me that, you know, in some negotiations that have happened with the insurgents in Jordan, that’s always one of the very first things they ask, restoration of minority Sunni rule in Baghdad, before they would go to item number two. (Laughter.)
COOK: Before I go down the list—
QUESTIONER: Oh. Oh. Just—I had one other point. Does it matter whether it’s Ja’afari or someone else?
NASR: Well, Ja’afari, I think—
QUESTIONER: Should we be pushing for that, for a change?
NASR: Well, we are already—the perception—and this might be wrong—that we’re pushing the other way, we’re pushing to remove them.
NASR: But the problem is this, is that Ja’afari has been very critical in maintaining peace in the south. He’s brokered, you know, a number of massive fights between SCIRI and Sadr. And if you remove him, you know, that element will go away. In other words, it’s not just that—whether he’s a good administrator or whether he’s been effective in government. It’s also the extent to which he’s played a positive role in Shi’a politics.
Secondly, there is no good candidates, if you would. In other words, Adel al-Madhi, which was the one we favored—Sadr will not accept him, because he’s from SCIRI. And he will not give the prime ministership to SCIRI.
And Sadr’s argument is that, you know, if Ja’afari’s his candidate, and if Ja’afari (is wounded ?), then he has a candidate from the one of the Sadrist parties, which is going to make Ja’afari look like a Boy Scout, if you would, in terms of militancy and the like.
And so in other words, there’s no good replacement to Ja’afari, but in some ways, now that this sort of die has been cast, he’s going to be a far weaker prime minister, even if he survives.
COOK: I want to give the folks on the phone another opportunity of asking questions. Anybody out there? (No audible reply.)
Okay. Well, then we’ll move on to Gary Sick.
QUESTIONER: My first little comment is that your initial opening comments were very packed with a lot of good information. And I’m hoping that your notes will be on the website or some place that would be available. It would be very handy to be able to go back over that. I couldn’t write that fast.
COOK: We’ll make sure you get a transcript.
QUESTIONER: The—my question is about the upcoming—presumably upcoming talks between the United States and Iran in Baghdad with Zal Khalilzad, who’s done this before. And I think it’s a great choice and it’s an interesting possibility.
I’m interested in your take on, you know, who really initiated this; secondly, how you think it’s going to play out, first with the Sunnis, then with people like Sadr, who are going to have their concerns and probably fears about what happens now with something like this; and then, of course, in Tehran and Washington, how that fits into your broader framework of the Shi’a emergence in the region.
NASR: Well, I think—you know, I believe the Iranians wanted to talk all along, but the question was at what level, and the initial offer from the U.S. was—the way it sounded was that it would be somebody from the Iraqi embassy in Baghdad, not Khalilzad, would talk with somebody from the Iranian embassy in Baghdad. And that was not what the Iranians had in mind. They essentially wanted a breakthrough.
I think for them the key issue was—were two things. One is that after the referral of Iran’s case to the Security Council, there was interest in Iran to try to find a different way to talk to the U.S. And I believe, actually, the Iranians all along had a strategy of making everybody fail in the nuclear negotiations because they wanted to smoke the U.S. out of its hole. They won’t do negotiations by proxy, where it wants to get whatever it wants without getting Iran what it wants, which is recognition. So this was a perfect time to essentially force the U.S.’s hand to come and sit at the table not on the nuclear issue, but at least on some issue.
Secondly, there was—the Askariya shrine bombing was as destabilizing, if you would, for Iranian popular psyche in some ways as it was, you know, threatening to the U.S. and others for reasons that, you know, that shrine matters a lot to Iran—Iranians and also the writings on the wall that, you know, it can be done in Askariya; sooner or later, it’ll be done in Karbala, and then it’ll be done in Najaf.
And also, you know, Iran has been in a grip of—at the popular level of a great deal of devotion to the Shi’a messiah that’s been going on for a number of years. You know, Ahmadinejad is sort of a tailend of this and is trying to sort of cash in on it. But, you know, in all matters, particularly among the Iranian youth, the very same class that we believe are reformists, there is now kind of popular folk devotion to the hidden imam, even though they may not perform the actual dos and don’ts of religion. And this is a shrine that is very directly associated with them. That’s where he was in, you know, hiding before he went into—(word inaudible)—and there is, if you would, it—the Askariya shrine created, if you will, an opening also for the regime to be able to sort of accept the undoable—mainly talking to the United States.
And thirdly, I believe that the Iraqi Shi’as played a very, very important role, which is not said, not only Hakim, but the much more powerful men than Hakim, including head of Iran’s judiciary, including the very senior ayatollahs in the Qom who have—and also in Iran it’s known that the Iraqis are the personal sort of—they have personal relationship with the Supreme leader. They’re known as his men because they don’t have the constituency of their own in Iran. So they are appointed by him, their protected by him, but they’re also very close to him.
And the Iraqi Shi’as’ interest is that maybe the United States policy on Iraq, note Iran’s policy on Iraq, would become hostage to the nuclear issue, that in some ways, you know, they would be sort of sacrificing this bigger battle. And they also made a big push for persuading both the U.S. through Khalilzad and also persuading the Iranians that this is the time to talk and to talk about Iraq. And the—what is at the table, at the lowest common denominator, is to develop certain rules of the game for maintaining peace and stability in Iraq and then, as I said, is to—if it proceeds to the level that the Bonn agreement did—is to that the Iranians would deliver whatever they can in order to create a stable government at the center in Iraq. But then the Iranians would like, obviously, to use this a trust-building mechanism to them to take it to the next level with the nuclear issue.
COOK: Stephen Handelman.
QUESTIONER: There were a few tantalizing hints in your opening comments about debate inside Iran.
COOK: I’m sorry. For the purpose of this transcript—
QUESTIONER: There were a few tantalizing comments in your opening remarks about debate inside Iran, and it’s not clear to me, first of all, whether Iran’s policy right now towards the region—and I should say as the emerging Shi’a since their empowerment—is—reflects an underlying interest in Iran itself, or it reflects the interest—the political interest of the current regime.
The question I would I have is whether change in regime, which is supposedly one of U.S. aims, ultimately, in Iran, would make any difference at all, and where in fact that debate, if there is one, stands right now.
NASR: Some things would change if there was—it was a different regime in Iran in terms of methods and the like, but I think some things—and as Farod (sp) was mentioning—that go with Iran’s self-perception, Iran’s nationalism, those things are not going to change. In other words, the belief in, for instance, Iran’s right to be recognized as a major power in the region is thoroughly broad, and Iran’s sort of rights—in fact, some in Iran among the reformists argue that the current regime, because of its image, is a hindrance to Iranian nationalism, because, as you can see with all the Sunni countries, when they want to resist Shi’a power they just point the finger that, you know, this means Iranian power. And that even, you know, Robert (Kane ?) said that, you know, if there was a different regime in Iran, the nuclear issue would not be an issue.
So in some ways, this desire for Iran to throw its weight in the region, to have—to maximize gains that have been made by regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq—and I always say, this is sort of a Prussian moment for Iran, to sort of expand its zone of influence. And Iranians—I’ve said this before—see themselves like India does in South Asia, as the big player that should be the focus of global attention. And therefore, all of those I think go beyond the regime.
The question of debates within the regime is how do they benefit these and how do they express these? And these are also debates that somehow have reflection elsewhere, as well, among the Shi’as in the region. I mean, do you assert this common bond between Iranian Shi’as and Arab Shi’as and define yourself against the Sunnis and the Taliban on the one side, and Zarqawi on the other, and the Wahhabis to the south, and begin to sort of help the process, or do you try to sort of gloss over that and try to divert attention from that, believing that it’s happening at any rate, and you’re going to be the beneficiary of it, and focus on secular issues—quote, unquote, “secular popular” Muslim issues like attack on Israel, which is likely to, you know, give you more influence on the Arab street.
But the facts on the ground, like the business relationships, like the development of ties between Najaf and (Qom ?), like the ties that are being created by religious taxes and investment, these were not encouraged or put in place by the regime, they have occurred and then they have their own logic. And what is important is that these ties matter most among the social class that voted for this president; in other words, among—not to say that reformists are oblivious to these things, but those who want cultural change in Iran and Western culture and the like, they’re obviously not—don’t have any motive ties to the shrine cities. So among the constituency of this regime, there’s a lot more of this debate than it is between the constituency of this regime and the constituency for cultural change and political change.
COOK: Daniel—(last name inaudible).
QUESTIONER: Thanks. My question also was on the Khalilzad talks with Iran, which was answered very well.
Another question, just briefly, in Ahvaz province in southwestern Iran there’s been a string of bombings and unrest near oil centers. Just wondering what your read is on the forces at work there.
NASR: Well, it’s not just in Ahvaz, it has also been in Iran’s Baluchistan, just two days ago there was an attack on a bus that killed some 50 government employees. And before that there have been beheading of Iranian government and security officials. Iranians believe it’s a Salafi organization funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and it sort of is a—and it has connections to the Zarqawi network, and the like. There’s been uprisings among the Kurds. It was blamed on the PKK having crossed the border after a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq.
But the one in Ahvaz was—on the face of it, was originally seen as having to do with unemployment and poverty that disfavors the Shi’a Arabs who are resident there. But now Iranians believe that, you know, there is outside influence, and they’ve blamed the British for having been behind these. Previously, they also had blamed, at one point, the Zarqawi and the Sunni insurgency of having crossed the border. And they’ve connected these two, Saudi Arabia—and partly it had to do with the fact that even before it was reported on Iranian TV, it was already on Al Jazeera, and the broadcast on Al Jazeera sort of made the situation which was ongoing on the ground far worse. So the question was, how did Al Jazeera get the footage so quickly, unless there was some kind of a—you know, some kind of a bigger relationship than spontaneous outburst.
But that matters to Iran a lot because of two things. One is that that’s the oil province. Secondly—and that does raise some of the issues Farhad did, that obviously at some point a Shi’a government in southern Iraq which is Arab can have implications for Iran’s Arab region as well, particularly if there is unhappiness and difficulty.
And thirdly is that, clearly, lying on the borders of Iraq, that region is, as far as Iran sees is, security-wise, vulnerable, just like the U.S. is vulnerable to incursions, this side of the border, ultimately that region can be vulnerable to incursions from the other side of the border. And one of the reasons that Iranians don’t want controlled chaos to become complete mayhem is because nobody would want, you know, a situation of an Afghanistan of the 1990s on your border when you have also domestic trouble internally.
But there is no doubt that the minorities issue in Iran has become much more important than it was a decade ago, that there are unhappiness and there are uprisings. They may have economic root, but they’re also happening at a time when the country as a whole is geared towards a major international confrontation, and then it has two unstable countries on its borders—both Afghanistan and Iraq. And it’s not coincidental that since Ahmadinejad has become president, now the majority of Iran’s provinces have a commander of the Revolutionary Guard or a former commander of Revolutionary Guard as its governor general, who are now tightly controlled from the Ministry of Interior by another very senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard. I mean, it could be read in multiple ways, but one of which is that, you know, the regime is taking this as extremely serious, and you have a de facto, if you would, military response to it, a security-military response to it.
COOK: Colonel—(off mike).
QUESTIONER: Vali, appreciate your remarks and your insights, I’m Colonel Pete Mansoor, a military fellow here at the council, but more to the point, I was commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, in Iraq from July 2003 to July 2004. And I have to take exception to something that you said in your remarks, and that was that the south has somehow been stable, while the Sunni Triangle region has been volatile.
My brigade and others fought fairly bloody battles to restore Karbala and Najaf to government control following uprising by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April of 2004. And my question goes to his role now in Iraqi politics.
One, did we make a mistake in not killing, capturing or exiling him when we had the chance? And two, now that he is in such a king-maker position with the balance of votes in the Parliament for the prime minister—position of prime minister, is it too far to go to say that a government of national unity probably will not emerge because he does hold that role and he is so adamantly opposed to any kind of contacts with the Sunnis and others? And I would just like your comments on that and your thoughts.
NASR: No, I mean the stability in the south is obviously relative, but also the uprising in Najaf was of a different quality than the one in Al Anbar. So when we mean stable is that because it was put down; whereas if compared to insurgency in Al Anbar, which is ongoing, continuous and it required, you know, continuous deployment and action of the U.S. troops, it makes for a very different military and security challenge.
Did the U.S. make a mistake? Well, all the grand ayatollahs in Najaf were hoping that the U.S. will finish the job. I mean, Ayatollah Fayad, who is sort of one of the five most senior, an Afghan, basically was telling the U.S. that, you know, you should finish the task. But the problem was that it became—the cost had we killed him in Najaf began to escalate such that then they—that’s when Sistani came back to Iraq, that then it became undoable.
And in fact, the time to have taken care of Muqtada was not when he went to Najaf—you didn’t want to kill him inside the shrine in Najaf, you would have created a martyr—is very early on when he still was in Baghdad, when he was causing the same trouble, and particularly when he had just been accused and there was a warrant for the killing of Majid al-Khoei. That’s the time he should have been arrested, apprehended, put on trial. You know, in other words, yes, I do believe it was bungled, but by the time he went into Najaf, I think it was already too late and that would have been probably more costly for us had we done that.
Now, I mean, it’s an interesting question as to, you know, what happened to Muqtada Sadr since that time, because by all estimates, you know, he’s not a stable character, he’s not a smart character, he never finished his seminary education. People who have spent time with him believe that he has bipolar personality; that within a day time, you know, he goes—completely swings different way. So the fact that he has emerged as a king-maker is sort of—
QUESTIONER: (Iranic/ironic ?).
NASR: Yes, “Iranic,” actually, maybe more than “ironic.” (Laughter.) But I would say—now, I think the problem of national unity government is difficult with him or without him, regardless. First of all, there are open questions as to how much control does Muqtada actually really exercise. I mean, he has about 30 chiefs that, you know, operate in his name, but he’s just as dependent on them as they are dependent on him.
He does have this rhetoric of unity with the Sunnis, but at the same time there is a lot of pressure within his own organization to address Shi’a concerns. For instance, when the Askariya shrine bombing occurred, most of the killing by the Shi’as were done by the Mahdi Army. Now, he could claim that, well, he couldn’t control them, was out of Iraq, but the reality is that obviously the sentiment of the Mahdi Army is not that of unity with the Sunnis. They wanted to go out there and take revenge.
So the question becomes, even if genuinely Muqtada believed in sort of a Shi’a-Sunni unity, which I don’t believe is the case, the question becomes, as a leader, to what extent can he resist pressure from within his own organization, and especially because the Sunni attacks on the Shi’as are now raising the issue that in competition between SCIRI and Da’Wa—and Muqtada, the winner would have to show himself to be the better defender of Shi’a position and of Shi’a honor And in fact, one of the arguments that’s occurring among the Shi’as in Iraq is that Ayatollah Sistani’s policy of “turn the other cheek” is gradually being construed by the Sunnis and possibly by the Americans as a sign of weakness or a sign of, you know, willingness to bend as far as you push them. And there’s now a lot of pressure that the Shi’as have to flex their muscles, if for no other reason than to be taken seriously. And so for all of those reasons, I think, you know, Muqtada is going to begin to have to respond to the pressure from below.
I also believe he’s just as tightly to connected to Iran as SCIRI is, but in different way, not openly politically, but militarily. Even his siege of Najaf was supported by a commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who’s in charge of, you know, operations in Iraq, a brigadier general, and you know, on the behest of the Revolutionary Guard. Now what—why did the Revolutionary Guards do this? You know, that’s a different question.
But—and you know, people have interviewed members of the Madhi Army. They would say that, you know, there are—they have contacts with Iran. They have been trained by Iran, not only in military things, but even in political things and in terms of how do you set up social services, how do you, you know, manage different networks.
So I mean, in many ways—so I don’t see him necessarily having an impact in terms of being better for dealing with the Sunnis. The problem with Muqtada is that he and the movement that he’s representing is ultimately very destabilizing. And it is almost like what happened in Lebanon, you know, when Hezbollah came out of the anger of south Beirut to become a completely different beast than Amal was. And Amal was the anti-Sunni, if you would, force, who had put a siege on Palestinian refugee camps. And Hezbollah came with the rhetoric of, you know, harmony and the like, but ultimately still it was Shi’a power.
I think his—Muqtada is very dangerous. And the problem is that his rhetoric is appealing to a lot of Iraqis, because, on the face of it, he sort—many say he’s putting something on the table that argues for a viable Iraq. And that is making him a player, which I don’t believe is good for Iraq, ultimately.
QUESTIONER: It wasn’t good in—(inaudible).
NASR: It wasn’t good in 2004 either. Exactly.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. I really enjoyed listening to what you have to say today. I guess I’d be very interested if you could be more prescriptive right now. I mean, you’ve been very eloquently descriptive. What should we do in the midst of this morass? If it were up to you, what would you be—how would you be trying to steer U.S. policy in Iraq now, and towards Iran?
COOK: In 60 seconds!
NASR: In 60 seconds! (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: (Off mike)—11 minutes.
NASR: Well, let me put it this way. The problem is that we now have multiple problems, each of which might have a different kind of a solution. In other words, how do we handle the insurgencies and what policies might be prescriptive there is different from the south.
I do think that talking to the neighbors—and we’ve been, I guess, talking to the other neighbors; we haven’t been talking to Iran at all—is important, in many regards. So that, I think, is a positive step of trying to create a vested interest, if you would, or—with the U.S. in managing Iraq.
The second thing which I think is very key is, in terms of balancing what we promised to the Sunnis or want to promise to the Sunnis, we have to be very careful not to lose the Shi’a, because I think that is the single biggest risk that we’re running; that, you know, they’re very close to—first of all, the leaders are very close to believing that their political interests may no longer lay with the U.S.
Secondly, it’s become more and more difficult for them to bring their community with them, in terms of arguing that this process is good for you, the U.S. is going to ultimately deliver, they’re going to defeat the insurgency, and you know, that what they tell us—you know, “Be patient; you’re going to inherit Iraq”—may now be open to question.
And that’s why I take issue, for instance, with, you know, Ambassador Khalilzad publicly threatening the Shi’a, because I think, first of all, he undermined their credibility with their own community. It’s one thing to—for Hakim to go and say, “I decided to do this out of the greatness of my heart.” It’s another thing to say that, you know, he was ordered and threatened to do that.
And secondly, I think it put a very bad taste in Shi’a mouth, because it for the first time showed the U.S. would be willing to publicly break with the Shi’a and “abandon them,” quote, unquote, if they don’t give in to the Sunnis.
Now—so it put to question the entire trust that the Shi’as had, rightly or wrongly, put in this process. And as we’re debating when and if we’re leaving Iraq, I think, you know, these issues are going to become much more important.
We’ve had sort of a hands-off—you know, we debate certain things about Iraq, but not the other things. And I think this is one of the issues that it would behoove us to talk a lot more about. In other words, ultimate—you know, what is the nature of this relationship? And what—if they either inherit Iraq or they separate or create a federal zone, what kind of a relationship are we going to have with the Shi’a—which is sort of the complete black box—and also that the nature of our relations with Shi’a leaders is somewhat amorphous, in a sense. I mean, we might at some point have to talk more directly with Muqtada Sadr, mainly because just the reality of it is that he’s there.
And also in terms of what we say we want to come out of the Shi’a community—for instance, making it so well-known that we want Adel al-Mahdi to be prime minister, again, is not prudent, in that sense of trying to sort of intervene in that process.
Unfortunately, I don’t see any easy answers for us. I think the next year, essentially, the best we can do is to manage, you know, fires one at a time. As somebody from California, I’ve seen it done with firefighters. (Laughter.) I mean, essentially, that’s—if we can arrive at the end of the year, when there are some very major milestones that are on the table, namely, the constitutional negotiations, in particular, but there is election for Kirkuk coming up, you know, (foster ?) these elections—if we can arrive at the end of the year without a catastrophe occurring, I think it’s a major gain, because—
COOK: To avoid catastrophe—(laughter, cross talk)—because that’s possible.
NASR: It is possible because I think we’ve entered a point in Iraq—we’ve entered the point in Iraq—
COOK: This is on the record, Vali.
NASR: It is—well, anyways—(laughter)—might as well finish up what he’s saying. It should be on the record.
I think we’ve reached a point in Iraq that we’re increasingly not in command of our own destiny. I mean, I think that’s very important to realize. We can debate the point of departure as much as we want. One more bomb or, you know, massive number of Shi’as coming in the street. The U.S. would be gone in a week. That doesn’t matter, you know, what happens. If that kind of a sort of a collapse occurs, those decisions will be forced on us, and we are sort of reaching a point that our ability to sort of craft what Iraq would look like. What is it likely that the Shi’as will give? What is it likely that the Sunnis would agree to is vast evaporating?
And I do believe—and we saw the points you’ve made—that, you know, maybe it is time for us to get out of the way and let them do this, and I think the mistake of the British in India was that they didn’t and—until it was too late. And they keep giving the Muslims hope that they will deliver, which is what we are doing with the Sunnis. We’re giving the Sunnis hope that we’re going to deliver to them, and this is a hope we’re giving that we will not be able to actually deliver on. And it’s much better if we would avoid that kind of a circumstance.
COOK: Okay. I’ve got five minutes and five questions to go. So we’re going to take them all very quickly, and then, you’re going to answer each one with half a phrase. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Actually, I have three—
QUESTIONER: —it was a three-part question.
COOK: (Inaudible)—you get the first one.
QUESTIONER: I don’t—well, all right. (Laughter.) Basically, what exactly is Iran looking for in terms of recognition from the United States, and should the United States extend that recognition?
QUESTIONER: From the standpoint of Shi’ite-Sunni politics in the region, what would the implications be of a U.S. intervention or strike against Iranian nuclear facilities?
COOK: (Inaudible)—Breyer (sp).
QUESTIONER: The central American goal in the Middle East is in theory to spread democracy. Was it a foolhardy goal, or is there still some notion that it could be accomplished?
COOK: And Mark—(inaudible name).
QUESTIONER: In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Steve Biddle suggested that we not side so much with the Sunnis and that we actually put pressure on them so that they have a reason to negotiate and to give up something because right now the appearance is that they don’t, that they can keep the status quo, and there’s no real benefit to negotiating.
Do you think if we did that, if we tried to pressure the Sunnis and visibly did that, would that help our position with the Shi’as, and how might we do that? What sort of leverage or pressure might be put on the Sunnis?
COOK: But before you start to answer, Fareed Kasmi (ph) has one more. Do you have—
QUESTIONER: No, I give out my question. (Laughter.)
COOK: Sir, Herb Levin (sp) has the last—
QUESTIONER: I’ve been feeling the Syrian minority here. (Laughter.) It felt good in the beginning.
Would you agree that Iran is going to come out on top on everything they want? On the nukes, the American record with North Korea as they leave the NPT and the South Koreans build up their economy, and they are happily building more nukes, and we don’t have a negotiating position.
On India, it’s a (Munich ?) we—they can build all the nuclear weapons they want and fast breeder reactors because we think that’ll scare the Chinese. We’re not going to do anything with the Iranian nuclear effort because they want to keep them in the NPT. So they’re going to come out on top on that one.
On terrorism, they continue to put money into terrorist organizations from Argentina to Lebanon, and we have no—we have done nothing really to try to cut that off, so they’re going to be on top on that. And on oil, at $60 a barrel, and we don’t have to buy it, it’s fungible, they’re absolutely on top of the world.
So whether or not some presence in Iraq splits or is—doesn’t split is less important. The three main things the Iranians are going to come out on top with the assistance of the United States giving Shi’aism finally world recognition. Would you agree they are winning? (Laughter.)
NASR: Okay. Very quickly. First of all, I don’t think—I mean, the recognition between the two countries may be far off. I think that ultimately that could be the long goal, but what Iran would like to get out of it is that its position be recognized, its security interests be recognized, and then, if you can through these negotiations and trust-building take things back to where they were, you know, five years ago. In other words, back away from the brink and the hostile rhetoric.
Now, about the—U.S. attack on Iran what it might mean, it is contingent on a number of things. One is that whether Iran tries to—will look Iraq then as an arena to hit back or not, and so there could be an Iranian provoked, if you would, response in Iraq.
Secondly, what happens in Iran is a consequence of an attack. In other words, we often think that either nothing will happen to the regime, or there’s going to be a nice smooth transition to something better. But what if it’s absolute chaos in Iran, and there’s a fragmentation, it’s mayhem. You know, then that can have a sort of its own spill-over effect into Iraq.
And thirdly, it depends on what is happening within Iraq itself vis-a-vis the process with the Americans and the Shi’as. And I think these three things will decide what the impact would be.
Whether spread of democracy was foolhardy, not necessarily, but, you see, we understood democracy to mean individual rights, citizen versus the state. We didn’t think of democracy as a recalibration of sectarian ethnic balance, and that’s what’s happened in Iraq. (Laughter.) You know, there’s—we have to sort of think that the state in the Middle East, if the state structures are not there to suppress individuals, they’re there to suppress communities. So the very first impact of the weakening of the state is a recalibration of communal balance, and that’s likely, you know, to continue elsewhere as well.
Now, Stephen Biddle also recommends, you know, not only leaning on the Sunnis, but also leaning on the Shi’as, leaning on everybody that doesn’t want to participate to participate in the process. But, you know, there are—I think, you know, the problem I would have is not a problem of principle. I don’t think we have the power anymore. I think, you know, his argument should have been made a year ago. But at this stage, as I mentioned, we no longer are in command of our own destiny, and did nobody in the region of—in Iraq necessarily believes we can do it, so why would they give in if the U.S. really doesn’t have the means to force them to do it?
I’m not sure Iran is going to get away as easily as you say. I think they believe they can, and in fact, there is a strong argument in Iran that this is the time to escalate because Iran will be weaker in five years after sanctions, and U.S. will be stronger in five years because it probably will be out of Iraq. U.S. is at its weakest and Iran is at its greatest strength, so this is the time—like a good carpet merchant, you know, you put more aggressive bid on the table.
But I don’t believe—I believe there are things that for Iran, if there’s progress, are up for negotiation. They may not give up on nuclear issue, but they might negotiate terrorism away, and they may even negotiate this president away. I think essentially we put too much emphasis on this president. You know, we went from a situation where the president in Iran didn’t matter two years ago, to now saying that the only thing that matters is this president. And I think the regime, very cleverly, is wrapping all of the policies around Ahmadinejad and, you know, you can essentially go with his policies at an opportune time if there is an opening.
But I think on the issue of terrorism, on the issue of, you know, Iraq, there is room that this regime would like to negotiate with the U.S. And the ultimate purpose of that negotiation is that U.S. will recognize Iran’s sort of premier position in the region. And that obviously does not include giving up on the nukes, and you’re quite correct on that. I think that’s the stickiest issue. They will be willing to give up a lot of other things that we want from them, but not this one.
But I hear also a lot of rumors about military action, and the like, against Iran. So I don’t know if they can get away with it necessarily.
COOK: Thank you.
It’s exactly 2:00. (Laughter, applause.)
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