Tensions Between Saudi Arabia and Iran
Dean, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Vali R. Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, discusses rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the subsequent escalation of sectarian conflict throughout the region, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy conference call series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, www.cfr.org.
We’re delighted to have Vali Nasr with us today to talk about tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the escalation of sectarian conflict in the region. Dr. Nasr is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Prior to being named dean, he was professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
From 2009 to 2011, he was special adviser to the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has served on the faculties of the Naval Postgraduate School, Stanford University, UCSD, and USD. He’s been a Carnegie scholar and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, at Brookings Institution, and he was also an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies here at CFR.
He’s a member of the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board and the director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He is the author of several books, including “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future,” which examined postwar sectarian violence in Iraq and the Arab spring.
Vali, thanks very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us today. I thought we could begin with an overview of the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, what we’ve seen in the past few weeks, and discuss this dynamic, what it means for sectarian conflict throughout the region.
NASR: Well, thank you, Irina. Thank you for inviting me to this session.
It’s obviously a very important topic, and the Saudi-Iranian relationship and its implication for sectarian conflict in the region has now become the major strategic axis in the Middle East, one that has a great deal of impact on stability in the region as well as on how the United States would deal with critical issues like the war in Syria or the fight against ISIS and terrorism.
You know, sectarianism, of course, is a much older issue in the region. It has historical religious roots. But it has become a much more important political factor in the region since 2003. The Iran-Saudi rivalry goes back to 1979, when a revolution in Iran overthrew a monarchy, posed a direct threat to Saudi monarchy, challenged Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States, and then Iran and Saudi Arabia essentially found themselves at odds over a host of issues in the region, from Lebanon to Pakistan.
But I think the region had a certain stability when you had a very tight American-Saudi alliance that contained Iran and kept it at bay outside the region. And in recent years two critical events have happened to change this dynamic. One is the Iraq war unwittingly handed over a country that was controlled by a Sunni minority to the Shia majority. That was seen by Saudi Arabia and its allies as a loss, as a strategic loss, and as a gain by Iran.
It also raised the issue of the importance of the Shias and their demand for representation in the Arab world in the sense that Iraq emerged as the first Arab Shia country in modern times. And that has posed a threat to what was a traditional Sunni domination of power in the Arab world.
And secondly, the Arab spring has created a vacuum of power in the region. It is a collapse of authority in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in Yemen, even to a good extent in Egypt. And in that kind of a context of crisis in the Arab world, there has been more opportunity for Iranian-Saudi rivalry and also more opportunity for Shia-Sunni competition for power. And so we see Saudi Arabia and Iran much more engaged in competition over who comes on top in Syria and who ends up controlling Yemen. And in each of these cases the rivalry between these two powers is mirrored by the rivalry between Shias and Sunnis on the ground.
The additional important issue that has contributed to this rivalry is America’s decision to enter into negotiations over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, which actually led to a successful conclusion of a deal and the implementation of that deal. That is a sea change in the Middle East; namely, the United States decided that it was no longer committed to the kind of containment against Iran that had been in place for close to four decades and was willing to talk to Iran. And in return, Iran was willing to talk to the United States. The two could actually arrive at an agreement and actually have direct conversations, which could eventually extend to different sets of issues.
Saudi Arabia viewed this American opening to Iran as a net loss. In other words, it was seen as a rebalancing, as slight as it might be, of the United States now exploring relations with Iran. And in a zero-sum view of the region, this was a clear loss to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s reaction has been anger at the United States, but also redoubling its efforts to try to contain any kind of leverage that Iran can get out of this opening with the United States or any kind of additional influence that it could get in the region.
So ironically, the U.S. opening to Iran has actually intensified the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. And that is again reflected on the ground in greater intensity of sectarian conflict in communities that obviously look to each of these two powers for patronage and support and reflect their interests.
Now, in the midst of this, obviously the big story for Americans is ISIS and the rise of ISIS, which in the region is a particularly anti-Iranian, anti-Shia force, opposed to pro-Iranian political structures in Iraq and in Syria, complicates this rivalry on the ground in the sense that ISIS’s message and ISIS’s threat to Europe and the United States actually creates a greater scope for American cooperation with the Shia government in Iraq and perhaps the strategic convergence with Iran in fighting terrorism, in a sense that Iran and the United States and the Shia government in Iraq view ISIS as the primary threat in the region, whereas Saudi Arabia sees Iran and the Shias as the primary threat in the region.
And as a result of this, we’re sort of at a point in the region where the United States is no longer steadfastly in one camp. It has now a vested interest in its nuclear deal with Iran. It is looking to see whether it can improve relations with Iran. It is interested in Iranian and Iraqi Shia engagement in fighting against ISIS.
And on the other hand, it has lost, as a consequence, control over Arab and Saudi Arabian reaction to the developments in the region. So the Saudis are much more convinced that there is now a divergence in their position and that of the Americans and that they have to manage Iran in the region somewhat on their own. And that means greater confrontation with Iran.
So, you know, we have a polarized situation in the region that, at the higher level, pits the two major Arab and non-Arab powers in the region against one another. But that sort of competition and rivalry is reflected on the ground in the Shia-Sunni rivalry. And I think each side sees gains on the ground as translating into a benefit to them in their rivalry with their—with their counterpart.
And there is no sort of mechanism right now to contain the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. And until that rivalry is running unchecked, sectarian is likely to continue to fuel the actual conflicts at the ground level.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you, Vali.
Let’s open up to questions from the group and comments. Operator?
OPERATOR: Yes. At this time we’ll open the floor for questions.
(Gives queueing instructions.)
Thank you. Our first question will come from Elias Mallon with Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
MALLON: Thank you very much for your presentation. I basically have two questions. One, there is talk of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. It seems to me that except for the rather inept attempt at government by the Shiites in Baghdad, the Iraqi Shiites have been very quiet. And do you see them playing, especially under Sistani, a greater role in governing and in working together to solve these conflicts?
My second question is it seems and I fear that there are two areas of the Middle East, both Saudi Arabia and Israel, who would be more than happy to see a conflict between the United States and Iran. What are your feelings on that? Thank you.
NASR: Well, to your second point, there’s no doubt that there’s still a lot of risk in the nuclear deal and its implementation and that it could be derailed by the specter of a conflict in the region. And I think part of the worry is that the United States relationship with Iran is still very tenuous. And in the environment in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are escalating tensions among them, there is always the possibility that we may end up in kind of a conflict that then would impact the nuclear deal as well. So far that hasn’t happened, but the danger of that is very much there.
On the Iraq question, you know, the government in Iraq is still recovering from the war, is still a nascent government. And its weakness and its inability to actually build cross-sectarian bridges was one reason why it lost control of large parts of its own Sunni territory where ISIS set up shop.
And it is exactly the weakness of state institutions, not only in Iraq but now in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen, that actually creates a competition for power between Shias and Sunnis, as well as other factions and other institutions, and that allows the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia to sort of touch the ground and have a presence on the ground.
And I think both of these countries understand that weak states like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, are up for grabs. And that encourages both of them to try to advance their interests in these territories. And that is exactly the axis along which the regional rivalry tracks with what is happening on the ground.
MALLON: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from James Denison from Denison Forum.
DENISON: Thank you. Thank you for the privilege of being part of this conversation in such a critical time.
I’m wondering if you would comment on Israel’s relationship to the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Obviously they’ve called Iran an existential threat. They’ve said much less about the royal family in Saudi Arabia. I’m wondering what your thoughts are as regards the future of their relationship with those two powers and anything America ought to do to try to exert influence on Israel in that regard.
NASR: Well, you know, at this moment Israel believes that it has a strategic common ground with Persian Gulf monarchies over Iran. And it actually has been trying to sort of expand this into some kind of a more formal, open alliance against Iran.
However, it’s not as easy for the Arabs to embrace Israel because the Palestinian issue is still sitting on the table, and I don’t think the Arab publics would be—are yet ready to embrace Israel openly in a diplomatic relationship with some kind of strategic engagement, even as much as they are worried about Iran.
But going forward, this is an evolving picture. If Iran actually ends up moving further along the path of opening up, changing some of its regional policies—and this is not a given, but it’s a big if—if it does, I think, you know, it’s possible that Israel’s position on Iran may become gradually more different from Saudi Arabia’s position on Iran. I think Israel’s greatest worry is about Iran’s regime and the nuclear threat that Iran might have to Israel.
I think Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran is much more deep-seated. It’s worried about a regional rival that potentially could attract American attention, American business, become a much bigger force for influence in the Middle East. A more open, more democratic Iran is actually a greater threat to Saudi Arabia because it might very well in that scenario become a much more acceptable ally and partner for the United States in the Middle East.
So, you know, at this moment in time there is a rejection front, if you will, in the Middle East, Arab countries and Israel, who were not supportive of the nuclear deal and rejected its signing by the United States at the beginning. But, you know, it all depends on where Iran goes from here. Iran’s behavior will decide the nature of alliances against it in the region.
DENISON: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Piyush Agrawal from Global Organization of People of Indian Religion.
AGRAWAL: Indian Origin.
Thank you, sir. Question: It looks like your presentation is slightly tilted toward Saudi Arabia rather than Iran. And I am not a friend of Iran—(inaudible)—but I am expecting a balanced opinion from you. Your conversation seems to be that America favors Saudi Arabia more than Iran, and that may be the case. But one of the statement you said, if Saudi Arabia doesn’t like it, the Iran nuclear deal might be in jeopardy. Did I interpret correctly?
NASR: Well, I mean, I would take that as a compliment, because, you know, usually I’m accused of being partial towards Iran than Saudi Arabia.
No, I mean, the question is not—the question is not whether Saudi Arabia—Saudi Arabia did not support the nuclear deal to begin with. It was critical of the United States actually negotiating with Iran, did not believe that Iran could be trusted with the deal. That in itself does not impact whether the U.S. moves forward with the deal or not.
What I said is that if the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalates into a stage in which then it impacts the deal, then the deal is at risk. The deal is still very fragile. Relations between Iran and the United States are still very tenuous. There’s a great deal of distrust between then still. And they only have taken, you know, small steps in the direction of improving relations.
So within Iran itself there is a lot of suspicion about the United States. And within Iran there’s a lot of opposition to the deal as well. So an escalation of the conflict that can get out of hand could potentially have an adverse impact on the nuclear deal, and where United States and Iran will go from here.
In a sense, you know, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, if it continues unabated, is a destabilizing factor. And the Iran nuclear deal is not immune from that instability.
AGRAWAL: It’s a built-in situation. Shia versus Sunni is a historical animosity. So probably the unity between Saudi Arabia and Iran historically is not possible. I mean, that’s my opinion.
NASR: Well, they are of different—you know, they each represent these different branches of Islam. But the reason they are fighting is not because they are Shia and Sunni. They’re fighting because they have mutually exclusive interests in the region. This is about power and it’s about—it’s not a conflict that is alien to other regions of the world. They use Shia and Sunni conflict to their advantage as well. So it’s not that—in other words, they’re acting very much as states would act. If you look at a country like Syria, they both want influence and control over Syria, and they each view that the other one winning in Syria as a strategic loss.
And, of course, in Syria the Sunnis would support Saudi Arabia and the Alawites would support Iran. But the reality is that this is great-power rivalry, no different from ones that we’ve seen in other regions of the world or, for instance, in European history.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.
Next question or comment.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Eliot Assoudeh with the University of Nevada at Reno.
ASSOUDEH: Hello. Thank you so much, Professor Nasr, for this presentation. And thanks to the CFR for having me part of this conversation.
So I have two questions. As you mentioned, Iran and Saudi Arabia prioritize regional differences. So, as for the ISIS, it is in the benefit of, for example, Iran, as well as the West, to—specifically the United States—to cooperate on combating ISIS. But what concerns me is the way that Iran perceives ISIS.
So if you look at the different talks that the Iran supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, gives, or his tweets, so the way that he perceives ISIS is a kind of representative of an American Islam, and by which he means an Islam which shows hostility toward Shia Iran, an Islam which is for the imperialistic goal of the United States, and is Israel-friendly. So considering that kinds of—that kind of perception, how do you see it is possible Iran and the United States have any collaboration to battle against ISIS?
The second question is that, with the upcoming election of Assembly of Experts in Iran, now there were lots of candidates, moderate candidates, that they got rejected, their candidacy. They got rejected. But now that President Rouhani is also going to be part of that, and now we have—it is confirmed that Ayatollah Rafsanjani also will be in the next Majlis. So how do you see the possibility of an alliance between Rouhani and Rafsanjani for moving toward a leadership council rather than a supreme leader position?
Thank you so much.
NASR: Well, to your first point, you know, that’s exactly—you know, Iran and the United States have signed a nuclear deal, but that does not mean that they have completely normalized their relations. It also does not mean that Iran has changed completely. And the rhetoric of Iran about how it sees—shows distrust of the U.S. and it’s opposed to the U.S. is still there.
But, you know, beyond the rhetoric of what the supreme leader says in his tweets or on his Friday prayers, the fact on the ground is that both sides are actually fighting ISIS in Iraq. And in many battles early on, American air cover was bombing ISIS targets as on-the-ground Revolutionary Guard advisers and Shia militias that they were training were moving against ISIS position.
This was not a coordinated attack, but the reality was that both of them independently saw ISIS as a threat. So, I mean, if you really looked at what Europe and the United States view as the biggest threat in the Middle East, it’s ISIS. What does Iran view as the biggest threat in the Middle East is ISIS. They didn’t arrive at this conclusion through some kind of a conference, but they independently view ISIS as a threat. So ISIS, by definition, creates a common ground around which there can be a convergence.
Now, going forward, there could be greater collaboration or not. That remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that in the theater of war they have attacked the same target and they both are supporting the same Shia government in Iraq, which is right now the main force that is confronting ISIS, for instance, in the battle of Ramadi.
As to the Iranian election, it has to be seen. You have to—we have to first see what the outcome of the election to the Council of Experts will be. Who’s going to get elected? What’s the weight within the council? And then that presents the possibility of alliances that could decide what might be the future of leadership in Iran.
ASSOUDEH: Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Frances Flannery with the Center for Interdisciplinary Study.
FASKIANOS: Frances, are you there?
OPERATOR: Frances, your line is live.
FLANNERY: I’m sorry. Can you hear me now? Can you hear me?
FASKIANOS: Yes, we can. Yes, go ahead.
FLANNERY: OK, great. I was going to say it’s the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace.
I’ve benefited so much from your writings, especially the Shia revival, that it’s a real honor to be part of this conference call.
NASR: Thank you.
FLANNERY: So—no, thank you. I have three rather complicated questions. So it is up to you to answer whichever of them you wish. They seem simple, but they’re complicated.
Question one: As you say, ISIS is fundamentally an anti-Shia force. Judging from their videos, they arguably hate the Shia much more than they do the so-called Crusader-Zionist alliance, or U.S., Western Europe and Israel. So given that and the dynamics that you’ve laid out, can you explain how the Saudi Arabian government views ISIS and also how the Saudi people generally view ISIS?
A second question is could you speak to any issues or scenarios over which the Saudis and Iranians unite, if not politically or religiously, then maybe just strategically?
And third, could you say something about how alliances with the U.S. and Russia influence the rivalry that you’ve spoken of?
NASR: Very good points. On the second question, I think it’s the easiest answer, which is I don’t see anything strategically that would bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together. They can’t even agree on maintaining the price of oil, which would benefit both of them. And if they can’t agree on that, you know, everything else is much more difficult for them to agree on. So right now there’s absolutely no common ground or neither side is looking for common ground.
On the alliances, you know, I think both of these countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are also looking to—beyond the United States, are looking to use alliances with Russia and China to their advantage, and India; so, you know, these other big powers with influence or trade and business in the Middle East.
I think, very interestingly, President Xi Jinping just went to both Iran and Saudi Arabia. And I think both of those countries are trying to sell more oil to China, you know, create tighter business relationships with China, and try to sort of—you know, try to sort of corner the relationship with China for themselves. With Russia, I think, because of Russia’s position on Syria, Iran is closer to Russia than Saudi Arabia is.
On the question of ISIS and Saudi Arabia, you know, the—at the strategic level, you know, ISIS is fighting against Iran and Iran clients in Syria and Iraq. And that’s not at odds with Saudi Arabia’s general policy in the region, which is also to defeat Iran in Syria, reduce Iran’s influence in the region, and even reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq.
But, having said that, I think Saudi Arabia itself is very vulnerable to the kind of ideology that ISIS is putting out there. And there is a great deal of sympathy in Saudi Arabia towards ISIS. I think one study suggested that the most number of pro-ISIS tweets come from Saudi Arabia.
And I think the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia over, you know, varieties of things also encourages Saudi public to sympathize with the mission of ISIS, at least, which is anti-Shia and anti-Iranian. And that essentially gives ISIS’s message in the region much greater resonance, because, you know, we in the West look at ISIS merely through the prism of its extremist ideology and terrorism, whereas in the region even people who don’t like ISIS’s ideology, if they are sympathetic to the Saudi view, if they view Iran and the Shias as gaining ground and poaching on Sunni turf, are sympathetic to what ISIS is trying to achieve strategically.
FLANNERY: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
FLANNERY: I have a follow-up question. I don’t know if I can ask it; I don’t know how many people are in queue. But I would just ask—OK.
FASKIANOS: Go ahead, quickly.
FLANNERY: OK. So I would just ask, on the issue of the alliances with Russia, China, India, and then the U.S. on the Saudi side, whether you think that brinksmanship between Russia and the U.S. is having an influence on this rivalry that you’ve been speaking of.
NASR: Well, it interacts with that rivalry, you know. So Iran and—Iran and Russia—Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing, say, on Syria. The Russians have intervened on the same side—on the side of the Assad government, which is also Iran’s client. That puts Saudi Arabia at odds with Russia. And then, on the other hand, the United States is now trying to broker a diplomatic deal in Syria, which now increasingly looks like it requires an agreement between United States and Russia over the fate of the Assad government and over a peace deal. And that suggests that the Russians are also sort of, you know, creating common ground with the Americans. That, obviously, isolates Saudi Arabia’s position, which is demanding that Assad should go altogether before there is a—there is a deal in Syria.
So, you know, it doesn’t—in a way, you know, the alliance has sort of complicated the picture further. You know, the Russians are not driving this conflict, but rather they are—they are impacting which side is winning and which side is losing. So, in Syria, the Russian intervention helped Iran. The Russian diplomatic outreach with the United States helped—at least the Saudis think it’s helping Iran further, it’s helping Assad. So, in that sense, it interacts with the rivalry on the ground.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Syed Sayeed from Columbia University.
SAYEED: Yes, thank you very much for—first, for CFR for having this conversation to take place; and secondly, Professor Vali Nasr for making the presentation.
In my view, I think the framing of this issue as rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is probably making it too—you know, it’s a simplification of the whole thing. I personally believe that these issues that have surfaced have been historically grounded in many, you know, different kind of factors. The rivalry is really not for leadership. I think it’s to, on the part of Iran, to expand the regional influence; and part of Saudi Arabia to limit that attempt of Iran to influence more of the region in the Middle East. It’s a limited issue. I think both the Saudis and Iranians know very well there are limits to what extent they can really, you know, go farther and farther in the direction of establishing their influence. I think with the rise of Turkey and, you know, a few other countries in the Muslim world—for example, in the Far East, Malaysia and all that—will probably, you know, change the picture in significant ways as years and decades pass. I just wanted to know if you would like to comment on my observation. Thank you.
NASR: Thank you very much for that. You know, the issue—I think both countries want to expand influence. You know, Saudi Arabia is involved in Lebanon, is involved in Pakistan, it’s involved in Bangladesh, it’s involved in Malaysia. And the Iranians, similarly, are involved there. So, you know, each country says it’s merely trying to contain the other one. So the Shias in Iraq or in Lebanon, you know, do not see a problem with Iranian influence, just as the Sunni Arabs in those countries don’t see a problem with Saudi influence.
You know, in the—in the heartland of the Middle East right now, you know, Malaysia or Indonesia don’t matter. This is largely between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Turks have an influence, but the Turks and the Iranians are not in an intense rivalry across the region. Yes, they disagree on Syria, but they actually cooperated in managing the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They didn’t see—there was no rivalry over control of that region between them. And the Turks also have their own issues with the Saudis over support for Muslim Brotherhood and over the government of former President Morsi in Egypt.
I mean, you know, the current competition between the two is largely that both sides view the gains by the other one as detrimental to itself. You know, the Saudis view Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon as unwelcome, but the Shias in Lebanon or Iraq have no relationship with Saudi Arabia, and view Iran as actually supporting them in their effort. So, you know, whatever way we put it, ultimately you have two countries that are—that are trying to protect their interests and further their interests in a region that has actually collapsed into chaos in vast parts of it. And that actually presents an opportunity in order to try to further their interests.
And ultimately, you know, both of them, from their point of view, see the other side as the aggressor, and each other—and they have a zero-sum view of the region. And that’s exactly what intensifies this conflict, is exactly the way that each of them views the other one as being the aggressor and sees itself defending its turf.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Jamsheed Choksy with Indiana University.
CHOKSY: Hi, Vali. Excellent analysis. Thank you.
NASR: Thank you.
CHOKSY: I’m curious to get your ideas on how you believe the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, will end up finding—coming to terms with the new political equilibrium.
NASR: Well, actually, the key word that you suggested is “equilibrium.” I mean, the reason this intensification of this rivalry is happening is because the old equilibrium has broken. You know, old state institutions in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen have collapsed. The U.S.’s position in the region has shifted. And you have much more sort of Shia voice now in Lebanon, Iraq, in the region. And ultimately, you have to arrive at a new equilibrium, except there is no negotiated process in this region to arrive at an equilibrium. There’s no—there’s no equivalent, for those who are familiar with European history, with a Conference of Vienna to arrive at a new balance of power in the region. And so the rivalry is really a symptom of this problem.
I think this will continue for a while, until one or the other side realizes the cost to the current conflict, or comes to the conclusion that the current strategy’s not working and decides to follow a different track, number one.
Number two is that so long as you have actually an open conflict in Syria and in Yemen, and maybe in a distant future in Libya, where the outcome is not yet decided and there is a prize to be won, and one side or the other may win this prize, it’s difficult to see how the two will actually come to an agreement. So, you know, so long as there is no peace deal on Syria and it’s not clear, you know, how much—whether Assad would fall or, even if he survives, how much will he hold onto—what would the Sunnis get in Syria; the fate of Yemen is not decided—there is a prize to fight over. And there is no mechanism right now to broker peace between these two countries over these two, say, wars.
So I think this is going to go on for a while longer, until either of these conflicts finish or that the two sides find the cost of waging war in these conflicts to be intolerable, and then will begin to look at arriving at a peace deal, which then, you know, would be the basis for a new equilibrium in the region.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal with National Council on Synagogues.
ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Professor Nasr, for your presentation. Two quick questions.
Given the Sunni-Shiite rivalry goes back to the 7th century, how can we be somewhat optimistic that, given the terrible bloody battles between them even today, that there will be any kind of rapprochement, or at least diminution of the bloodshed?
The second question is, the fact is that the Iranians were deceitful in the past in their pursuit of nuclear weapons. How can we be sanguine that this time they will be more inclined to adhere to the agreement and curb their nuclear lust?
NASR: So, on your first question, you know, yes, the roots of the sectarian divide go far back. But in the modern period, this is really behaving as a—as a form of ethnic conflict. So this is not about just theology, it’s about identity of people—which side of the divide were they born, where their loyalties lie, what’s their access to power. So this is very much of a communal conflict.
And these communal conflicts—we’ve seen it in India, we see it in the Balkans—can become extremely bloody, but it is also possible to see how they will end. The current collapse of order in the region, combined with the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, are actually stoking the fire rather than help put it out. But, just as happened in the Balkans, you know, there can be a ceasefire. It doesn’t mean that the communities will immediately be able to live in absolute harmony, but it is possible to see how this will end. And in Lebanon, you know, we had a—you had a similar Christian-Muslim conflict, and at some point they arrived at a—at a sort of cold peace and at least the civil war ended.
The drivers for the current sectarian conflict are not theological. These are political. These fights are going on because there is a—there is a political prize called Iraq, Syria, Yemen, regional control to be won. These are sort of political conflicts, and the fight is over power and influence.
On the Iranian issue, you know, that’s at the heart of the whole debate about the nuclear issue. And, as is the case with many other arms deals that have been made, ratification and trust in the implementation is really key. And that was true of the détente, it’s been true of many other issues. So that—actually, the IAEA and the United States have to be vigilant, and they have to essentially monitor Iran’s implementation very, very, very carefully.
But beyond that, you know, the key question is whether the impact of having signed this deal—and particularly as it does have a domestic impact in Iran, largely because even the symbolism of negotiating with the United States directly and signing a deal with the United States is a—is a first for the Iranian Revolution—whether this actually will start a process of gradual change in Iran. I mean, ultimately, the issue is not that you sign a nuclear deal with Iran and the Iranian regime stays in its current form indefinitely. The bigger prize is that, you know, we have embarked on a—on a process that ultimately will get Iran to a very difference place. And that dynamic is complicated, and is also fraught with risks and possibility of reversal. So, you know, that I think is the larger political—larger sort of historical process that we—that we have embarked on. I mean, if Iran doesn’t change in a—in a time frame, obviously the risks to, you know, cheating or resumption of nuclear confrontation is going to be much higher. But if this opening continues and the process begins to propel Iran in a different direction in the lifetime of this nuclear deal, then, you know, Iran would—by the time this nuclear deal is supposed to be sort of at the end of its cycle of, say, 15 years, Iran may very well be a different—at a different place. And that would be the most ideal outcome.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Peter Lems with AFSC.
LEMS: Great. Thank you for—thank you for this dialogue. I, too, have two questions, like all of us.
AFSC is the American Friends Service Committee, and we worked pretty actively to support the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal, but believe there was a dark side to that deal. And wanted to see if you could say more about the impact of U.S. weapons sales and transfers to the region that were used as a way to get reluctant allies to support or not sabotage the Iran nuclear deal. One aspect, or one result of this has been that, in our effort to stop nuclear weapons proliferation, we have perhaps unwittingly touched off a new, more conventional arms race in the region, and perhaps setting up a scenario where Iran could easily look at the new weapons sales to say that they’re under threat from that policy.
My other question, if you’re willing, would be to share with us what you would see as a relative success for the meetings that will be convened tomorrow in Geneva around the war in Syria.
NASR: Well, you know, the weapons sales issue has always been, I think, one of the justifications for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability, although Iran never has publicly admitted that it was in pursuit of a weapon. But it was always very clear that Iran’s nuclear program had a strategic value beyond its civilian uses, and that strategic value had to do with the balance of power in the region.
So Iran spent a lot less than its immediate neighbors on weaponry, a fraction of its GDP compared to, say, Saudi Arabia or other Persian Gulf emirates, and technologically it was way behind them. I mean, Iran’s air force really belongs in a museum. And nuclear capability is a poor man’s strategic weapon. In other words, you sort of—if you cannot match your rivals on conventional military, I mean, nuclear capability is the best way of making a conventional military rivalry irrelevant. And this has—this sort of has been there, that, you know, Iranians at times would say, well, you know, if they’re going to give up everything, then would the United States, for instance, ask the Arab governments to give back the billions of dollars in weaponry that they had procured from the U.S.? And most recently, Iran used the fact that the U.S. has been selling additional weaponry to the Arab governments across the Gulf as a justification for its missile test, which, you know, then led to fresh American sanctions against Iran.
So, you know, this is very much part of the—part of the discussion there. You know, the U.S. was put in a positon that, because its Arab allies, and Israel also, viewed Iran’s—U.S.’s negotiations with Iran as a tilt in the direction of Iran and as possibly weakening the kind of containment of Iran that had been in place, that it had to give reassurances to its allies by beefing up their military capabilities.
But in reality, this is not a new thing in the region. So I mean, you know, it’s not as if over the decades U.S. had not been selling extensively to Persian Gulf monarchies. And in a way, it’s not a new sort of weapons race.
It does—it does, actually, raise the question of whether at some point Iran will see a situation in which it gives up its nuclear capability, but the U.S. is giving more and more advanced weaponry to Persian Gulf countries, which are in a heated rivalry with Iran as a strategic vulnerability. And then how will Iran try to address that strategic vulnerability?
But ultimately, you know, you have a situation of escalating tensions with Saudi Arabia, which has plenty of conventional military capability. Iran clearly doesn’t have the similar kind of conventional military capability, but it no longer has a—could have a nuclear capability to use as deterrence or use for strategic trump card either. And therefore, at some point it might react to this reality. And therefore—and so you raise the right—you raise an important question as to the importance of not creating a situation that might actually provide risks for the nuclear deal.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Joe Carson with the affiliation of Christian Engineers.
CARSON: Yeah, good afternoon. We have about—I think about 120 listeners, most of whom are affiliated with some religious institutions.
I am a member of the engineering profession, which I’ll say—you can agree or disagree—I say for now and forever more, this advanced civilization we have is utterly dependent upon its (indigent ?) underpinnings. I know engineers who are both Iranian and Saudi Arabian. My question to you is, how can this engineering profession be more of a positive voice, positive influence in trying to bring peace and justice to this region?
NASR: Well, look, any kind of an association that brings people from across the political divide together around a common issue of interest is very good. In fact, the Middle East is very poor in the nongovernmental, you know, civil society institutions that cut across borders and sects and ethnicities and religions, within countries as well as across boundaries. So, you know, there’s a great deal of value in actually creating a connection between people. I mean, a professional association, you know, has a—has a much clearer ability to do that around a particular profession. So there is value to doing that, and it helps to actually have a dialogue among people. I mean, obviously populations in all these countries are listening to what their governments are saying about the conflict, they’re reacting in a communal sense across the conflict. So, you know, when there was a stampede of—tragic stampede in Mecca in which some 400 Iranians died, in Iran there was a sense that this was a Saudi conspiracy, and there was a lot of anger about it. And you know, I think having people-to-people conversations helps de-mystify many of these things, and that’s very helpful.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Sayed Hussaini with Catholic University.
HUSSAINI: Yeah, hello, Professor Nasr. Thank you for your excellent presentation. I have two question.
First of all, how Iranian look at Assad in terms of a sectarian viewpoint? Do they support Assad simply because he is Alawite? While we know he is a—he has a very secular government. And also, with regard to the, you know, counterparts, the opposite side, do they fight against Assad because he is a Shia or not—it is a political point? It is the first question.
The second point is about the Kurds in this area. There are Kurds in Iraq, in Syria, in Turkey. It seems mostly they are Sunni, but with regard to sectarian violence in this area, what is their position? Thank you.
NASR: Well, on your first point, you know, the relationship between Iran and Syria goes back to actually the shah’s period, before the Iranian Revolution, when there was a period of high tensions between Iran and Iraq, and Syria became the only Arab country that actually supported Iran. And throughout the Iran-Iraq War also, after the revolution, Syria was supportive of Iran, not of Iraq. That’s because there was a great deal of rivalry between Syria and Iraq, and Syria always looked to Iran, and Iran looked to Syria, in order to balance Iraq. So the relationship with the Assad family goes to before the Iranian Revolution.
And at some point in time, when the Assad government felt it was very vulnerable because it was a minority government and the Alawites in Syria were viewed as being beyond the pale of Islam, it looked to Shia leaders—Khomeini in Iran and Imam Musa al-Sadr in Lebanon—to issue religious fatwas, religious decrees that would say that Alawites were Shias and, as such, were members of the Muslim community. And therefore, there was some justification for that.
But in today’s case, the fact is that the Iranians knew that the world always looked at Assad as an Iranian ally, and therefore the fact that a popular uprising backed by Iran’s rivals would overthrow Assad was a strategic defeat for Iran. So in the least I think the Iranians were determined to defend Assad because the Syrian government was their ally, but also the Syrian government matters to Iran because it was a—it was a land bridge between Iran and Hezbollah. And the Assad government provided support to Hezbollah, which is Iran’s ally, in Lebanon.
So I think the reasons for Iran defending the Assad government are very sort of secular. But, having said that, there has been a sort of overlay, a coating of religious affinity between the Alawites and the Shias in Lebanon and the Iranian government.
And on the other hand, the Saudis and the Turks—the Turks, for instance, had very good relations with Assad until the uprising. Then they made a decision that they were going to support the uprising against Assad, and they broke their ties with Assad at that point. And then it’s, again, become a question of, you know, supporting an opposition against the government.
Now, the sectarian affinity works because the opposition is Sunni, the government is Shia. The government’s allied with Iran. If you’re opposed to Iran and you’re opposed to ally of Iran, you know, the sectarian language basically articulates the division. But, you know, for Saudi Arabia, the main prize in Syria was defeating Iran, taking Syria out of Iran’s control. And that meant taking it out of Alawite control and putting it in the hands of opposition, which is predominantly Sunni.
So, you know, the bottom line is that it’s not theology that’s driving this conflict, it’s raw politics that’s driving it. But theology and sectarian identity provides, if you would, an added tool in explaining the conflict and in defining the sides in the conflict, and it’s basically a tool in the hands of the governments doing the—doing the fighting.
On the Kurds, yes, there are Shia Kurds as well, in Iraq and in Iran. The majority of the Kurds are Sunni, but the Sunni Kurds do not identify with Sunni Arabs because of linguistic differences, but also the school of law that they follow is different from the school of law that the Arab Sunnis follow. And in the case of Iraq, for instance, the Sunni Kurds suffered hugely at the hands of the Sunni-dominated regime under Saddam Hussein. So they see themselves essentially as a third identity in the region, ethnic/religious. And you know, in Iraq, during the elections, it’s been a question as to whether Shia Kurds vote with Shia parties or vote with Kurdish parties. But this kind of ambiguity doesn’t exist on the Sunni part. So Kurds in Iraq don’t vote with the Sunni Arab parties, and the Sunni Arabs don’t vote with Kurdish parties. So, you know, Kurds are a—are a third identity here.
In a case like Iraq, they play as a balancer between Shias and Sunnis in the—in the political formula in Iraq. In Syria, it’s going to be interesting, you know, if they end up with their own region, whether they would play also as a balancer between the Alawites and the Sunnis.
FASKIANOS: Well, Vali, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today and your analysis. And I apologize to those of you who we couldn’t—we couldn’t get to all of the questions, and I do apologize for that. But we are, unfortunately, out of time. But it has been terrific to have you with us.
NASR: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: And I encourage you all to follow Vali on Twitter @Vali_Nasr. And if you haven’t already done so, you should read his recent Foreign Policy article on sectarian—on sectarianism. And you can also follow us on our Twitter account @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources that we are producing.
So thank you all again. Thank you, Vali Nasr. And we look forward to your continued involvement in our Religion and Foreign Policy initiatives.
NASR: Thank you. And thank you for inviting me, and it was wondering with being all of you on the phone.
More from this series
Daisy Khan discusses community efforts to combat extremism and Islamophobia in the United States.
Paul Douglas and Mitchell C. Hescox discuss faith, science, and responsible stewardship of the environment.