Vali R. Nasr, Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discusses Shia-Sunni relations and the implications of the killing of Qasem Soleimani.
CASA: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series.
I am Maria Casa, director of National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be made available on our website, CFR.org, and our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy later this week.
Today, we are delighted to have Vali Nasr with us. Dr. Nasr is Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is a Middle East scholar, foreign policy advisor, commentator on international relations, and author of several books, including The Dispensable Nation, Forces of Fortune, and The Shia Revival.
Dr. Nasr served as dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies from 2012 to 2019, and prior to that was a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. From 2009 to 2011, he was the special advisor to the president’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Dr. Nasr was also a Carnegie Scholar and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and formally served as a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and as an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Welcome, Vali. Thank you very much for being with us today.
NASR: Thank you very much, Maria.
CASA: Can we start out by asking you to give us some background on the role Qasem Soleimani played in shaping religious dynamics between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East?
NASR: Yes. Thank you very much for inviting me to this event. It’s great to be on this call.
You know, Soleimani is a controversial figure, was a religious figure within the Middle East itself and that has, largely, to do not because he was doing Iran’s foreign policy and regional policy bidding but because he very much falls into the dynamic of sectarian rivalry—Shia-Sunni rivalry in the region.
He became a household name even within Iran itself against the backdrop of the rise of ISIS in Iraq and the near collapse of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. And these were not just threats, if you would, to Iranian regional position but they were very clearly threats to what the Shias had gained in the region after the fall of Iraq.
There was a clear perception among the Shias in Lebanon, Shias in Iraq, as well as the Assad regime, which was allied with them, that there was a regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and this was very much tied to the sectarian dynamic and, particularly, that ISIS was an anti-Shia force even before the West recognized it as a very clear terrorist threat.
When ISIS first swept across Iraq, some of its most gruesome acts were beheading of Shia soldiers and a threat to run over the shrine cities of southern Iraq, Najaf and Karbala, and the Shias within—in Iran and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq across the Middle East understood ISIS to be a very clear threat not only to Shias’ political position but to Shias’ religious sites and also the fear that even Damascus might fall to ISIS and another major shrine in Damascus may also be destroyed was very much alive.
And Soleimani, essentially, stepped up at the behest of Iran in order to shore up Shia defenses. So he worked very closely with Ayatollah Sistani to get a fatwa from him calling on Iraqi Shias to join the Popular Mobilization Front, which now are in the crosshairs of the United States—the PMF.
He organized a recruitment of Afghan and Pakistani Shia volunteers to come to Syria to fight for the Assad regime. He pleaded with Putin to intervene in Syria to prevent Assad from falling and he even tacitly collaborated with the United States in Iraq in order to push back ISIS.
So in many ways he became, if you would, the field commander for the Shia resistance to what they thought was a major Sunni push under the title of the Caliphate and ISIS to essentially take over Iraq, take over Syria, and destroy, if you would, Shia cultural religious monuments and heritage in the region.
So, in a way, even though he was not originally a religious figure, his mission in the past ten years is very closely tied with the sectarian dynamic in the region, which is still unfolding. Even though he’s been killed, this battle is not yet settled.
CASA: Thank you. That leads us to a question. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared that the world is a safer place now that Soleimani is dead. Would you agree with that assessment?
NASR: Well, at some level, perhaps it is. I mean, Soleimani was not looked upon favorably by the United States. He was the architect of a lot of resistance to U.S. troops during the heyday of U.S. occupation of Iraq. He was seen as the architect of Iran’s regional policy. Many Sunnis in the region disliked him because he supported Assad.
He supports Hezbollah. He supports Shia militias in Iraq and they are engaged in this fight between the Shias and the Sunnis. But for the Shias in the region as well as, for instance, many Christians and other minorities—Kurds in Iraq—he was not a negative figure. He’s the one who actually defended them against what was—what was an almost guaranteed defeat and destruction at the hands of ISIS.
When ISIS swept across Iraq, north and south of Iraq, there were no U.S. forces or a coalition of sixty countries to resist the ISIS takeover. Erbil could have fallen to ISIS if it wasn’t for Soleimani shoring up the Kurdish lines of defense and Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, southern Iraq could have very easily fallen to ISIS as well.
There was no Iraqi army to defend against ISIS. So for that group of the Middle East that think that they survived ISIS thanks to Soleimani, he was not viewed as a nefarious figure but he was actually their savior.
On the other hand, taking Soleimani out is more an act of revenge against somebody with whom the United States has an unsettled score, going back to the early years of American occupation in Iraq. But it does not necessarily change the ground realities in the Middle East, which are still in these divided countries like Syria and Iraq could ultimately portend to other protagonists emerging and this fight continues. Soleimani was a general in a much larger war. The war doesn’t go away just because you took out Soleimani.
CASA: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
The first question will come from Piyush Agrawal with Global Organization of People of Indian Origin. Please go ahead.
AGRAWAL: Greetings to everybody. Thank Professor Nasr to explain the whole thing. But it looks like, my friend, the Shia-Sunni business is going on for centuries and, basically, what you mentioned about Soleimani and used the phrase Iraq occupation by U.S., this is the first time I’ve heard from a responsible person like you that U.S.A. occupied Iraq. We were there for a purpose. The purpose was served. It was taken care of, and the U.S. was not part of the Shia-Sunni equation. It was something to do with Saddam Hussein. He happened to be Sunni. But immediately after that, U.S.A. favored Shias to take over Iraq. So we were not part of the occupation. But it’s your opinion, no doubt about it. Any comment on that?
NASR: Well, that’s parsing words. I mean, end of the day, we invaded. For a period of time we were government of Iraq. I don’t know what words we would call it. We were occupying the country, benevolent or not. But in the eyes of many Iraqis, who are actually both Shias and Sunnis, stepped up to an insurgency to force the U.S. out, it was, clearly, occupation.
The United States did not have a sectarian policy when it went to Iraq. It didn’t favor Shias and Sunnis. More than likely, it didn’t even know what a Shia and Sunni is. President Bush famously asked an analyst who told him about Shias and Sunnis, he said, I thought they were all Iraqis. Once the United States advocated democracy in Iraq and opened for open elections, Shias, who numbered a lot more than Sunnis, ended up inheriting power. The Sunnis didn’t like it and that’s why they pushed for an insurgency.
Now, in an environment as we have in the Middle East it is not possible for United States foreign policy to be nonsectarian. If the U.S. takes the side of Saudi Arabia in Yemen or in Syria or in Iraq or takes out Soleimani, automatically it’s seen to be favoring one side of the ledger, just like when the United States advocated democracy in Iraq it was seen as to being pro-Shia.
So, it’s sort of a nonsectarian foreign policy. It’s something in the abstract and I do believe you’re right, that we don’t have sectarian goals. But we are implementing that foreign policy in an environment in which there is a(n) intense fight for power in the region between Shias and Sunnis in varieties of theaters of conflict—Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen.
So you’re taking one side or the other. Automatically, the other side will see it as being biased against it.
AGARWAL: But as American how do you feel? That we did occupy Iraq or we were just there for establishing democratic principles?
NASR: I don’t know what other word to use for it. I mean, when you invade a country, take over its government, hand down even its constitution, I don’t know what other word you would use. I mean, whether you think about occupation benevolently or maliciously, occupation is occupation. We were not in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq. We went there to replace the government of Iraq and we occupied the country for a good chunk of time. We provided police security, we managed its affairs, and then, ultimately, we made a decision to leave but—and we were there, obviously, not against the will of a lot of Iraqis who fought for the United States to be. I mean, occupation is a very technical term and I don’t see how else to define it.
CASA: Thank you.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Snjezana Akpinar with Dharma Realm Buddhist University. Please go ahead with your question.
AKPINAR: Yes. Hello. I hope you can hear me. I’m here in California, and I would like to ask more a historical question to give some background. How much is there the influence of the Mossadeghic revolution, or whatever you want to call it, in Iran? And is this a revenge mostly fueled between communism and capitalism that we can look at in that term, and is there a lot of that sort of influence there, the old Mossadegh crowd, shall we say?
NASR: Well, that’s mostly about internal Iranian politics, the memory of U.S. intervention in Iranian politics in 1953 that tipped the balance in favor of the monarchy against the prime minister. But it does not have real reverberations in the region. It was not a regional issue. So it doesn’t really reverberate with Iraqis or Syrians in that sense.
The region does have serious social economic issues. That’s what inspired the Arab Spring. But every time in the region that is divided between two major religious groups for whom religion is also a form of identity, any time you talk about changing the balance of power or the balance of economic power, you ultimately touch on who are going to be the winners when change comes and who are going to be the losers.
And, unfortunately, in the context of current Middle East where you have Sunnis that are disenfranchised, as they were in Syria, that if they gain power then the ruling order will see it as a loss and is resisting. Or the Shiites were held outside of power, as it was in the case of Iraq, their coming to power caused Sunni resentment and Sunni resistance.
I mean, in that sense, the Shia-Sunni rivalry is not very different from other kinds of ethnic power struggles we’ve seen in other parts of the world when change in the balance of power creates clear winners and losers along ethnic or ethno-religious lines and the conflicts then reflect resisting change or trying to take advantage of the change.
CASA: OK. Next.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Khosro Mehrfar with FEZANA. Please go ahead.
MEHRFAR: Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody, from Los Angeles, and thank you, Vali.
I was wondering, what concrete steps or even theoretical steps the two sides can take—I’m talking about Iran and the United States—to avoid an all-out war. One thing which most probably is true is the fact that a majority of the people of the two great nations of Iran and America do not want war. The outcome is nothing but destruction and it knows no friends or foes. So I appreciate your sharing the foresight and insight that you have on what can be done to avoid it.
NASR: Well, given where we are right now, which is a situation of near war about a month ago and very tense relations between the two countries, I think what they essentially would need at this point in time is some kind of an agreement to have a cease fire. In other words, to freeze the current situation so it doesn’t get any worse.
The problematic is that the United States has put almost near a hundred percent sanctions—economic sanctions on Iraq. And regardless of what you think about the Iranian government—good, bad, whatever you think about it—there is no government that, basically, would accept being asphyxiated to death economically without reacting to it.
So you cannot actually have a deescalation of tensions if the current pressure policy of the United States continues because then, either the Iranian government has to accept to crack and break down, which usually governments don’t do in the Middle East easily, or it has to accept that, much like happened with Saddam’s Iraq, that the country is going to go to dust, essentially, suffering under tremendous amount of sanctions, or that it has to fight its way out of this.
So, the United States can demand certain things from Iran like staying completely within the nuclear deal, agreeing to certain behavior in the region, but it has to be in exchange for something that will relieve economic pressure on Iran. Otherwise, the Iranians have no incentive, I would say, to, basically, allow the United States to choke it to death economically. I mean, that’s, basically, suicide for them.
So I think I would say before there can be a much grander deal, nuclear deal, other deal, there has to be a much more limited deal which would be, essentially, a cease fire deal between both sides.
MEHRFAR: Thank you.
CASA: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Rodney Sadler with Union Presbyterian Seminary. Please go ahead.
SADLER: Yes, thank you very much. Thank you for this conversation.
As I’m listening to the conversation I’m wondering about Sunni-Shia divide. You mentioned this as a religious divide. Is the doctrinal difference that significant as to cause this kind of conflict or is the primary basis of the conflict today more based in ideology around identity and the contemporary political situation that both sides, Sunni and Shia, find themselves in?
NASR: Well, it’s a very good question. The Shia-Sunni identity is very clearly a religious identity. It has to do with doctrine. It has to do with the way you practice the faith. It has to do how you interpret theology, Islamic law.
But at the same time, it is also a form of ethnic identity. It’s very similar to saying, you know, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, regardless of whether they go to church or not are clearly identified as Protestant and Catholic based on their background and the Protestants celebrate particular days of the year and particular historical events and the Catholics do others, and it also decides what jobs you get, how much money you make, what kind of power you have, and it’s not as easy to say that it is purely doctrinal or it is purely ethnic.
Identity in Shia-Sunnism is not just practice of Islam. It’s also identity. And it’s become more pronounced in recent decades largely because Islam itself has become much more important within the Middle East. So if you are insistent on practicing the faith properly, faithfully, ultimately, it means that the way I practice it is correct and the way you practice it is not correct. So it actually sharpens the boundaries between Shias and Sunnis, each of whom claim to be representing the true practice of Islam.
But, in reality, the Shias have been historically in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, kept out of power. Their religious identity marked them in some ways, like in periods of European history being Jewish had marked somebody in terms of what kind of access to resources and power they had.
And the Middle East is in a period where the straight structures in many countries has broken down and that has created an opportunity for the Shias to assert themselves and demand their share of the power and the Sunnis are resisting. Whereas in the case of Syria it’s the opposite—that the Sunnis were trying to take advantage of the weakening of the Assad government to lay claim to Syria and Assad’s regime, which is very closely allied with Shias, and it represents a minority group that is an offshoot of Shiaism, and Syria was resisting.
So the two are not completely separable. It is about doctrine. It’s about theology. But it’s also about power and it’s about identity.
CASA: Next question, please.
The next question will come from Elias Mallon with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Please go ahead.
MALLON: Thank you very much.
One of the things that keeps running through my mind there seems to be, what I read in or see in the media and what I know from my own experience, a leveling going on and that it becomes Sunni-Shia, Iran-United States, as if everything was sort of binary. And my understanding and experience of Shiite Islam in southern Iraq and in Iran they’re not exactly the same thing.
They’re not monolithic, and one gets the impression in the media that, basically, southern Iraq dances to a tune piped by Tehran, which I really don’t think is the case. And I also think that now with Saddam Hussein gone the southern part of Iraq, the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, are once again reasserting themselves and—well, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is very elderly now and so there might be a vacuum there. But I’m very interested in what is the relationship between Iraqi Shiite Islam and Iranian Shiite Islam.
NASR: Very good point, and it’s not just Iraqi, Iranian. There’s Lebanese. There’s Pakistani Shiaism and they, obviously, have their own vernacular, their own language, and even though there are representatives of Ayatollah Sistani all across the Shia world, you’re correct. I mean, each of these countries has its own nationalism. Iraqis don’t want to be Iranian. Lebanese don’t want to be Iranian.
But, in reality, sort of in the current context of the Middle East, when you are all facing the same pressure, you band together. So when the Shiites took advantage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the election that followed in order to form the government, they faced stiff resistance from Sunnis in their own country in the form of insurgency and who were supported by the main Sunni powers in the region who were sympathetic to the Sunnis and disliked Shias in power in Iraq and viewed them as pro-Iranian.
So Saudi Arabia didn’t open an embassy in Iraq for close to a decade or more after there was a democratically-elected government in Iraq. So it’s actually sometimes it’s the enemy or your adversity that defines who you are. A better example of this are Houthis in Yemen. I don’t know if you’ve read in the news. The Houthis are always referred to as Iranian-backed Houthis—
MALLON: (Laughter.) Yes.
NASR: —or they’re viewed as Shias. Now, Houthis actually practice a form of Shiaism that is very different from Iranian Shiaism. They don’t follow Ayatollah. They don’t believe in the same tenets. They have a different law. They’re kind of an offshoot of Shiaism. And, yet, under Saudi pressure—under the pressure of this war, the Houthis in Yemen are growing closer and closer to Iran and that’s really a function of also the other side, namely, the United States and particularly the main Sunni powers in the region, Saudi Arabia in particular, painting all Shias with the same brush. And, therefore, you actually force them together.
So long as the Shias of southern Iraq feel vulnerable to a Sunni insurgency supported by all of their neighbors who are all Sunni, other than Iran, they’re going to look at Iran as the only country that can provide them with support. So if we had complete peace in the Middle East and nobody was fighting anybody else and Iran and Saudi Arabia became best friends, I’m very sure that Iraqi Shias will become a pain to Iran and Iran will become a pain to Iraqi Shias. But in the current context they are sort of fighting on the same side against what they see to be a common enemy.
MALLON: Do you seen anyone with the importance and gravitas of Ayatollah Sistani moving into a new position?
NASR: No. It’s going to take some time for an ayatollah of that rank to sort of establish that kind of gravitas. I mean, when Sistani’s predecessor, Ayatollah al-Khoei, died, it took Sistani a number of years to establish himself. Partly it’s because you have to gradually take over the flock of the previous Great Ayatollah, establish yourself with them, collect their taxes, get them to, essentially, recognize you as—your preeminence, and that kind of influence over the flock is gradually established.
So there is nobody either in Qom or in Najaf who automatically can step into his shoes. So and it’s not a given that also you will necessarily have a single person for a period who’s recognized as the leader. You might end up with a period in which there are several ayatollahs who will command influence over different parts of the flock.
MALLON: Thank you.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Abbas Barzegar with Council of Islamic Foreign Relations. Please go ahead.
BARZEGAR: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you, Professor Nasr, for making yourself available for this conversation.
I just have a question that I asked on a previous call and build upon a previous question here about deescalating tensions, and that is what opportunities, in your mind, exist in the security space, maybe the economic space, regionally for America and Iran to presume or resume, I should say, the kind of détente relationship that they’ve had in the past?
I’m thinking here about this kind of indirect cooperation that they’ve had in Lebanon where there was a kind of balance of power where the United States clearly supported the central government, Iran also supported the central government with the United States, kind of had a blind eye to Hezbollah, understanding that relationship, a kind of deterrence, a kind of containment posture.
Are there things in Yemen, maybe opportunities in Iraq on the Kurdish front, oil resources, Lebanon? What kind of opportunities exist in the region for there to be a resumption of that kind of relationship, if at all?
NASR: It’s a good point. I mean, right now, U.S.-Iran relations are at their worst point and I would say that the high point was after the nuclear deal was signed where for the first time you had even foreign ministers meet, a U.S. president and Iranian president at least spoke on the phone for fifteen minutes and the first time the two countries signed onto something together—one deal together.
But since then, there’s sort of now a lack of trust, particularly because the U.S. moved out of the nuclear deal. The killing of Soleimani is a very big deal for the Iranians. They view it as a willingness by the United States to, basically, go for the jugular.
And then, as I mentioned earlier, the economic pressure on Iran is, basically, regime breaking. This is much more than pressure to bring an adversary to the table. This, essentially, has now reached the point that it could break up Iranian society, the Iranian government, and the like. It’s very difficult, at least from the Iranian side, to sort of identify anything else that they can work with the United States while they’re, basically, being choked.
And I don’t think the United States is really looking at anything else in the Middle East that it would view that it needs Iran’s cooperation, and that might be actually shortsighted at this moment. But they don’t, and they’re very comfortable in the idea of exercising pressure on Iran until Iran surrenders to what U.S. demands are or what the president’s desire for a new nuclear deal is.
So I don’t see any way out of this unless there is some kind of a at least basic agreement on, basically, whatever we call it, cease fire. In other words, how can we, basically, step back from the brink—Iran’s point of view is that they need some sanctions relief and the U.S. has certain objectives or can have certain objectives like keeping Iran in the nuclear deal or, as you mentioned, getting Iran’s cooperation on Iraq or on Yemen or the like.
But I don’t see that imminently and partly is because it’s election year in Iran. There’s going to be a parliamentary election in Iran in February and a presidential election in June, and then there’s presidential elections in the United States, and that means that both sides are very skittish in giving the other side anything that then can cost them domestically with their voters.
BARZEGAR: I see. Thank you. Thank you very much.
CASA: Next question, please.
The next question will come from Syed Sayeed with religion affiliations in Columbia. Please go ahead.
SAYEED: Yes. Good afternoon, and thank you very much for having this discussion.
First, I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations and then the speaker of this afternoon, Mr. Nasr.
NASR: Thank you.
SAYEED: OK. My questions are, in a sense, a comment. Is these questions of Shia-Sunni or Catholic or Protestant—if you start looking at societies in terms of religious affiliations it leads us into a discussion that is really not quite important as if we were to enter into a discussion of international relations for a better world both in terms of political relations, in terms of Islamic relations, in terms of cultural exchanges.
These differences, whether Shia-Sunni or Catholic-Protestant, they are centuries old. It’s better to look at these differences in a historical context and not bring it into a political kind of a struggle that is sort of going on at this point, whether it’s between the U.S. and Iran or between Iran and Saudi Arabia, whatever is that.
So I think it’s good to look at these issues in an objective sense. But when we try to sort of pick an objective goal as to where it should lead, I think we have indications in the discussions that we should try to speak up for reducing the element of politics when it comes to dealing with religious issues. And the fact that during the Obama administration the relations between Iran and U.S. and European countries were much better shows that these issues of Shia-Sunni and all that could be irrelevant when we want to get the relations between nations to improve for better purposes.
I’m sorry if it was too long. Thank you.
NASR: Not at all. I mean, it’s an important point to note. But, unfortunately, first of all, there are countries where, increasingly, religion and nationalism are woven together. I mean, take the case of India, particularly now. Indian nationalism is finding a Hindu imprint on it, or in Israel it’s not possible to separate Israeli nationalism and Judaism from one another or, particularly, particular interpretations of Judaism.
And, secondly, in the case of the Middle East, Iran had an Islamic revolution in 1979. So the character of the state self-consciously became Islamic. Even though Iran doesn’t call itself Shia but because its form of Islam is Shia that—so then Iran’s claims about speaking for Muslims across the world became sort of that of a Shia power speaking for the Muslim world.
Saudi Arabia has its own very distinct interpretation of Islam and at the same time has claims to leadership around the Islamic world. The title of the king of Saudi Arabia is the protector of the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina. The flags of both Saudi Arabia and Iran are adorned with Quranic verses. Saudi constitution is pretty much the Sharia as interpreted in Saudi Arabia.
So, religion is very much embedded in the very identity of these countries and also in their claim of legitimacy to be leaders of the Islamic world, from Indonesia to Nigeria. And the two have been arguing—aside from supporting actual forces or countries on the ground to do fighting, but they have been arguing that they alone represent the true faith and have argued that the other side is not representative of the true faith because it belongs to the other sect.
With the United States it’s different because the United States is not an Islamic power and the United States does not take a benefit in whether Iraq is Shia or Sunni so long as Iraq is following certain policies, let’s say, that the United States would like or if Iran, basically, abides by certain policies and certain norms that the United States is asking of it.
So religion doesn’t feature in U.S.-Iranian relations but religion does feature in Saudi-Iranian rivalry because both of them see Islam as a tool of state power internally but also as a very important tool of their international power. I mean, Saudi Arabia, anywhere you go in the Islamic world, is viewed as a major or if not as the most important Islamic state at least on the Sunni side, and that’s part of Saudi Arabia’s aura of power and claim to legitimacy that it’s an Islamic power. It’s a global Islamic power and not just a local Middle East power.
So, until and unless that changes, religion, in one way or the other, is going to be part of the discourse of power in the Middle East. You cannot separate the two when the Islamic world cares about Islam so much and sees it as relevant to public life and to character of faith.
SAYEED: I think what we really have to recognize although religion is not the major factor when it comes to U.S. relations with other countries but the policies that are sort of resorted to they do have some consideration of these religious differences, divisions, whatever you want to call it, and they, in a way, reinforce those things for the purposes of their own policies.
So that’s where I think it’s important for us to recognize that this is really not the healthiest approach. And then when it comes to Saudi Arabia, we have to recognize that they might claim whatever they want to. But we also have to recognize that, for example, the Organization of Islamic Countries is a very clear recognition that Saudi Arabia is not the leading power of the Muslim world. It’s a totality of the Muslim people around the world that is more important than single countries when they are taken to mean in terms of role of leadership.
Anyhow, I don’t want to keep going on.
NASR: Sure. Sure. Sure. No, I don’t disagree with you at all. I think that’s correct.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Satoshi Nishihata with Happy Science. Please go ahead with your question.
NISHIHATA: Thank you. It’s partly related to the former question, but I believe one of the fundamental reasons of the conflict is a lack of mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam or Shia and the Sunni. So I wonder if there is any effective effort to promote mutual understanding of their religions or philosophy. For example, Happy Science is offering a solution based on the idea that every religion originates from one source. So I wonder if there is practical efforts to promote mutual understanding between the different religions.
NASR: There have been, I mean, between Islam in general and Christianity as well as even within the Middle East between Shias and Sunnis. I think the problem is that the conflicts have grown at a much more rapid pace than dialogue and education has been able to contain it, but that does not mean that this should not continue. I think understanding of culture and religions both of Americans, of people in the Muslim world and the Middle East but also of people in the Middle East and the Muslim world of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism. I think it’s very important in terms of building bridges and creating more common ground between people.
As I said, it’s just that in the case of the Middle East in the past decade and a half that the scale of conflicts has expanded so rapidly and so ferociously that it has not really provided much opportunity for these efforts to have a major impact.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Hassan Abbas with National Defense University. Please go ahead.
ABBAS: Thank you very much. Thank you, Vali, for your great insights, as always. My question is about the internal dynamics between Tehran and Qom. Do you think the after-Khamenei scenario can change these dynamics with Qom and the religious scholarship in Qom, which has been at odds with Tehran or especially with the supreme leader, Khamenei, whether you see that—Qom to push back further or to this dynamics after Khamenei, who is also very old? Will these things change? And how will that impact Iran’s domestic political scene?
NASR: It’s a very good point. I mean, first of all, in the past few years some of the more senior religious clerics in Qom have passed away, just like we were just talking Ayatollah Sistani. So that does make an impact in how much Qom can exercise power.
But, the office of the supreme leader, despite its trappings of being a religious office in reality it’s fundamentally a political office. And the key question is that if the supreme leader—when the supreme leader passes whether that office will continue to be in its current form. There are debates in Iran that the office should, basically, be retired because it looks like Iran has, essentially, two chief executives. You have the president that is elected every five years, four years, and then it also has a supreme leader that stands above the constitution.
There are talks about potentially having a council of clerics perform the role of the supreme leader. And I think some of these will depend on who is Iran’s president when the supreme leader passes away, whether Ayatollah Sistani’s still in Najaf, whether there’s an eminent ayatollah in Qom at that point who can exercise influence, and also what is the dynamic of U.S.-Iran relations at that point—if Iran is on a near-war situation with the United States still or the relations have maybe tempered a bit more. So I think there’s a lot of issues out there.
But one of the issues to note is that the most senior ayatollahs, like Ayatollah Sistani, are so revered and so well-known because of their scholarship and religious functions. But the ayatollahs that rule Iran are not—are not doing religion on a daily basis. They’re, essentially, turbaned bureaucrats. They’re involved in government affairs. They are where they are not because they excelled in religion but they are where they are because they climbed the political, security, bureaucratic ladder in Iran.
So, ultimately, the successor to Ayatollah Khamenei is not going to come from Qom. It’s going to come from among the political functionaries who have turbans on their heads. Very different from succession to Ayatollah Sistani, which is going to be about finding a next sort of religious leader that people actually follow.
There are hardly any Iranians that look at the Iranian supreme leader as the person they follow in religious matters. He, basically, is the symbol of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has constitutional powers to exercise. The majority of Iranians follow ayatollahs in Qom or Najaf. They don’t, for religious matters, look to Ayatollah Khamenei and, ultimately, when he passes away his succession is going to be more of a political affair than a religious affair.
ABBAS: Thank you so much.
CASA: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Malcolm Russell with Union College. Please go ahead.
RUSSELL: Thank you for the opportunity. I actually studied under Professor Majid Khadduri. So it’s a pleasure.
NASR: Mmm hmm. Well, lovely to hear.
RUSSELL: Given the dominant role played by Soleimani, as you laid out earlier, what do you feel the impact of his killing will be? Specifically, number one, will Iran find a powerful replacement for him? Is there someone out there who can fill those large shoes? And, number two, will Iran’s influence diminish or increase? Thank you.
NASR: It’s a very, very interesting point you raise. You know, first of all, Soleimani was a very unique general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, not because of his heroics against ISIS and all of that, although that gave him an aura, but Soleimani was probably one of the only generals of the sort of the command level within the Revolutionary Guards who did not have term limits and did not rotate out at the end of term. The rest of the senior generals in the Revolutionary Guards have three-year terms. Renewable, of course, but they have terms. Many of them have rotated out, whereas Soleimani was in command of the Quds Force for close to two decades, if not longer.
And so, in a way, he was a generation older and more senior to even the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guard. And because of this history, he had a particular aura of power and influence within the Revolutionary Guard and he also had probably more of an influence on the supreme leader because of this longevity of his service and also because of his experience particularly fighting ISIS and holding up the Assad regime and what he had done in Iraq.
So there is no general in Iran that can basically step into those shoes. Nobody has those kinds of credentials. Nobody has been in power that long. So, in that sense, he’s not replaceable. That was a unique person. In some ways I think he was probably more pragmatic within the Iranian context than the generals that are replacing him or the other commanders of the Revolutionary Guard. I know this is difficult to sort of sometimes process in the U.S. But I’m talking comparatively.
So he was well versed in negotiating creation of Iraqi government. He, literally, put together every Iraqi government from 2003 till this one. He was the kind of a person who would go to Moscow and personally—actually, it’s a true story—that he met with Putin in Kremlin and persuaded Putin to intervene in Syria. There’s nobody of that rank or that kind of a stature or influence in the Revolutionary Guards who would be welcomed into a one-on-one meeting with Putin and is capable of influencing Putin in making a decision like intervening in Syria.
So in those ways I don’t think Iran can replace him. So that means that there is a diplomatic vacuum for Iran in the region because he played—he knew all the actors in the region, at least on the Iran side. He could negotiate between them and he had kind of an aura of power within them which gave him ability to influence.
So I think that’s a loss. And I think sometimes once you eliminate people like him you don’t know who they’re going to be replaced with and how does that change the dynamics internally. So, we might end up with leaders of the Revolutionary Guard that are much more hard line, much more radical, much more risk-prone than even Soleimani was.
And, ultimately, as Iran is getting very close to succession of the supreme leader, somebody like Soleimani may have had a very different influence on the succession and on what comes in Iran than the current leadership or the people who are replacing him.
And I’ll give you another example, that Soleimani, for instance, was very supportive of Iran’s foreign minister and was very supportive of the nuclear deal. And a few days ago, there was a back and forth on Twitter and it was also in the Iranian press where a commander of the Revolutionary Guard said that asking for talks with the United States is a betrayal of Soleimani’s legacy and it’s treason. And the deputy foreign minister of Iran said that a few years ago there were three-way negotiations between Iran, Iraq, and the United States on Iraq, and Soleimani was in charge of that negotiation, and during the negotiations he told us that if the Americans asked for a lunch meeting you are not to say no and we will go a lunch meeting with Americans provided the Iraqis are present.
And here’s a deputy foreign minister of Iran narrating this story as a way of saying that Soleimani was more pragmatic on the U.S., despite attacking U.S. troops and fighting the U.S. in Iraq. But he was more pragmatic in terms of handling the U.S. than the current commander of the Revolutionary Guard is.
So I do think his death will be consequential in terms of succession in Iraq, succession in the Revolutionary Guard. But how, it remains to be seen.
CASA: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Oakley Hill with George Mason University. Please go ahead.
HILL: Hello. I think in some part you may have answered my question. But I’m interested in how the Soleimani assassination will affect the Iranian relations and the prospects for future peace. Do you think this will lead to a more militant leadership who is less willing to engage in diplomatic relations long term, and do you think this act is building consensus for further violence in Iran?
NASR: Well, I think what really makes deal making between Iran and the United States difficult, looking at it from the Iranian leadership’s point of view, is actually the U.S. coming out of the nuclear deal, because in their view, they negotiated a nuclear deal, they signed the nuclear deal, and they implemented their part, and then U.S. decided that the deal that it had signed was not good enough and they pocketed whatever Iran implemented and then, basically, said, we want to renegotiate right now.
And so for them, it’s a much higher bar of how do you trust the United States in another negotiation if, once you have a change of president, the next person could come out and rip the original deal and put you under pressure.
I think the Soleimani killing in the long run may not prevent Iran and the U.S. talking but in the short run it does because once you had the size of the crowds in Iran that came out for his funeral and the kind of reaction that it created and, particularly, within the Revolutionary Guard and then the conservative camp, but even maybe in the moderate camp, it is almost impossible for an Iranian president to show up at a meeting with Trump, shake hands, take a photograph, smile, and say, well, now I’m going to cut a deal with the U.S.
If President Trump really wanted a head of state meeting, which seems to be what he really wants—that there’s no deal with Iran unless I meet with the Iranian president—by killing Sistani, he basically created a major obstacle for that to happen.
CASA: Thank you, Vali, for all this information and for taking the time to share your perspectives with us today. And thanks to all of you for your questions and comments.
NASR: Thank you.
CASA: You can follow Dr. Nasr’s work on Iran and other parts Middle East on Twitter at @Vali_Nasr and we also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program at @CFR_Religion. As always, we are happy to hear how we can best serve as a resource to you. Please don’t hesitate to write the CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Program with comments or suggestions at Outreach@CFR.org.
Thank you all again and we look forward to your participation in future discussions.
NASR: Thank you.