Vali R. Nasr, the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Affairs, discusses the prospects and consequences of U.S. disengagement from conflicts in the Middle East, as well as Sunni and Shiite relations in the region.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. As a reminder, this webinar is on the record, and the audio, video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Vali Nasr with us to talk about the future of U.S.-Middle East relations. Vali Nasr is the Majid Khadduri professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. He served as the eighth dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS. And prior to that he was senior advisor to U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke between 2009 and 2011. Dr. Nasr is the author of several books, four of which focus on politics, Islam, and the Middle East. His latest book is entitled, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. And Dr. Nasr is a member of CFR and he also was a fellow several years ago, where we first met.
So, Vali, thanks very much for being with us. It’s great to have you back to talk about the Middle East. And I thought you could begin by just giving us your analysis of the Biden administration’s position on disengaging in the Middle East, as well as the sectarian resurgence that we’re seeing in the region.
NASR: Well, first of all, thank you very much, Irina, for inviting me back to this forum. It’s really great to be here. The Middle East poses a very particularly peculiar challenge to the Biden administration. It is not at the forefront of its geostrategic outlook, which is now focused on China, on climate, on building back at home, and then to a lesser extent on transatlantic relations and Russia. And Middle East is largely, in the Biden administration’s view, was a problem that it has to reduce. It has to recalibrate America’s position in the region.
And I have to say, in this regard this is now the third U.S. administration that is basically following this policy, since President Obama started the pivot to Asia, saying that Asia is more important than the Middle East, you are dedicating too much resources, blood and treasure, to this region. And then President Trump followed basically on the same theme, at least a higher level, and initiated U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, reduced our footprint in Syria, and started the conversation about withdrawing from Iraq. And now President Biden actually did come out of Afghanistan, and he did—he is talking about reducing our footprint in Iraq as well.
But the problem is that it’s not as easy for the United States to shift its focus to Asia. The Middle East, we not only have a lot of interest in the region, a lot of issues, but it’s a region that has some fundamental problems for the United States. And also, these problems were aggravated by the Trump administration, particularly with regards to Iraq. So writ large, it’s the only region of the world that actually does not have any kind of region-wide mechanism for dealing with problems internally. There is no equivalent of organization to African Union, Organization of American States, ASEAN, NATO, EU. That is the only region in which the countries of the region in their totality don’t sit around the same table. And some of the bigger ones, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, actually don’t even have diplomatic relations at this point in time, or Iran and Israel, are at loggerheads.
Secondly, the most important issue in this region for some time has been Iran. It’s the issue that really irks Israel. It’s the issue that irks Saudi Arabia and UAE. We forget that the entirety of our relationship with the Persian Gulf monarchies is built around the idea of containing Iran. So there is no such thing as leaving the Middle East without dealing with Iran. And that was—President Obama started dealing with Iran by first taking off the table the most dangerous thing about Iran, which is its nuclear program. Although immediately as he did that, everybody said, well, you need to fix everything with Iran, which is not—which is a much taller order. You need to change the regime. You need to take their missiles. You need to deal with Hezbollah. That wasn’t enough.
But Obama started essentially by taking care of the most dangerous thing about Iran. So that would make a war with Iran not imminent. And then we go to Asia. President Trump reversed this. He came out of the nuclear deal in the belief that Iran would very quickly capitulate, come to the table, and he could do what everybody criticized Obama for not doing—get a bigger nuclear deal, but get everything from Iran. Literally, kick it out of the Arab world, get its missiles, get all of that. It didn’t work. I mean, Iranians weren’t about to surrender. They survived maximum pressure strategy, and they became far more dangerous.
They began to walk back their nuclear agreements with Obama, which we didn’t want, and they also began to become more dangerous regionally. They started attacking tankers. They attacked oil installations. They did not fold in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, as everybody had hoped. And that escalation ultimately got them into a conflict with the U.S. When the U.S. assassinated Iran’s top regional military commander General Soleimani, almost a year ago, the Iranians retaliated with hitting an airbase in Iraq that has American personnel, with over one hundred missiles. It’s the single largest missile attack U.S. forces have ever suffered in their history, going as far back as you want. And there was a forty-eight-hour time period where the two countries were very, very close to war.
So Trump’s strategy actually did not undo Iran in the region, did not end Iran’s nuclear program, did not end Iran’s aggression, but made Iran far more dangerous. So then comes in President Biden. He says he wants to go back to the nuclear deal, but he dilly-dallies, and he doesn’t take this on right away. And the Iranians decide that, actually, the way to get the United States back to the table is for them to become more aggressive. And so Iranians began to apply their own maximum pressure on the U.S. Iran’s supreme leader said, we’re going to go to 60 percent enrichment. We’re going to go to 90 percent enrichment. And we’re going to become—we’re going to get really, really close to bomb. And it was at that point that the U.S. gets together with Iran.
So right now we’re at the moment where Iran remains the only issue in the Middle East, in a way. I mean, the United States, if it doesn’t—if it gets a deal with Iran it can diffuse tensions in the Middle East sufficiently to actually focus on a war in Ukraine, or to focus on China. Or, if it doesn’t get a deal in the Middle East, the Iranians are not going to tolerate being choked economically to death. They’re going to start screaming and scratching and causing trouble on the nuclear front and then also on the regional front. So right now, we’re sort of in eye of the storm, where actually things look calm. But if the storm doesn’t pass, we’re going to get into the thick of it.
And the reason this ties in with the sectarian issue is that when you look at Lebanon, you look at Iraq, you look at Syria, you look at Yemen, you even look at Afghanistan, and you look at the relationship of Iran and Saudi, et cetera, these are about power relationships. It’s about politics—internal politics, regional politics. It’s not about religion. But because there is a—because the identity of these protagonists is sectarian—Hezbollah is Shia, its oppositions are Christian and Sunni. In Iraq, the Shias are more pro-Iran, the Sunnis are not. In Syria, the government, which is an offshoot of Shiism and is supportive of Iran, or Iran supports it. The Sunnis are the backbone of the opposition to Assad. In Yemen, the Saudis constantly say the Houthis, which are supported by Iran, are Shia, the rest of Yemen is Sunni. Iran is the spokesman of Shiism, Saudi Arabia that of Sunnism.
So by default this sectarian division that exists in the region between people whose identities are tied to politics and power is likely to erupt again. In other words, what happened in Iraq in 2006 was never really resolved completely. It’s still dormant. It’s still part of the language of the region. It’s part of the way the Saudis talk about Houthis. It’s the way that the Arabs talk about Hezbollah. It’s not just Arab versus Iran. It’s Shia versus Sunni because the Shia Arabs themselves are in a struggle with their Sunni brethren over power, and they understand this Iran-Saudi relationship bears on it. So if the nuclear deal collapses, what is the United States going to do, try to kick Iran by force out of Lebanon, out of Syria, out of Iraq, out of Yemen? But that’s going to inflame this sectarian conflict.
And the Iranians, how are they going to put pressure on the United States in the region, to get it back to the table? They’re going to use their proxies to do so. So in a way, these talks that are going on in Vienna—as we are speaking they’re going on in Vienna. Everything, I think, for the Biden administration hinges on that. And I think the worry I have is that we’re near war in Ukraine. We are in an escalatory situation with China. And then we may end up in a much greater conflict in the Middle East. And that’s going to tax, if you would, the capacity of this administration to deal with it.
So my argument has been that if the United States doesn’t want to see the worst in the Middle East, it has to try to get a deal with Iran. That’s not going to solve our overall, long-term Iran problem, but it’s going to reduce the temperature sufficiently for the U.S. to be able to manage some other very urgent things that are on the table as well.
FASKIANOS: Vali, that was great. Thank you very much for giving us that context and the analysis. Let’s go to all of you now for your questions and comments. You can click on the raised hand icon and I will call on you. Please unmute yourself and state your name and affiliation. Or you can write a question in the Q&A box. And if you do put a question there—we’d love to hear your voice—but if you do put a question there, please include your affiliation.
Right now we have no questions, which I cannot believe—(laughs)—because this group always has questions. So let’s see. I will—
NASR: I think you have a couple.
FASKIANOS: Do I? I’m—oh, it just popped up in the Q&A box. Fantastic. So from Don Frew: to what extent are Middle Eastern governments cynically using religion to manipulate their populace?
NASR: To a good extent. I mean, there’s no question that governments use any tool of power in order to manipulate their population. That could be, promise of economic benefits, nationalism, but also religion. Although, I have to say, not all governments are doing it. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s following a very secular foreign—domestic policy. Prince Mohammad bin Salman is trying to extricate religion from politics and social life in Saudi Arabia. But generally, the Middle East is an area in which religion still matters to the population enormously. So how could the governments use this, whether against another country or adversary or in order to put stability, is important.
And I also have to say that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is like a slow death charge that has been lit in the region, and we haven’t seen its full impact yet. I mean, end of the day it’s the victory of an Islamic insurgency against the United States. And it came after a period where we thought, with the defeat of ISIS, that Islamist—Islamic insurgency movements, opposition movements, have got a bloody nose and were no longer relevant to the region. And now the Taliban victory has sort of recharged this issue. And so it’s very much part of the political fabric of the region.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. The hands have come up now, which is great, and questions. So I’m going to go next to Laura Alexander. And please unmute yourself and say your affiliation.
ALEXANDER: Hi. Yeah, Laura Alexander. I’m at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The, I think, simple question I have—although the answer may not be so simple—is when you talk about a deal with Iran, in your view does the deal that the Obama administration had made with Iran, was that the right deal? What do you think would have or could have happened with that deal? And do you think if the U.S. were to try to go back to something, would it be something that looked like that? Or would it be something different?
NASR: I mean, I think it’s the best deal that we could have got. I mean, the deal was not ideal for Iranians. They didn’t get much out of it. I mean, we forget, for instance, that the United States did not—maybe lifted only a fraction of the sanctions that it was supposed to under that deal. What Iranians signed onto, they implemented. And the criticism was that why didn’t you get a bigger deal? And why didn’t you address all the issues that were there? But that’s like any kind of a deal you make. Like, whether you’re buying a house or something. It’s the more expansive you make it, the more you got to give in order to get what you want, and the more you’re going to have to talk.
I mean, the United States very early on decided that if it was going to talk about a permanent denuclearization of Iran, it would be talking with Iran forever. And he also decided, if you’re going to talk about everything with Iran, then you’re also going to be talking for a very long time, because they—and when you sit at the negotiating table, things begin to narrow to what’s your top priority? So for the Iranians, it was a list of these sanctions they needed lifted, and for the United States it was that this program will be mothballed at least for ten years, on the assumption that if the trust is built then you go to another deal.
It’s not possible to go back to that deal. On paper it is but, look, the Iranians are also once bitten, twice shy. They’re not going to trust the United States. I mean, the whole point about these nuclear deals is that they give up really hard stuff, like factories, centrifuges, et cetera. We give a piece of paper, which President Trump showed that you can very easily re-impose. So there’s no scenario which Iran is going to abide by a deal within six months, like it did last time. It wants guarantees. It wants to make sure that the next American president won’t pull the same stunt again. It’s—they also have deliberately built a bigger program so they now would have more negotiating room.
On this side, we have a situation where the United States Congress and the Republicans are not supportive of the president. The Iranians are watching Biden and say: You’re not going to be able to lift a single sanction. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying at the table. So the deal has become much more complicated in that sense. And there was a cost really to withdrawing from the deal. But ultimately people criticize on a sort of Monday morning quarterbacking. But in reality, the deal was effective. It did take Iran out of the nuclear game, far more so than now.
As we are talking, Iran’s centrifuges are far more advanced, and it has accumulated a lot more material. When President Trump became President, the weight of Iran’s low-enriched uranium was roughly the weight of the President of the United States. When Trump left office, the weight of Iran’s low-enriched uranium was three tons. So the—so you see, without the deal it was—it’s become more and more and more dangerous.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. So we have a few written questions, which kind of I’ll put together.
So, Adam Porter: The last issue of the Economist had an article about the Arab world reembracing the Jews. Can you comment on what you think the future of Jews in the Arab world might be? And then as part of that, from Salam Al-Marayati and Richard Morrison, one issue Iran uses is support for the Palestinian issue. How would the U.S. manage that? And then what is Israel’s role in helping to get a deal with Iran?
NASR: Right. So these are all sort of combined. You’re right. In reality Israel and Iran, and to some extent Turkey, are the really big boys in the Middle East. I mean, the Arab world has become diminished and diminished over time, for varieties of reasons, including our engagement of Iraq, which knocked out Iran—which is a very major Arab country—out completely. The Arab Spring knocked out Syria and Egypt completely. Saudi Arabia and UAE are not real strong military powers. They’re checkbook, if you would, powers. And they 100 percent rely on the United States essentially for their own—for their protection. So in a way, without the United States, they’re not a match for Iran.
So the Iranian threat has brought Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies close to one another. This is a strategic alliance that benefits both of them. But it does not necessarily change the street view of the Palestinian issue, of the place of Jews in the Arab world. I mean, these are not the same thing. In other words, because the princes in the Middle East have, very logically, decided that your enemy’s enemy is your friend. And similar, Prime Minister Netanyahu made that calculation. But that automatically means that the Palestinian issue is completely dead. And actually, that’s exactly what Iran is banking on, that the support for the Abraham Accords at the street level, without a Palestinian deal, is soft. And as we saw when the Gaza event happened and when the settlements issue happened, very quickly you could see that the mood in the Arab world was not supportive of Israel.
Now, I would say Israel—I would make a difference with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu, in my opinion, needed Iran to be a bad regional boy. The reason is, it allowed him to pose as the Churchill of Israel, as the one man who can defend Israel’s security. It allowed him to deal with corruption issues. It was Iran that allowed him to be prime minister for as long as he was, in my opinion. It also allowed him to follow a policy of having both land and peace with the Arabs. If there was no Iran, if Iran was not playing the kind of negative role for the Arabs, there would not have been the Abraham Accords and it would not have been as easy for Israel to continue the settlements and yet have a positive relationship with the Arabs. So Iran, in a way, has made it simple for Netanyahu to follow that policy.
And then personally, Netanyahu drove Israel to oppose the Iran nuclear deal. He came to Congress. He, under my president, Obama, with the U.S. Congress, et cetera. Now that he’s gone, senior Israeli security officials are saying this was a mistake, that Iran is far more dangerous now than it was under the nuclear deal. Coming out of the nuclear deal did not lessen Iran’s support for Hezbollah, for Hamas, Syria, all the things that threaten Israel. It—and at the same time, when there was the nuclear deal, Iran did not—Iran was much farther away from the bomb. The nuclear deal kicked Iran to at least a year or more than a year from having enough uranium—enriched uranium to build one bomb. Now Iran is only two weeks away from having enough enriched uranium to build a bomb. Doesn’t mean they’re going to build a bomb, but in no way—the nuclear deal did not solve the Iran problem, but it was better than not having it.
So I think that’s what it is. Israel is putting a lot of pressure on the U.S. right now. But at the same time, I think because Netanyahu played the role that he did, Israel does not have the same kind of influence in Washington to prevent a deal that it had before. So I think Israel and—Iranian-Israeli rivalry is going to be very central to the future of the Middle East. But again, I think if Iran is under a nuclear deal, its danger to Israel won’t go away, but it will be less of a danger than if it goes completely rogue.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Mona Yacoubian.
YACOUBIAN: Thanks so much, Irina. And great to see you, Vali. Mona Yacoubian, from the U.S. Institute of Peace.
So I very much agree with the way you framed the issue of sectarian identity driving the contestation of power in the region. But I’m curious, Vali, as to your thoughts on this dynamic we’ve seen across sectarian protests in places like Lebanon and Iraq, as pushback against corruption, bad governance. It was very notable, of course, in 2019 prior to the pandemic. And we’re even seeing it reemerge in both places. And I’m wondering kind of how do you evaluate those sorts of cross-sectarian dynamics within the frame that you’ve raised? Thanks.
NASR: No, I think a very—you’re quite right. And they’re very important, particularly because the youth of the Middle East means there’s a lot of recycling of population. I mean, Iraq already has a population, majority of whom don’t remember Saddam, or don’t remember sort of what the Shias suffered under Saddam. There are real issues on the ground in Lebanon and in Iraq that—lack of electricity, financial collapse, bad government, corruption, that need to be addressed. And I do think that if there’s a nuclear deal—in other words, in a sense that there is some degree of reduction of tensions between U.S. and Iran—so that a confrontation between U.S. and Iran doesn’t play out in the region, these kinds of nationalist, bread and butter issues that brings people of the country together irrespective of sect, et cetera, will become more prevailing. I mean, the Middle East’s politics could become more “normal,” quote/unquote, around bread-and-butter issues.
But if Iran and the U.S. go to war with each other in the region, not that these issues will go away, but the sort of divisions will get inflamed. I mean, if you took the case of Lebanon, if the U.S. and Israel then really want to go after Hezbollah, or Iran really wants to use Hezbollah, then that sort of defines the opposition. And for a period, you’re going to have violence, and conflict, and confrontation that is around the identity of these groups that are there. Or, similarly in Iraq, when you have reduction of those sorts of tensions, Iraq—you have more likelihood of people congregating around national issues. So I think those issues are there partly because Lebanon and Iraq have become dysfunctional exactly because they’ve become playgrounds or fighting ground between Iran and his rivals and the United States.
So there is—there are these cross currents, kind of like a Persian carpet. You have different threads running through it. And my argument is that if there is a nuclear deal, if there’s a reduction of tensions, I think the social issues are going to become more prominent. And if there isn’t, then for a period the sectarian issues are going to become more prominent. And that could be very damaging.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Vali. So I’m going to take the next written question from Farah Pandith, who is a fellow at CFR. Great to have you on this call.
If you could do anything right now with U.S. policy in Afghanistan, what would you do? And obviously, given your experience there, we’re very interested to hear that. And Richard Morrison, who’s from the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, also asks: Does the Taliban have aspirations outside of Afghanistan? So maybe you could take both of those together.
NASR: Well, I mean, I think if Taliban have aspirations outside of Afghanistan, it’s really directed at their neighbors right now when they get there, which is Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. And I think the greatest aspiration as a national government of Afghanistan will be directed towards Pakistan, because there’s a very large Pashtun population in Pakistan. And no Afghan government, secular or religious, has ever recognized the Durand Line as a legitimate boundary line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And even Karzai, when he was president of Afghanistan, he saw himself essentially as president of Afghanistan, but king of all Pashtuns. So Afghans will be most dangerous to Pakistan, I think, immediately. That doesn’t mean that we can’t end up in a scenario like pre-9/11. But right now I don’t think the Taliban are interested in a situation that would invite the United States back in the region, after having fought two decades to get us out. This is just illogical.
To Farah’s point, the problem is that we don’t have a policy, actually. What we have is sanctioning the Taliban and denying them money, which is a way of avoiding domestic criticism from Republicans and varieties of other groups. Which means that we are actually willing to starve the people of Afghanistan in the middle of winter, when we ourselves are saying that they are innocent—they have nothing to do with the Taliban coming to power. They are suffering under the Taliban. But it’s a politically safe policy because you’re not going to get criticized at home with some Republicans saying: Oh, the Biden administration gave money to these former terrorists. To me, it’s a morally bankrupt policy, absolutely. And it’s going to be—in a humanitarian sense, it’s going to be disastrous.
And we can’t have talking about caring about people or having these summits on democracy but literally be willing to inflict malnourishment, and death, and destitution on a country. And it undermines, if you would, our foreign policy. And then in the long term, what do you think is going to come out of a completely broken country, where there is no alternative to the Taliban right now? And so we’re setting up Afghanistan for becoming a total failed state, and then we’re going to complain about why are there drugs there, why are there terrorists there, why is it not playing ball with us? So I think a better policy would have been to work with neighbors and other stakeholders and essentially provide funding and hoping that the Taliban, even though we don’t like them, would succeed at least in terms of providing fundamental governance to Afghanistan. But I don’t see that happening, because our foreign policy is really our domestic policy.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from a raised hand. Ronald Stone. You need to unmute yourself.
STONE: There we go.
FASKIANOS: There you go. Thank you.
STONE: I’m Ronald Stone, retired professor from Pittsburgh Seminary and the University of Pittsburgh.
Thank you very much, Professor. Would you speak on your perception of the mutual interest between Iran and Russia, and also their conflict of interest?
NASR: So, and it’s not just Russia. It’s China. I mean, I would say at some level the fundamental interest between them all is that they all see the United States and the international liberal order that the United States supports as being directed at their regional interests. All three of them believe that they should be recognized as a great power, with tremendous sway over their neighborhood, and that the United States is denying them that. The United States is denying China that kind of middle kingdom status in Asia. It’s coming to the borders of Russia through NATO in Ukraine. And with Iran it’s trying to sort of deny Iran great-power status in the region.
So to that extent they all sort of see themselves as subject, if you would, of the way in which the United States sees its own global role and envisions how much these countries should have a say in their own arenas. With Russia, Iran has much more direct interests. It’s in the Caucasus, it’s in Central Asia, and then to some extent now in Syria, and as part of Russia’s presence in the Middle East. Ever since the Soviet Union withdrew from Caucasus and Central Asia, Russia and Iran have basically had an understanding on stability, role of religion, economic issues. When it comes to the Caucasus, both of them have supported Armenia against Azerbaijan. So there is some common ground between them.
And our policy essentially has not really drawn a wedge between them. In fact, as we’re going down the path of more sanctions on Russia, Russia and Iran are going to see more common ground between them, similarly between China and Iran, and China and Russia. So there is a kind of a loose triple axis, if you would, of these countries that we see as disruptors and rivals in the world, and the fact that they will see that they’re fighting the same fight against the United States.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Rebecca Cataldi, who’s at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.
How would you advise the current administration to deal with the conflict in Yemen?
NASR: Well, there’s no—there’s no other way other than some kind of a diplomatic process. It’s not going to be easy, largely because there is a domestic issue in Yemen. I mean, this—Houthis were not imported out of Yemen—into Yemen by Iran. The Houthis are a major tribe in northern Yemen. They are followers of what is known as the Zaydi religion, which is an offshoot of Shiism, and which is comprised of about 45 percent of the population in Yemen. They have political grievances. They have political aspirations. And, yes, the Houthis use Iran and Iran uses Houthis, but they’re not just the creations of Iran.
So any kind of a political settlement in Yemen would require some kind of an understanding on power sharing that is going to change the dynamics of the way power was shared in Yemen. So the Saudi approach to Yemen—which initially was that the Zaydi—that the Houthis have to just leave Sana’a, go back in their mountains, and we go back to the way thing were—has not worked. There has to be a political process that arrives at some kind of a final political settlement, which is going to be, glass half full for Houthis compared to before the war, and glass half empty for those who held on power before.
And then on top of this is now the Iran-Saudi, Iran-UAE dimension, because each side has supported one side of the war. And the way that Yemen War unfolded has actually played to Iran’s advantage, because it has shown Iran to have much more regional capability. And by failing to defeat the Houthis, the Saudis have shown themselves to be militarily weak, not being able to win a war next door. So any kind of a settlement will also have implications of the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A war like the war in Yemen is not going to end with one meeting. It’s going to be a process. And the United States needs to support the process.
The Biden administration, to its credit, has done so. It needs to hold Saudi Arabia’s hand as the Saudis need to make serious concessions and revise their strategy. And they need to persuade Iran, maybe through other countries and as a follow-up to the Iran nuclear deal, to also bring that conflict to an end. So unfortunately, there’s not a simple solution to Yemen. The war has gone too long, the bloodletting’s been too long, and the stakes for all sides are too high. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not an end to the war.
Now, I would also say that when you see that a conflict cannot be settled by war, ultimately it has to be settled by talking. But sometimes the different sides have to fight long enough to come to that conclusion. And we may not be there on Yemen, but I think soon we’re going to get there, that I think the Saudis, UAE, U.S. will realize that there’s not going to be an outright victory against the Houthis, and they need to support a serious political process.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to a raised hand from the Boston Islamic Seminary. I don’t know who is going to ask the question, but—so please identify yourself, and unmute yourself. Waiting for you to unmute. OK, that is—seems not to be happening. So I’ll go next to Charles Randall Paul, who’s raised their hand. I think you also had a question in the chat, so why don’t you just ask it? Thank you.
PAUL: Hi. Can you hear me?
PAUL: Yes. Would an interreligious track two diplomacy ever be possible between Iran and the Sunni states? And if it were possible, do you think it would be able to build trust between rivals that could influence stability in the political realm?
NASR: Well, there has been—I mean, there have been conversations between senior Islamic and—I’m sorry—Sunni and Shia leaders. But much like Protestants and Catholics, or the Catholics and the Orthodox, they have been—they have a very long history together. And I remember a number of years—right after sectarianism reared its head in Iraq, the king of Jordan had sort of a big congregation, invited many different Sunni leaders, and invited Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq to the same gathering. And Ayatollah Sistani didn’t go, but sent a message. He said: We don’t need a conference. What you need is the Sunni world to accept Shia law essentially as a legitimate school of Islamic law.
Part of the issue, which—and you raise a very important issue—is that you know the Islamic world for a number of years, even before the Iranian Revolution, has become the scene of much more hardened Islamic fundamentalism, much more hardened view of Islam, right? Now Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism, that kind of hardened view of Islam, is essentially Sunni. So it’s also—Islamic fundamentalism is even—is intolerant of diversity in interpretation of Islamic law and Islamic practice. Salafis, if you’re familiar with them, or Islamic fundamentalists even sometimes don’t recognize other Sunnis, or Sunnis who practice Islam in a way that is not what they preach, as Muslim, let alone Shias.
So part of the problem with Islamic fundamentalism is that it has made Sunnis far more narrow, if you would, in toleration of Jews, Christians, as well as other denominations of Islam, or mystical practices of Islam like Sufism. So there is—in other words, the Sunni world would have to expand its acceptance of minority views of Islam. And that basically is a different approach of ecumenicalism that right now many schools of Islamic fundamentalism could actually accommodate.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Mufti Nayeem Ahmed, who got an up-vote on the question. Teaching at the—in the IR Department at NYU.
The theme of it is political economy. How does the political economy of each individual state in the Middle each affect U.S.-Middle East policy decisions and/or principles at a macro level?
NASR: So, I mean, we—it’s a very good question. So at a very high level, I would say we’re interested in Iran’s political economy because we’re using sanctions against it. So sanctions are about disrupting a country’s economy with the hope that it will impact its politics. So it’s a way of trying to micromanage a country’s political economy from afar. With our Persian Gulf partners—Saudi Arabia, UAE, et cetera—it’s been largely about oil and wealth. In other words, we have become very integrated into not only energy consumption there, but also how do those countries spend their money, and what kind of impact it has on American exports. So behind this security conversation there’s very different kinds of thinking about the region’s economy.
But in reality, the United States is not really engaged with the broader political economy of the region, namely rate of job growth, unemployment, demographic change—all of those things that caused the Arab Spring. And now again, after COVID, are a danger to the region. And Mona suggested some of these in at least—in Iraq and Syria. As people don’t have good government, they don’t have jobs, they don’t have electricity, they don’t have water, young people don’t see a future, and then on top of it you have authoritarian regimes that are not allowing the social dynamic to play itself out. So we really don’t have a policy towards that, in a sense. We’ll react to it when it happens, but we are not engaged in a way to help the Middle East create resilient, viable economies that addresses the social needs of the population.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from a raised hand. David Bynum, who’s a chaplain in the U.S. Navy.
BYNUM: Can you hear me? Over.
BYNUM: So back to Iran, and I think back to Thucydides, who wrote The Peloponnesian War, who said that countries go to war for one of three reasons: fear, honor, or interest, and perhaps a combination of those three. Thinking about the Iranian regime, how would you characterize their actions based on what Thucydides wrote about fear, honor, and interest?
NASR: So I would say honor is not—honor is not a part of it. It’s really about fear and interest, in the sense that—and I say, important to think that the Iran—at least a segment of the Iranian government thinks that they are already in a war with the United States. That economic sanctions, particularly at the level that President Trump imposed on Iran, is war by other means, if you were to say, is directed at sort of completely crippling a country’s abilities, interests, capacity, infrastructure, and fomenting domestic trouble. So the question is, how would you pursue your interest in that context, and how do you create deterrence against the U.S.? How do you back the U.S. off?
So to them—and, as you know, one man’s offense is another man’s defense. Most countries of the world always claims that they are engaged in self-defense. Even that’s what Putin is claiming vis-à-vis Ukraine, that somehow he’s defending against Western aggression into—against Russia, by encroaching closer to its borders. So I think Iranians are—want to push back against the U.S., if you were to say, to dissuade the U.S. from continuing to pressurize them, or divert attention from themselves, or to give U.S. reason to pause. But I don’t think Iran is interested in a way with the United States. It very well knows that that’s not a war that they ultimately would win, and it will have to pay a higher cost. But what it wants is to also convince the United States that it doesn’t want to go to war with Iran either.
I mean, if I were to say, what is the one reason why Iran engaged in a campaign of IEDs, et cetera, in Iraq after 2003? It was not ideological. It was largely that they saw that the U.S. military and the U.S. government may come to a conclusion that the Iraq War was so easy that they may just go into Iran as well. And that the U.S. has to come to the conclusion that the Iraq War was more costly than it thought, and therefore think twice about invading Iran. And so it basically started a campaign of supporting the Sadr militia, and supporting putting IEDs all over the place. As I said, it was very pragmatic decision they made to raise the cost of the war, if it’s looked as its totality, not until the U.S. arrived in Baghdad, which just took a few days to get there. But for the U.S. to think that, look, Iran is multiple the size of Iraq. And if Iraq is this difficult, Iran is going to be much more difficult.
And so it’s a very calculated measure of what they do. And it’s exactly for that reason that also when President Trump became very aggressive with Iran after he came out of the nuclear deal the Iranians started escalating. Again, why did they hit the oil installations in Saudi Arabia? It was to say, yeah, you can attack us, but we can also disrupt the flow of oil around the world. We can also hit you. And what’s the level of your sensitivity about casualties, right? So before you decide that, you could just walk into Tehran over a two-week period, think about what’s the total cost. So I think fear is a big part of it. And the interest of this regime is to survive and to assert Iran’s national interest in the region. And the United States is the main obstacle.
I mean, let me put it this way. Iran is not afraid of Saudi Arabia. It’s not afraid of UAE, right? Israel and Turkey are different, but it’s not afraid of those countries. They’re not its equal, let’s put it that way, at least in the Iranian mindset. So that’s why they hit the Saudi oil facilities, right? It was a message to them as well, that you better not be lobbying with Washington against us to go to war with us. So I would say fear and interests. I actually really don’t believe ideology is a big driving force in the Iranian decision making these days.
FASKIANOS: So there are a couple—
BYNUM: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. There are a couple questions in the Q&A box again on Iran, which I’m going to combine. From Esmaeil Esfandiary: Some Trump supporters say Iran could not stand the pressure if Trump had had four more years. Do you agree or disagree? And then with that, from Iris Bieri, who’s with The Iran Project: Can you talk about how even restoring some version of the JCPOA would affect Iranian domestic politics as this point? Is there a meaningful way for Biden to roll back sanctions by executive order that doesn’t face the same rollback in that possibly Republican administration in 2024, which I think you touched upon, Vali. And how does the U.S. not lose its credibility at this point?
NASR: Well, I mean, the U.S. has lost credibility. Any deal you sign with anybody, it’s about trust. I mean, Reagan said trust, but verify, right? So because the United States has shown itself to be untrustworthy, any deal, not only with Iran—with North Korea, with Russia, with China; don’t forget, there are other audiences around the world that are watching this—is now going to demand a lot more from the United States in order to compensate for the loss of credibility. And that’s really where Trump damaged American foreign policy.
Any deal we make with anybody is now going to be more costly, because we have to compensate for that, for the fear that what’s going to happen in two years, four years, that there is no such thing as America. There are administrations, right? You sign a deal with an administration, and the next administration no longer feels that it’s compelled to abide by the deal of the previous administration. So there is no more such thing as the U.S., put it that way. Unless one party ends up being in power indefinitely.
As to what Biden can do to, to Iris’s point, it’s the question of how much political capital is he willing to put in, all right? Iran is unpopular. We know that. There’s going to be not only Republican but a host of other institutions, vested interests, foreign and domestic, that are going to go against this deal. They’re going to second-guess it. Is he willing to put political capital over this issue or not? It’s a choice he has to make, right? So it’s up to him. It’s possible to get a deal. And if he gets the deal, some infusion of money into the Iranian economy will be important in stabilizing it.
Some things in Iran are not going to be reversed. The conservative control of the country that was facilitated by the maximum pressure strategy is not going to be reversed. But the issue with Iran is not just the government. It’s the Iranian society. It’s the Iranian people, right? The nuclear deal, Iranians had calculated—the government that signed the nuclear deal had calculated that over a ten-year period the nuclear deal would grow the Iranian middle class by 35 percent. And because the middle class tends to vote more moderate, they believed that was Iran’s way out of where it is.
But maximum pressure not only didn’t grow the middle class, but actually pushed 10 percent of Iran’s middle class below the poverty belt. The country’s infrastructure is atrophying. Iranians are becoming poorer and poorer and poorer. And in the long run we’re going to end—that’s going to produce a country that’s much worse. So some money going into Iran can stop that, or at least slow that process. But it’s not going to get us back to where we were in 2015.
To Ms. Esfandiary’s point, we really don’t know. I mean, it’s possible that Iran would not have been able to survive more pressure. It may very well be that Trump, which would have been relieved from calculations every president has to make about reelection, had he won he would have been willing to cut a deal with Iran, and the Iranians would have cut a deal with him. That’s also a possibility, that there might have ultimately been a deal. But I would say that under maximum pressure Trump’s sort of war basically deployed all of the United States’ economic might. Iran in the long term could not survive that.
But in the shorter term, it could. But also, Iran had not yet begun to deploy all that it could. It started doing that under Biden, when he saw that Biden is not coming to the table. Don’t forget, Biden didn’t go to the table until the supreme leader said we’re going to go to 60 percent. That’s when Biden agreed to go to Vienna. So as we’re talking, the Iranians still have more to deploy, the United States has pretty much plateaued. Short of a military blockade of Iran and going to war, it’s stopped. But, counterfactual, I think if Trump had been reelected, there would have been negotiations with Trump, because the Iranians would have concluded that America is now Republican, and he doesn’t need his donors, and he controls the Senate. He could even sign a treaty, for all practical purposes and get away with it.
FASKIANOS: So we don’t have much more time. We have lots of questions I’m trying to put together. Robert Leikind from the American Jewish Committee would ask: To what degree do you think Israel would accept ongoing nuclear weapons project? And Don Smedley from Yale’s Chaplain Program at the Rivendell Institute focused in on your Foreign Affairs article, which we sent out in advance, called “All Against All,” and your arguments there. There are lot of questions in this, but I think the most salient one would be: You say Tehran has so far been able to come out in the regional struggle for influence. What are your metrics for these assessments? There are a lot of questions here. And Israel’s—how do you see what should be done to strengthen Israel and Gulf State relationship, including the Abrahamic Accord? What kind of strong hand do they hold?
NASR: So on the mention of Iran’s influence. It’s not about popular perception. It’s not about polling. It’s about where do they hold the cards, or are their clients are the stronger player? In Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and in Yemen, Iranian clients hold the most powerful, if you would, positions. Iran’s influence in the Arab world has expanded since 2003, and maximum pressure has not rolled it back. Iran is paying a hefty price for it, but even the Arab world’s attempt to leverage Washington to kick Iran out of the region sort of didn’t work, even under maximum pressure. And that’s why Saudi Arabia and UAE are also talking to Iran.
Israel, as I said, is a different ballgame. Israel is a powerful military force, much like Turkey, and it has a strategic standoff with Iran. Just like Iran is investing in Hezbollah, Israel is using UAE or Saudi Arabia, basically. The Abraham Accords is not really a peace treaty because these countries were not—Bahrain, and Sudan, and UAE—were not military combatants against Israel. There’s not an issue of land. If you read Martin Indyk’s book about Kissinger, and Egypt and Syria, you could see the fundamental issue is about land for peace. That Israel has a vested interest in that barter, as does Egypt.
That’s not at play here. Essentially, it’s an expansion of Israeli influence in the Persian Gulf in response to Iranian expansion in the Levant. For UAE, it’s a way of trying to supplant diminishing American influence in the region with Israel, and also it does play to a UAE’s interest in Washington and the West as well. So the big—I think the big partner in the Abraham Accord is Israel, not UAE, even though it’s marketed that way. The regional power that’s calling the shots is Israel, in effect. Just like Iran is when you talk about Hezbollah, or Hamas, et cetera.
So I think in that kind of a context there is a military competition. There is a diplomatic competition. There’s a technological competition going on between Iran and Israel. And it may go in different directions as we go forward. Post-Iran nuclear deal, Iran may not be incentivized to absorb Israeli assassinations and bombings the way it has done so far, because they don’t want to complicate the current nuclear talks. And after the nuclear talks, there may not be the same kind of assassinations. My thinking is that Israel is very, very worried about Iran’s nuclear program, and it will not accept Iran having—being very close to a bomb.
But Netanyahu played his hand creating this mess. I mean, the point is that—and in fact, some of his own security people are saying—is that the game that Netanyahu played has brought Iran closer to a bomb than where it was. And ultimately, Netanyahu and the Arabs betted on Trump solving the problem. And Trump didn’t. The reality is that Trump had four years to do it. At the end, the Islamic Republic was standing and, short of war, there was no way to take its nuclear goodies away.
So I think Israel will try to influence what the United States is going to agree at the table, and it will fuss a lot about it, and it will not be accepting of an Iranian nuclear program. And it will continue to try to sabotage the program every which way that it can, to knock it back. But it also has to live with the consequences of the decisions that Netanyahu made, which is that Netanyahu helped create a more nuclearly aggressive Iran. And I think the Biden administration’s message to Israel is that I’m trying to put the genie back in the box, the genie that you helped, Netanyahu, helped get out of the box. But Iran-Israel tensions are extremely significant to the future of the region. And there’s not an easy way to see how this is going to go away.
FASKIANOS: And with that, I’m sad to say we are out of time. And I apologize to all the questions that still remain. But that just means we’re going to have you back, Vali, because we always love hearing your analysis. So thank you very much for being with us today, to all of you for your questions and comments. You can follow Vali Nasr on Twitter at @vali_nasr. Very easy to remember. And we encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion. And obviously please send us your feedback, suggestions. You can email us at [email protected]. So thank you all again for being with us. And, again, thank you, Vali.
NASR: Thank you for inviting me.
FASKIANOS: Take care.