Vali R. Nasr, a leading expert on Iran and on Shiites, says on the basis of recent statements by Iranian leaders, “Iran is keen to reengage and try to deescalate the tensions by adopting a more conciliatory posture.” Nasr, a CFR adjunct senior fellow on Middle East studies, says the United States at the same time is stepping up pressure on Iran, which could somehow translate into some military action.
“The threat is there, without a doubt,” says Nasr. “Even if there is no preplanned military confrontation, there’s always the chance of it happening. We’re in a situation where tensions between them can very clearly spiral out of control. And obviously the impasse over the nuclear issue represents the biggest challenge.”
Sunday was the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Iranian revolution. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a major speech planned and many experts believed there would be some announcement about Iran’s nuclear progress, and/or a willingness to suspend work to allow negotiations to proceed. But really nothing happened. And at the same time, the chief negotiator Ali Larijani arrived in Munich and had some talks with European officials. The general thrust was that Iran’s ready for negotiations, but it doesn’t want to agree to suspend its enrichment activity first. Do you find anything interesting in all this?
First is the fact that they’re not giving up on the enrichment. I’m not surprised. They don’t want to come to the table while giving the impression they’ve buckled to U.S. pressure. This is an issue that can be negotiated. This is like Iran’s opening position, if you would, a new opening position. But the interesting thing is that Larijani had nearly canceled his trip to Munich, claiming that he was ill, and then decided to go anyway.
This suggests there are intense debates in Iran about how to deal with the UN sanctions and how to deal with the new U.S. posture. And I think we could say at least the outcome is that Iran is keen to reengage and try to deescalate the tensions by adopting a more conciliatory posture. The comments by Larijani about Iran not being a threat to anybody, in particular Israel, is significant in terms of Iranians wanting to change the climate in which everything is happening.
Yes. It is interesting that he had these softer words on Israel. At the same time, U.S. military officials in Baghdad had a press briefing in which they showed some lethal equipment they said was made in Iran, which is being used by Shiite militias. It wasn’t clear to me what the purpose of all this was.
I don’t think the purpose has anything to do with Iraq. It is all part of putting pressure on Iran. They’re displaying these things at a time when massive bombs planted by insurgents are killing Shiites and five American helicopters have been shot down by
"They’re displaying these things at a time when massive bombs planted by [Sunni] insurgents are killing Shiites and five American helicopters have been shot down by insurgents, that the majority of attacks on Americans and American casualties are inflicted by [Sunni] insurgents," says Nasr.
insurgents. The majority of attacks on Americans and American casualties are inflicted by insurgents.
By “insurgents” you mean “Sunni insurgents”?
Yes, Sunni insurgents. These are the same outfits we’ve been confronting all along. This posture is not driven by logic or the facts on the ground in Iraq. It’s part of the overall policy of the United States to put greater pressure on Iran to make it more amenable on negotiations on the nuclear issue and a host of other issues.
Some people suspect this is all a prelude to U.S. military engagement with Iran. What do you think?
The threat is there, without a doubt, and particularly when you have two countries that have an arena of disagreement and confrontation, don’t have any communications between them, and are running around across each other in a chaotic place like Iraq. Even if there is no preplanned military confrontation, there’s always the chance of it happening. We’re in a situation where tensions between them can very clearly spiral out of control. And obviously the impasse over the nuclear issue represents the biggest challenge.
Now just one more question on this briefing the Americans had in Baghdad. Do you have any doubt this is true? Or is this old stuff that just is coming to light now?
There is no doubt the Iranians have been providing support of various kinds to the Shiite militias. And this is not necessarily to do with the United States. It has to do with the larger fight against Sunni insurgents. Some of this is old news. Some of it still has to be proven. There are still more assertions than hard evidence. What is important is not that these things exist. It’s that the United States has decided at this time to make an issue of them.
Now why do you think the United States has tried to make an issue of this?
I think it has to do with a whole new policy toward Iran which is more confrontational. Putting Iran in the spotlight in Iraq is a part of a policy of escalating pressure on
“.. turning the limelight onto Iran, putting Iran in the spotlight in Iraq, is a part of a policy of escalating pressure on Tehran, as well as also potentially preparing the American population for more drastic action against Iran by trying to single out Iran as the problem in Iraq, whether or not that’s actually true.”
Tehran, as well as also potentially preparing the American population for more drastic action against Iran by trying to single it out as the problem in Iraq, whether or not that’s actually true.
You don’t really think it is true, do you?
Well, I think there are many countries that are a problem in Iraq. And the main problem in Iraq right now in terms of stability and casualties is the [Sunni] insurgency, not the Shiite militias. Alternatively, the insurgency is the one that’s been at war with the United States and is still killing both Shiites and American soldiers. Ultimately, stability in Iraq has to include dealing with the insurgency. We ought to talk to everybody in Iraq, not just Iranians, but the people who are also supplying and supporting the insurgents.
It seems like ancient history now, but in 2003, I did speak to some experts on Iraq who knew about Shiites and Sunnis. They assured me not to worry about the split between Sunnis and Shiites, that they were Iraqis first in Iraq and that this was an exaggerated fear. Obviously after the events of last year, in particular the bombing in Samarra, that view is completely discredited and there’s a real schism. Do you think this can be repaired?
Every conflict will ultimately come to a resolution. Either the parties will separate, or they will have to learn to coexist. The issue is not whether they are sectarian as opposed to being Iraqi. The fight in Iraq is about who gets to define Iraq. They are all loyal Iraqis. You know, the Shiites believe it’s a Shiite country. The Sunnis believe it is still a Sunni domain. The fact that the Shiites identify as Shiites and believe they have a proprietary right to define Iraq’s identity, culture, and politics doesn’t mean they’re anti-Iraqi. I mean, the concept of Iraqiness at this point in time is an umbrella concept. These communities are competing for owning it and defining it. Thinking of this as though Iraqiness is more important than Shiiteness or Sunnis is the wrong way of posing the question. What you still don’t have in Iraq is an agreement about power sharing and about the character of the state. And so far as that’s lacking, there’s going to be fighting. The future of that country’s going to be settled, one way or the other. If not through negotiation, then through war.
I still can’t identify who the real Sunni leaders are. Everyone knows who the Shiite leaders are because they’re prominent in the Iraqi government, as well as people like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
That’s exactly part of the problem. We deal with Sunni politicians in Anbar but we don’t deal directly with the Sunni commanders, or they’re not at the table. And you know there is a leap of hope that somehow if we have a political settlement in Baghdad, that will translate into a toning down of the insurgency, but we don’t know that.
You have been on the record as calling for broad negotiations between the United States and Iran. How is the best way to bring this about?
Well, Iraq still might present the best area, because it’s not a bilateral environment. It’s a multilateral environment. It has to include all the regional powers. Also, there is some degree of convergence onIraq. Iran still doesn’t want a civil war there, doesn’t want a failed state. And Iran wants the same government as we’re working with in Baghdad to succeed, for the Shiites in Iraq to consolidate the gains they have made in the past three or four years. There is a strategic context for agreement. That doesn’t mean negotiations are going to be simple. Unlike Syria or Saudi Arabia, which have no vested interest in success in Iraq, Iran does. So Iraq still presents an arena where they could at least begin talking, and then if things go well, they could probably extend that elsewhere.