Vali Nasr is a Middle East scholar and dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Nasr has written several books about sectarianism, including Forces of Fortune and The Shia Revival. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith on Sept. 18, 2017 for the documentary Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.
How serious is the conflict in the Middle East? I talk to a lot of people. They say, “How’s the Middle East?” I say, “It’s a mess; it’s in crisis.” And they say, “It’s always been that way, hasn’t it?”
The current crisis in the Middle East is very important, largely because it goes to the heart of distribution of power.
And I would call it the sort of security architecture of the region. Boundaries that were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Versailles are now open to contestation. The internal political architecture that was borne out of the colonial experience with a particular distribution of power between minorities and majorities and also between authoritarian regimes and their subjects is also being contested.
So today, foundations of the region’s political structure are in flux. So this is much more than a dispute between two countries or a simple political uprising and demand for democracy. This is really a fundamental reorganization of power in the region in a manner that we actually don’t know where the dust will settle.
Nowadays, when you hear the Arabs complain about Iranian meddling in the region, what they’re essentially saying is that the balance of power between Arabs and Iranians has been lost not — I don’t think actually because the Iranians are doing any more but because the Arabs have imploded. What the Arabs are really worried about is that the balance of power in this region is shifting to Turks and the Iranians away from the Arabs.
And when you look at internal structures, particularly after the Arab Spring, all Arab regimes are now running scared of these hordes of young people who are demanding jobs, integrity, political representation at a time when there is no political solution for what they’re demanding without regime changes. Nor is there an economic solution for what they aspire to, particularly with the collapse of oil prices that we are seeing worldwide.
So you’re going back to the Arab Spring and the chaos that was created out of that. Out of hope came more despair, failed states. That’s what you’re talking about when you talk about the Arab world imploding.
I think what the Arab Spring essentially did was to take a massive sledgehammer to the edifice of Arab states. So what the United States military did in Iraq in 2003, the Arab Spring did at a much broader scale everywhere from Libya to Yemen to Syria to Iraq. It actually opened the door for a whole-scale contestation of power between the masses and the rulers but, more importantly, between majorities who believe they have a claim to power and minorities that are holding to power. So in Syria, for instance, very quickly, we went from what was mass movement in support of representation and democracy to a war between majority Sunnis and minority Alawite regime.
In Bahrain, the reverse happened. What started as a broad-based emulation of what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, very quickly, collapsed into a Shia drive for power against what is minority Sunni political establishment in the country.
In Iraq, the Arab Spring reopened the bathos that we saw in the wake of the American invasion. Namely, Sunnis began to demand more, and many of them sided with Al Qaeda, with ISIS, and the regime in Baghdad became much more sectarian defending the turf it had.
So what we see across the region is that that structure and division of power between minorities and majorities, which actually the United States first disturbed in the Iraq War, became challenged everywhere else. As a result, the internal coherence of regimes in the region has collapsed.
What we understood as Arab dictatorships is basically nonexistent in most of these countries. And then, as a consequence, also even the territorial integrity of these countries became contested.
Consider this: The two of the most important Arab states, equivalence of Germanys and France of the Middle East — that’s Syria and Iraq — are barely existing nation-states where a government only has really control over the capital and its own ethnic sectarian constituency, and large parts of the country were either occupied and ruled by a quasi-state in the form of ISIS or is actually completely lawless.
So that’s the magnitude of the impact on the region. And that’s what I mean by implosion. If two of the three most important states in the Middle East — that’s Syria and Iraq — for all practical purposes cease to exist, and Egypt, the third one, has become completely battered by the Arab Spring and is only barely finding its footing, the core of the Arab world, basically, neither in terms of regional power nor in terms of internal coherence exists. And we actually don’t know what the final shape of the map of the Levant is going to be.
Why do these countries fracture along sectarian lines? Is that inevitable?
No, it’s not inevitable. The problem is that since 1920 and since the end of World War I, the states in Iraq and Syria have encapsulated a particular balance of power that the colonial establishment favored.
Namely, colonial rule worked by empowering the minority as an ally to rule over the majority, the same divide-and-conquer strategy that was used in India where the British army was majority Sikh and Punjabi and Baloch, and they were dispatched to large, Muslim Hindu regions to establish order. So the French military in Syria was heavily Alawite, and the British establishment in Iraq was heavily Sunni.
So when they left, they left behind states in which the minority is privileged and rules over the majority. You cannot talk about democracy or weakening of authoritarianism without opening up the question of balance of power. But in the Middle East, this is not happening through some kind of an orderly transition like it happened in South Africa when the whites made a pact with the blacks and handed over power.
You don’t have a Nelson Mandela. No, like, the Balkans, you actually have a United States that actually is willing to stay in large numbers until it brings about a constitutional change. So we’re seeing these paroxysms of violence because the minority is unwilling to give up power, and the majority demands power and also wants to settle scores over the years that it has been ruled over. Now, it so happens that the main differentiator of identity is actually sectarian even though both sides are Muslim.
Both sides claim that they want to live happily together, but there is a very clear perception that Saddam’s regime in Iraq and those who came before it were predominantly Sunni, favored the Sunnis, and the Shias were not treated as equal citizens.
So you’re saying it’s the colonial construct that was imposed upon these countries set this up and made this inevitable because they supported a minority sect in control of a majority sect.
That’s exactly right. So the states that were borne out of colonialism inherited the same bureaucratic structures and the same particularly military structures and ended up in the same sort of mold. And that’s not actually unique about the Middle East. We see it across Africa and even in South Asia and other places where you had colonial rule as well.
But what we’re essentially seeing in the Middle East is really the opening up of the departing pact of colonialism right after World War I. And in the Middle East, it’s happening particularly violently.
People say all the time, “Look, Sunnis and Shia have lived peacefully together for hundreds of years, so why the sectarian battles that we’re having today?” And you’re answering that in part. But what are the fundamental differences between the sects that have existed since the seventh century to today? I mean, how significant are they?
When and why differences about identity become charged into violent politics is a big topic of conversation. Bosnians and Serbs and Croats have lived happily together in Sarajevo until they began butchering one another.
Hindus and Muslims have largely lived in cohabitation under the moguls and the British in India until they killed upward of millions during the partition of India in 1947. What we’re seeing in the Middle East is something akin to that. Now, whenever it is that people decide that there are winners and losers in distribution of power and the winner and loser is decided not on the basis of individuals but on the basis of identity, they mobilize in that matter.
And the Middle East is not an exception to what happened in other parts of the world before. Now, the differences between them are as real as the difference between Eastern Church and Christianity and Catholicism or Catholicism and Protestantism. They are about theology, about who has a right to leadership in religion. It’s about law. When you go back in history, it looks like something very minor like who would succeed Prophet Muhammad much like that the Eastern and Western Church separated in the fourth century over the nature of the Holy Ghost.
But see, the original separation at a theological level is not as meaningful as the fact that once that separation happens, like the two branches of a tree, the two sects have a very different experience of history, and they start practicing religion in different ways, and their understanding of religion becomes different. And in the context of modern nationalism, at some point, their sectarian identity becomes a kind of ethnic-national identity. And when that happens, it’s politics; [it’s] no different than violent politics of nationals, right? So we have many nation-states in the world where citizens have lived together for a very long time. Then, all of a sudden, they begin to define themselves along some kind of imagined or real ethnic division.
Before we get to how this all begins to unravel after ’79 and sectarian differences become so sharp, you said that there are real differences in theology, and I’d like to go into that a little bit, if you can tell me what the difference between a Sunni and a Shia is.
Well, most fundamentally is that the Sunnis believe that Prophet Muhammad died. The community of Muslims then in Arab tribal fashion would choose the elder in the community most eligible to succeed him. And they chose the Prophet’s father-in-law and an eminent tribal elder by the name of Abu Bakr. Shias are those who believe that God did not send religion for man to decide its leadership; that surely he would send a living guide to interpret the religion for the followers. And they believe that the charisma of the Prophet would flow in the blood of his family, and the eligible leader of the community would be someone from the Prophet’s bloodline. And they converged on his son-in-law and cousin, Ali, and, then on Ali’s progeny going through the ages. So it was very much about the political leadership of the community.
But once that happens, the practices begin to diverge.
That’s right. Well, first of all, you know, Islam is not a religion of belief. It’s a religion of practice. It’s not an orthodoxy. It’s an orthopraxy. You’re not a Muslim just by the fact that you believe in God and his Prophet Muhammad.
You’re a Muslim by living in accordance to Islam, which means by living in accordance to Islamic law much like a person of Jewish faith would live in accordance to Talmudic law. Now, the Shias and the Sunnis have developed over time different interpretations of law. The very phenomenon of ayatollah is unique to Shias; in other words, a living person who actually can issue rulings as in the case of, like, the Supreme Court in the U.S.
And the Shia law is actually closer to common law, the Anglo-American common law, which means that a law that evolves based on judicial rulings, whereas Sunni law is a lot more like French canonical law. It’s a closed body of law.
The sources of law between them are different. For instance, the Shias recognize the saying and rulings of their imams — in other words, the progeny of the Prophet — as source of law. There are differences between them in terms of what source of law they view as valid. For instance, the Shias tend to discount any saying of the Prophet that is attributed to some of his wives or some of his companions that they view as partial to the Sunni cause. And the Sunnis pretty much discount anything any progeny of the Prophet said because they don’t believe they have any validity. They don’t have any reason why those would be sources of law.
And then, over time also, they applied very different methodology to law. The Shias have gradually developed a very different interpretation of varieties of issues from family law to inheritance to commerce that is unique to them.
So when you live in a Muslim society, particularly after Islam has become so important to contemporary Muslim world where there is a demand, at least among a segment of the population for living in accordance to Islamic laws or living in accordance to Sharia, the immediate question is whose Sharia, right? Do I live accordance to Shia law or Sunni law?
So you’re saying that as they develop different systems of Sharia law, interpretations of what should be the proper law, you then had conflicts in communities where Sunnis and Shia lived together.
Exactly. In other words, previously, you would have said when the Middle East was secular, there were Shias who were disgruntled because they believed their origins and sectarian identity was an impediment to their upward mobility.
And you actually had, for a period, in many countries, Shias who would try to distance themselves from their Shia roots and adopt to secularism or adopt to Sunni mores. Now, after Islam became very prominent in the Middle East, then actually even the religious sectors among the two communities began to become antagonistic, and–
When you say when religion became prominent in the Middle East, are we talking post-’79?
We’re talking post-’79 and post-explosion of Sunni Islam in–
In reaction. It’s not necessarily in reaction. If you thought about the two years between 1979 and 1981, three or four events happen that put Islam squarely in the middle of Middle East and Muslim world politics. The first one is the Iranian Revolution of 1979; the second one is attack on American Embassy in Pakistan; the third is the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca; and the fourth is the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Three of these were audacious Sunni fundamentalist drives for power which failed. The one that succeeded was a Shia drive for power. But the combination of these four followed by the Afghan jihad essentially ensconced Islam in the middle of Middle East politics.
And that’s in part, is it not, the failure of communism, the failure of other models, Arab nationalism, to provide a successful model?
Absolutely right. So it’s failure of communism, socialism and secularism to provide social justice, to provide economic prosperity, to provide political openness but also to provide power, and particularly the Arab-Israeli issue, but other sets of global political issues had let Muslims and particularly Arabs and Iranians to feel enfeebled. Successive humiliating defeats at the hand of Israel, loss of Jerusalem, Golan Heights, West Bank, Sinai–
CIA meddling, you know, these all had corroded the legitimacy of secular authority. So here come in Khomeini and the Muslim Brotherhood promising to give Muslims the kind of power secularism has failed to do. Now, the problem is, they all speak in the name of Islam. But in reality, even before they begin to react to one another, in reality, the more you emphasize Islam, the more you have to be exclusivist. You know, emphasizing ideal puritanical religion by definition is not a pluralistic act.
You’re talking about the Salafis.
No. But if you go from 1979 to today, you have fundamentalism in the Sunni world becoming steadily less tolerant and more exclusivist in the form that the Salafis become the most obvious expression of it, right? So in a world in which you keep saying, “Well, we’ve got to go back to true religion in order to be empowered and win power and defeat America and imperialism in Israel,” then you keep saying, “Well, we’ve got to go become truer and truer and more puritanical,” and you begin to shed what you call kinds of practices of Islam that you see as being impure. So first goes Sufism and cultural Islam, then go nominal Muslims, you know, Muslims who profess to be Muslim but may not practice it very well and, then, become, what you call it, sectarian heresies which is Alawites, Druse, Shia, Ahmadis, you know, any other set of sect–
So tolerance for differences goes down.
Right. And then you arrive at Sufis and even Sunnis who you believe are not sufficiently within the pale, right? So Islamic fundamentalism by definition is a sectarian idea.
But yet, at the same time, the differences in practice, the different narratives, the story of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, these become very prominent in Muslim culture and the Middle East. And the Saudis have their own stories about Wahhab and what he stood for, which give an observer the sense, oh, these differences have always been there and virulent. And you’re saying not until ’79 do we get to a point where these stories are invoked as a way of promoting difference.
Yes, for two reasons. One is that before ’79, Islam as a political phenomenon was a marginal idea in the region. The Arab was all about socialism and Arab nationalism, and Iran was dominated by secular forces. Now, once Khomeini takes over, Islam is squarely put in the middle of the table in the Middle East.
And was he popular across the Muslim world?
On the political sense, he was, because his language of “I’m going to go after America; I’m going to humiliate America; I’m going to empower Muslims” was very popular among sort of the Third World-ist masses. And Iran and Hezbollah have, since then, done very well championing secular causes in the Muslim world.
Was the 1979 revolution celebrated across the Muslim world?
It was at some level, yes, because it was a victory of Islam against a pro-American secular government, right? And initially, even Sunni activists celebrated the fact that Islam had achieved what communism and socialism had failed to do, a genuine revolution that brought down a state.
At the other side of Khomeini’s image is that the reason that he succeeded in Iran was because he manipulated Shia symbols. And if you’re sitting in the Muslim world outside of Iran in a Sunni world, you look at him — he doesn’t look like your cleric, right? So there’s an interesting statement attributed to Muammar Qaddafi in 1979 who said, “What is this thing, ayatollah, that Iran has 82 of and we don’t have any?,” right, which goes to the heart of the matter. Khomeini’s authority, the very authority that allowed him to challenge the shah is an authority that’s unique to Shia clerics, which enjoy a much greater charisma and infallibility in the eyes of their followers than any Sunni cleric does, right?
And what was that idea that took it further?
Well, Khomeini monopolized sort of Shia symbolism, used his authority against the shah. Of course, he made innovations in Islamic law and political authority. But within Iran, this was very clearly a revolution that was made possible by a particular Shia experiences with history, [battle of] Karbala symbolisms, you know, all of these things.
But to the Sunnis, those parts of it were not familiar. Now, the fact that Khomeini carried out the revolution in the name of Islam was a source of his popularity and power in the Arab world. The fact that he was a Shia ruler was also the limit of his power. And it’s that limit that the Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Jordanians used in order to make sure the Iranian revolution doesn’t spread.
The more Khomeini tried to emphasize his Islamicness, the more the Arab Sunnis emphasized his Shianess, right? And that itself meant that the only way to contain Khomeini was to underscore his sectarian oddity. “Yes, yes, it’s great that Islam has won. But he cannot possibly be your leader, because you’re Sunni, and he’s Shia.” And if that’s not sufficiently different, we’re going to even sharpen the focus more by saying, “Well, Shias are actually heretics, and Shias are actually outside the pale of religion.”
So the shine comes off the revolution for the Sunnis.
Well, this was also a strategic move. I mean, if you–
On the part of governments.
On the part of governments. And it was a very clever move that if you’re sitting in Pakistan or you’re sitting in Saudi Arabia or you’re sitting in Jordan and Egypt, you have very few tools to go against Khomeini.
He comes with this concept of guardianship of the jurist, or Wilayat al-Faqih, which has roots, to some degree, in Shia teaching. Can you–
–make the distinction and tell me what it is and how he used it and what it meant?
Well, generally the Shias believe that when the last of the progeny of the Prophet went into what they call occultation — in other words, much like Jesus, he went to the other world to return at the end of time — he communicated with the Shia community through certain learned individuals.
So this is the 12th Imam.
The 12th Imam.
And he came back to–
Right. So the 12th Imam, to this day, is in hiding, according to Shias. They refer to him as the Lord of the Age. In other words, he is the living imam, but is in hiding. So the Shias believe that from whenever he went into hiding in the 10th, 11th century, that he communicated with his community through gates to the community.
Initially, there were three or four, but ultimately, the institution high clerics in Shiism are, essentially they’re representatives of the hidden imam on earth, and they carry within them certain infallibility and charisma the way the pope carries certain infallibility and charisma, right? Now, historically, there have been very few times where there has been a single Shia ruler, Shia cleric that has been dominant in the clerical establishment. And when this has happened, it has been by acclimation, not by conquest or appointment. What Khomeini did was actually to appoint himself as the pre-eminent cleric, the pope in a sense, without such an acclimation but using the power of the state in Iran. So you could say that Shiism technically is a college of cardinals without a pope. Once in a while, there’s a cardinal who everybody listens to, whereas Khomeini came and instituted an office of the pope.
A pope with a country.
Well, a bigger Vatican, put it that way. But papacy in sort of — we’ll refer to papacy as caesaropapism, right, so that, you know, there’s a few cases in history where somebody has been Caesar and pope. You know, Constantine was Caesar and pope. Charlemagne was Caesar and pope, right?
And then, in Europe after the Holy Roman Empire, you had this de facto division when pope became pope and political power devolved to lay authority. Khomeini sort of brought these together in Islam in his own person. Now, this institution even within Shiism was controversial.
And outside of Iran, he’s not necessarily accepted among all Shias uniformly. Within Iran, it could be enforced while Khomeini was alive by force of the state, but after Khomeini died, many pious Shias follow their own ayatollahs. They don’t follow Iran’s supreme leader because they don’t think he actually is the supreme ayatollah. But in the Sunni world, the idea of a pope, of a Caesar pope like that was just anathema to their conception of authority.
I mean, Muslim Brotherhood’s notion of political power is an elected ruler, not an infallible ruler. There’s a big difference in the sense that the Muslim Brotherhood is a republican idea. It took its republicanism or Jacobinism, if you want to call it, from socialist models and 1930s models of challenge to authority in Europe, whereas Khomeini’s theory of state is really Plato’s republic, the idea of a class of particularly educated individuals speaking for all society. And it’s a very different conception of political authority. And this distinction between what Khomeini was trying to articulate within the Iranian political system was also the Achilles’ heel of his revolution.
But this raises the blood pressure of Saudi Arabia immediately when Khomeini takes power and declares himself both the religious and political leader of the country. Talk about the challenge that that presents to those who consider themselves the guardians of the holy places.
Well, actually, they didn’t adopt that title until after Khomeini became–
Right. But they did it because Khomeini had come and apparently usurped their power.
Well, Khomeini posed two challenges to Saudi Arabia. The first was that Khomeini gave hope and aspiration to Shias across the Muslim world who thought that now that you have a big Shia power in Iran, they actually can assert themselves wherever they are, whether they’re in Pakistan or in Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis rightly feared that the Shia population in the Eastern province where all of their oil is are very quickly going to gravitate toward Iran, and they may become rebellious; they become secessionist.
They encouraged an uprising, right?
But even before Iran encouraged it, I mean, after that, the writing was on the wall that the Iranians could get into Eastern province. So that was threat number one. Threat number two was that many Sunnis may not follow Khomeini but may emulate his model. So what was dangerous about Khomeini to all Arab rulers, particularly to monarchies, was that he had overthrown a monarchy. And that’s when the takeover of the Grand Mosque, which was by radical Sunni Wahhabis, nevertheless, was so dangerous to the Saudis.
In fact, in one span of time, the Saudis confronted a massive uprising among the Shias in the Eastern province, and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by radical Sunnis, in other words, both of Khomeini quote-unquote “nefarious influences” showed up in Saudi Arabia at the same time.
I mean, even to this day, it’s quite possible for fundamentalists, say Muslim Brotherhood, to say, “We won’t follow Khomeini because he’s a Shia, and we don’t believe in his theology or authority. But the way he organized people, the way he disseminated a notion of Islamic state, the way he carried out a revolution, these are relevant to us.” And I think the Saudis came to be comfortable with containing the Shias in their own country much more quickly than dealing with the Sunni challenge that Khomeini unleashed.
Who was Juhayman [al-Oteibi]?
So Juhayman was a young Saudi, call it cleric. He came from that background, was of the belief that the Saudi monarchy was selling out to the West by allowing greater amount of Western presence in the form of companies, United States, foreign personnel, but also–
Liberalization, but also in the form of television, McDonald’s, etc., coming into the country, and [Juhayman] was the first person to, if you would, challenge the condominium between the Saudi family and the high Wahhabi clerics that actually had formed the kingdom in the 1930s.
Again, you could look at Iran, and you could say: “Well, look, we don’t need the condominium. Look what Khomeini did over there. You stand up for true Islam, and the secularist government just folds.” So if I took over the Grand Mosque, it would send shockwaves through the kingdom and the Muslim world. Everybody would rise up, and the Saudi monarchy would fall like the Iranian monarchy did.
So these two threats, I think, played in the mind of the Saudi regime early on. And, then, Khomeini began to outrightly threaten them, challenging for the leadership of the Islamic world, call them names, threaten their clients and friends around the Islamic world. I think the Saudis were particularly vulnerable then because they were ruled then by King Fahd, who was particularly close to United States and was seen as a Westernizer.
So Saudis adopted the idea of being the protector of the two holy places. They also began spending a huge amount of money in shoring up hardened Sunni identity that would be impervious to Iranian influence everywhere from Indonesia to Morocco.
So this is exporting Wahhabi missionaries, essentially, around the world.
Right. So some Wahhabi missionaries going around the world may have been sort of a voluntary activity of Wahhabi clerics, but I think Khomeini gave the Saudi state a strategic reason to do that, in other words, to shore up Sunni backbone everywhere possible to limit Iran’s power. And in fact, in Pakistan, they literally went to war with each other, in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s. And so the Saudi–
The Sunnis and the Shia.
Saudi Arabia and Iran in the form of Saudis pouring money into strengthening, creating a wall of fire, if you would, a theological wall of fire that Shias could not cross. I mean, I remember there were these high-level Sunni leaders in India who began writing serious threats, challenges to Khomeini’s not only authority but even Khomeini being a Muslim, Shias being Muslim. The argument was to sort of clear any kind of a blurry, gray area for their own constituency about Iraq.
So you wrote Pakistan in particular served as the main battleground of the Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia conflict. Pakistan has the second largest population of Shia, around 30 million, after Iran, and since 1989, more than 900 clashes between Sunnis and Shias claimed more than 4,000 lives.
And actually, that number is much larger today because this continues. But initially, Pakistan was the first country that Iranian revolution started to sort of gain momentum. And actually, there’s a very interesting case where even Pakistanis became convinced they needed this, which is Pakistan was building its own Islamic state even before the Iranian revolution.
Gen. Zaheer [ul-Islam Abbasi] introduced the Islamization and wanted to Islamize Pakistan. So one of the acts, he said, “Since we’re an Islamic state, every Muslim should pay their religious taxes to the government.” The Shia said, “No, we only pay our religious taxes to our clerics, and we don’t pay religious taxes to Sunni authority.”
We follow a different marja [authority].
Right. But the implication was very important because it was the Shias in Pakistan who said: “We don’t recognize the government of Pakistan as an Islamic government. We recognize it as a Sunni government.”
And to drive the point home, a million Shias, which was a much larger number in 1979 than it is today as a portion of Pakistani population, marched to the capital and shut it down for several days. And then, next door, you had Khomeini basically starting to threaten Gen. Zaheer saying, “You know, you’d better treat them right, or else.”
And Gen. Zaheer buckled. They gave the Shias a special dispensation as a religious minority to pay their taxes to whoever they wanted, which actually, as I said, many more landlords, etc., began to identify themselves as Shia so they don’t pay taxes to the government.
But the implication is very interesting in that the Shias used the sectarian court not to pay taxes. Iran backed them. The government accepted that there is a sectarian division in Pakistan, that there are two groups of Muslims, Sunni and Shia, and that the Shias would be exempted to Islamic laws of Pakistan, right?
So this is Shias in Pakistan using the power of the Iranian revolution to get an exception. And the Sunnis became resentful of the Shias being given this authorities. And the Saudis and Pakistan government and other Arab governments saw what was happening in Pakistan as a clear indication of what’s coming.
So they began to pour more and more money into Sunni madrassas?
They began to pour more and more money into Sunni madrassas as Sunni madrassas began to go [to] Saudi Arabia asking for more money, that these Shias are getting out of their breeches.
That wasn’t the only case. Eastern province erupted in Saudi Arabia soon after. And then in Iraq, Saddam, even before the Iranian revolution had happened, understood that the tremendous danger that the Iranian revolution would pose to a country where, you know, 65 percent of the population are Shia. They are not represented among the elite unless they are sort of kind of self-denying Shias.
So he carried out a number of acts, including purging all of the Shia members of the Baath Party, executing several of them, arresting and executing the senior-most Shia cleric in Iraq, brutally killing them.
Saddam decides to invade what he perceives as a weakened Iran at this point.
Well, the initial reason he invaded was to force the Iranian regime to topple. Then, once he arrived inside Iran, he developed appetite for holding Iranian territory, and that helped the Iranian revolution because it helped rally the population around the nationalist cause.
But initially, this was a pre-emptive strike to bring down Khomeini or give him a bloody nose before Khomeini had an opportunity to mobilize the Shias in Iraq against them. But the why — why is that downfall so vulnerable? — to Iran was exactly because his Shia population, by and large, were not happy. So these stories people give that, you know, everybody was living very well in Iraq and they were coexisting is true of an upper crust of middle-class Shias, most of whom were completely dissociated from the Shia masses. And that’s the same story in Lebanon.
When you go to that sort of elite class, yes, they all go to parties with one another once in a while, intermarry. They work in the same banks. OK, there’s a little bit of prejudice here and there. But if you’re among the masses of Sadrists, whose leader was executed or being suppressed, clearly the resentment was there.
So Saddam could not count on the fact that Iran’s revolution would not quickly spread to Iraq, so he attacked Iran. And actually the surprise was that the Iraqi military, which was by and large a Shia military, stood by the Iraqi government and defended against an Iranian invasion, which I think is a lesson that is about the limits of Islamic fundamentalism. In other words, Iraqis are Shia, but they’re Iraqi Shias.
It didn’t quite work.
It didn’t quite work. Nationalism prevailed–
— over Islamic fundamentalism.
Talk a little bit about the importance of that war, those eight brutal years, that war grinding on for so long, on the psyche of the Iranian leadership that remains today.
Well, wars of that magnitude are very important because they forge their own social contract with people.
It’s not a war that most Americans know much about. You say “a war of that magnitude.” I don’t think most people know the magnitude of that war.
So the Iran-Iraq War went on for eight years. The Iraqis occupied Iranian territory. Iran, not getting any international support, literally mobilized its own population in drastic ways in order to push the Iraqis out of Iranian territory. They resorted to human-wave attacks because they didn’t have artillery and tanks to push back a much better-armed Iraqi occupying force. They sent waves and waves of volunteers of not-so-volunteers onto the battlefield, where they acted as human minesweepers. They overwhelmed Iraqi positions. And then, eventually, Iraq flooded its border and used chemical weapons in order to deal with these hordes of Iranians coming through. The Iranian population sacrificed enormously.
Out of the crucible of that war, several things happened. One is that the leadership of Iran for a while became much more radical, because in a war where you need to mobilize the population, you begin to rely more and more on those voices that are capable of mobilizing the population.
What role did sectarian narratives play in motivating people to fight?
Not sectarianism at that point. The war was a nationalist war: Let’s free Iran from an occupying force. But also the war was also fought by mobilizing Shia symbolism. So this was martyrdom, right? This was sacrificing oneself for the causes of religion, that many battles were named after historic Shia battles of Karbala and the like.
But during the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian leadership used these sectarian narratives to motivate people to fight.
Right. But it was anti-Sunni sectarianism. It was more like emphasizing Shia identity. But the war also fused Iranian nationalism and Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in ways that we’re still seeing played out in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its rhetoric in the region.
So they used Shia identity to motivate people to fight.
Right, Shia identity [to] motivate people to fight, to give to the war, to send their children, to donate to the war, to donate time. I mean, there were so many doctors that you could qualify them as quasi-secular who donated huge amounts of their time on the battlefront, attending to the wounded.
This became a huge national effort. While Iraq was occupying Iranian territory, it was a huge national effort in order to free Iranian lands. So it was Iranian nationalism, and it was Shiism. So it went back to the two things that makes Iran distinctive in the Middle East, right? These things got fused in the Iran-Iraq War. The war also gave birth to the Revolutionary Guards. I mean, you can’t understand the psychology of Revolutionary Guards and particularly its top commanders like the commander of the Quds brigade, Gen. [Qasem] Soleimani, without understanding the Iran-Iraq War.
The way they see it is that, you know, most of them actually fought these ferocious battles, were part of these ferocious battles. Tons of their comrades or friends died in the war. The Iran-Iraq War ended up being a horrendous affair with chemical weapons, mass bombings, the largest trench warfare since World War I, the largest tank battle since World War II.
I mean, none of it was reported, but the psychological impact was huge. And those young volunteers who went and fought in the war, many of them are the senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guard. They believe they speak for Iranian nationalism. They embody that marriage that the Iran-Iraq War brought about, a marriage of Iranian nationalism and this Shia revolutionary ideology. So it created this force that is still a dominant force within Iran itself. And then it had a massive impact domestically. Large areas of Iran were depopulated for a period of time, southwestern Iran and–
And they were fighting against a coalition of Gulf states backed by the United States, so that also had to solidify their revolutionary identity.
Well, you know, the West learned this during the French Revolution. It’s a mistake to attack a young revolutionary government. That’s the lesson. You know, all of the countries that attacked revolutionary France, you reinforce the revolution.
There were no Egyptian or Saudi troops, but they began to support Saddam very actively. And that’s also part of the mental narrative of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. And the war became regional in that matter.
So it became now Arab versus Iranian war particularly when the Iranians pushed the Iraqis out of Iranian territory and actually tried to now fight for Basra and demanded Saddam leave power. At that point, then, you know, the Arab world really went behind Saddam trying to make sure that Iraq did not collapse.
And it becomes not just Arab versus Iran; it becomes Sunni versus Shia.
Well, that was built in, if you would, into the whole psychology of this war, because Saddam understood that the loyalty of his own Shia population, Shia soldiers, was always at risk. They never sided with Iran. But they were not his friend either.
We also saw that after his invasion of Kuwait, that when the United States weakened his military and pushed it out of the south, there was a massive Shia uprising in southern Iraq, much like the Kurdish uprising in the north, and was a threat that the south at that point may have separated or forced Saddam to step down. Because Iraq was what Iraq was, which is a country where a minority Sunni Arab regime ruled over majority of Kurds and Shias — and this rule was not a happy one. He had brutalized the Kurds all along going back to the ’70s. He had brutalized the Shias that he could not necessarily count on their loyalty. In fact, one of the worries Saddam had all along was that a predominantly Shia military coming back vanquished or victorious could turn on his own regime. And that was why he had the Republican Guard, which was Sunni to the last man, as a defender of the regime and why he continuously kept purging the high echelon of the military, all the war heroes.
In fact, when the Iraqi military came victorious out of the Iran-Iraq War, he actually turned on them, turned on the commanders, turned on them. He was very worried about them. So, you know, the Iraqi state was sectarian at its core. And the Iranian revolution, then the Iran-Iraq War, and then the United States in 2003 threatened to expose that sectarian division and cause its fall. I mean, you could say–
It did challenge that division. I mean, it did rip that up.
Right. So ever since Khomeini took over Iran, Saddam knew he was vulnerable to this, and everything he did vis-à-vis Iran was designed to countervail what he thought might be ultimately a successful Shia challenge for state power.
In terms of regional peace, the Saudis understood that Saddam was a buffer against Iran. True?
When the Americans proposed that they were going to invade and topple Saddam, how did the Saudis react to that?
The Saudis were worried that if Saddam was removed in a manner that the entire Iraqi state would unravel, that potentially the Shia sector had no natural leader that they could work with and that Iran could very well be the beneficiary of an empowerment of Shias in the region.
Initially, during the Kuwait War, they actually had not been anti-Shia. The Saudis allowed large numbers of Shias to escape to Saudi Arabia. The largest refugee camps for Shias in 1991, ’92 were actually in Saudi Arabia. But then, between 1992 and 2003, they saw the Saddam regime become more sectarian itself.
The Faith Campaign.
The Faith Campaign, the purges of the south. I mean, after Saddam basically purged the south, all these people escaped to Saudi Arabia and the massacre of 1991, which by some account included some 300,000 people in the south were killed where he flooded the marshes. And then millions migrated from the marshes in the south and settled in Sadr City and then gravitated toward Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, whom then Saddam assassinated, that the relations between Shias and the dominant Saddam-ruled Sunni establishment had steadily worsened to where it was in 1979; in 1988, at the end of Iran-Iraq War; or in 1991, ’92, at the end of Kuwait War.
The Saudis now saw that an American invasion was likely going to lead not regime change of the kind George Bush thought — that Saddam goes and a nicer person or a democrat takes over. The Saudis understood regime change means much more fundamental regime change, which is Iraq is going to go from a Sunni-dominated regime to a Shia-dominated regime. And regional politics had reached a point that Shia Iraq was a natural ally of Iran.
Did nobody in the Bush administration understand that?
No, I don’t think anybody did.
No. I think there was a naivete that the big battle in the world is between people who want freedom and people who are oppressors. They didn’t understand that politics is a lot more complicated. In other words, there are things other than democracy that people want, or that it’s not just these two things or it’s not either/or.
Also, I don’t think they quite understood the complexities of Arab society. You know, to Americans, before the Iraq invasion, the Arab world was just one big block. They’re all Arabs; they’re all Sunnis; they’re all Muslims. The fact that you may have other kinds of divisions that over the years have become more prominent or lay right below the surface was not obvious to them.
I don’t understand. There were Arabists, and there were those that were even in there right after the 2003 invasion working at the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] or American State Department, officials that understood that there were all these fault lines. There were people in the military.
I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I don’t think we–
They talked about it.
I don’t think we have Arabists of the caliber of T. E. Lawrence, [the British military officer and advocate of Arab independence famously known as Lawrence of Arabia], anywhere in the State Department. So yes, they’re Arabists, but who are they commingling with when they go to Arab countries? It’s the elite, right? So if you continuously are talking to Sunni rulers in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia, in Tunisia, you come away with a very different conception of what that society’s about. We saw it in Iran. I mean, if you were hanging out in Tehran and around the monarchy, you couldn’t see how religious the underbelly of Iran was or where it could go.
So no, I don’t think they quite appreciated the importance of sectarianism. They didn’t quite appreciate that when we say Shia Iraqis, we don’t mean Ayad Allawi. We have to talk about Muqtada al-Sadr. That was the beast that was unknown to Americans.
And even to this day, American leaders speak of secular Shia leaders of Iraq like Ayad Allawi as if they are acceptable to the Shia community. They just don’t understand what constitutes identity here. What is it that these people want? The other fallacy we have is that either people are really happy living together or they want separatism.
So we understand the Kurds, but we don’t understand the Shias, the Alawites, the Sunnis, a situation in which people don’t want to separate. But they have mutually exclusive claims of who’s top dog in societies where you have to have a top dog, and there is no conception of real citizenship and pluralism.
So it’s a zero-sum game as they see it.
Well, it becomes a zero-sum game, or it’s something close to a zero-sum game. You know, the Arab world deceived us because it looks secular, but secularism and pluralism are very different things.
Nazi Germany was secular, but it was not pluralistic. It did not tolerate different ideas and ethnic groups and the like, not to say that the Arab world is akin to that. But I think American conception of these things was incredibly naive.
And I don’t think even to this day we have a handle on the dynamics that is driving the crisis in the Middle East, as if Iran, for instance, were somehow to disappear, that Shias and Sunnis and Alawites and Kurds are happy in the skin of the states that they have.
We’ll come to that. So Saudi Arabia warns — Prince Abdullah warns the Americans that this would be a bad idea. The Americans come in; they topple Saddam. Soon they’re making moves that are exacerbating the situation. And you have a sectarian war breaking out. You have jihadis, all of this. What are the Saudis doing at that point in time? They’ve warned against this, but what actions do they take?
I don’t think they took any actions that were decisive to the outcome. I think one has to think of the evolution of Saudi Arabia strategy in a continuum. After 1979, when America’s most important ally, Israel aside, became its biggest enemy in the region, Saudis joined Egypt and Jordan and a few other countries to forge a critical, tight alliance with the United States, essentially replacing Iran as America’s principal allies in the region, and the goal being to contain Iran. This partnership essentially worked for a number of decades, and they had become accustomed to taking this relationship almost for granted the way, say, European countries took a lot [of] transatlantic alliance and NATO for granted.
So they assume when there was trouble in Iraq that America would come to their side.
Well, first of all, not everybody saw the full scale of what the unraveling of Iraq would look like, right? It’s much easier to be Monday-morning quarterback.
Even in Riyadh they didn’t see–
Even in Riyadh, because even at minor levels, the war may have unfolded differently. Maybe Ambassador [L. Paul] Bremer would not have dissolved the Iraqi military. Maybe that option would have remained in garrisons to be exercised. Maybe the Americans would put a larger number of troops on the ground. Maybe the Americans won’t prove quite so incompetent as they actually proved to be.
I think one of the outcomes of the Iraq War was actually a rude awakening to everybody in the region about how bumbling we were and how little we understood of the region.
And I think, you know, that was all the things that became apparent during the war, not before the war. So I think even if the United States had invaded, many thought this was going to look a lot more like McArthur in Japan or it’s going to look a lot more like Germany; that the U.S. is going to sort of cobble together the country in sort of a softer variation of what it was. But nobody quite saw the catastrophe that American invasion brought to Iraq.
The Saudis felt it was a bad idea. They pleaded with the Bush administration not to invade, so they were very aware of the potential consequences. But yet you’re saying they really stood by and did nothing after the fall of Saddam.
Well, I don’t think they had the means to do anything. See, doing something actually requires you to have invested in capabilities to do something. The only country that actually had invested in being able to do something on the ground in Iraq was Iran. So what is it exactly the Saudis would do? Saudis had continuously, over the years when they had wanted to influence Iraq, had worked through the Saddam government.
They had kept channels open with them. Maybe they knew some of his ministers. The Jordanians similarly had a line of communication with the Saddam government. They carried information back and forth. But if Saddam isn’t there, the Saudis immediately had not built ties with tribal elements. They didn’t have relationship with the Shias at all, whereas the Iranians had all manner of relationships: clerical, non-clerical, military allied with the Kurds in the north, with the Shias in the south that actually they could mobilize immediately.
Talk about that ability to mobilize immediately.
Well, you know, Iran, since the revolution, has followed the military strategy that is unique in the region. Every government in the region, pro-American government, acts like the shah’s government in Iran, which is that you build a very close alliance with the United States, who provides your military with sophisticated, state-of-the-art technology that is the essence of your power.
Iran does not have that outlet to the world, and it learned about that during the Iran-Iraq War. Its air force went to ground very quickly. Nobody sold it sophisticated things. So Iran, instead, invested in two things, first in what we call asymmetric capabilities, which is militias, non-regular forces. They learned how valuable Hezbollah could be. You could just basically train and give light weapons to a group and have a great deal of effect. And then over time, they also began to look at nuclear capability. Both of these, if you would, were alternatives to conventional military capability.
So when Iran thought about its regional influence, whether it was trying to defend itself or wanted to expand its power, it has systematically looked to irregular forces. That’s militias on the ground, networks, intelligence networks and the like. Those had expanded among the Kurds, but mostly among the Shias during the Saddam rule, largely because they had viewed Saddam as an enemy to protect themselves against.
So they were ready to go.
Well, same thing happens in Syria. When Syria falls apart, Iran proves to be the only country in the Middle East that’s capable of carrying a war, successful war two countries removed from itself. Saudis don’t have it. Egyptians don’t have it. They all have regular, conventional military capability, which means what we see in Yemen. There’s land invasion, air invasion. But they’re not capable of running proxy wars. The Iranians had that capability, and in the vacuum that the United States created, that sort of blossomed very quickly.
There were Sunni militants. There was [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi’s organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, that were taking on the Shia in Iraq. Who was supporting and backing those jihadists?
Well, there was voluntary money going to them. There were resources within Iraq itself. They were also joined by the disgruntled elements of Saddam’s military intelligence officers, who had a great deal of capability. They were joined by tribal warriors that, during the later years, Saddam had allowed to flourish as a way of controlling the Sunni regions. Perhaps they, at some points, may have got support from Iran’s rivals in the region who had no other cards to play other than not invest in Zarqawi but invest in the tribal resistance that was the backbone of the insurgency and also because its credo was the restitution of Sunni power in Baghdad.
I mean, the same logic applies to Syria as well. And this is one of the things that becomes a fuel for sectarianism, because Iran’s regional rivals gravitate toward the insurgency. Iran begins to mobilize the Shia militias. And those forces on the ground, they talk about fighting for nation and protecting their families, etc., but in reality, they are arrayed along clear sectarian-identity lines.
You say that insurgents in Iraq may have received money from the enemies of Iran. You’re saying may. Why is it so hard to establish just what support they were getting? You talked about the men and tribal forces that came to them, but it takes money also to run an insurgency.
It takes money, and these are things that are difficult forensically to prove. Maybe intelligence agencies know a lot more than it’s been in the public domain. After 9/11, nobody gives money in a way that any journalist could trace it back through–
Before, they used charities.
Before, they used charities. That’s right. But you see, this is multi-tiered. It doesn’t mean that necessarily intelligence agencies were giving money to particular tribal groups, although that may have happened on occasion.
And some of those tribal groups may have joined with Al Qaeda or even ISIS–
Well, may have, but you see, the Sunni insurgency was also just like the anti-Assad Sunni war. It’s constituted of many different elements. There are those who are defending their turf against Kurds or Shias.
There are those who are actively supporting Al Qaeda. Boundary lines may be blurry. Sometimes there may be intelligence agencies or governments behind it. A lot of time, there is Salafi, you know, businessmen or sheikhs or, again, Karbala charities that collect money for them.
There’s a lot of money in the Arab world that was very sympathetic to the plight of the Sunnis. Now, why it was so sympathetic to the Sunnis, again, goes back to those sectarian identities. And it’s a moment in time when the Sunni world comes to see the United States as pro-Shia even though the U.S. is so hostile to Iran. It goes to the fact that in cases like Iraq or Syria, despite the rhetoric that we’re all Arabs, we all live here together. In the end, this is a zero-sum choice.
Either the U.S. is with the Sunnis or it’s with the Shia. If it’s defending the Shia government in Iraq, if it facilitated its rise and then they signed the nuclear deal with Iran, it must be pro-Shia, right? And the proof of it being pro-Sunni is that it must actively be anti-Shia.
And you’re saying that would motivate a Salafi businessman or sheikh or tribal leader in the Gulf?
The same way as giving money to the IRA motivated an Irish businessman in Boston at one point. You target people’s biases and sympathies by saying: “This is a war on the Sunnis. Look what’s happening to them. Look what the Shias are doing to them. Look at the revenge killings by the Sadrists. Look at the people that they are purging out of the military and the ministries and all of what they’re doing.” And also I think the right to rule is very much ingrained in the Sunni psychology in the Arab world.
So in that way, Iraq became a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Yes. I think it began with Iraq, and then it has spread to Syria. And then, for a minute, it looked like it may go to Bahrain as well. And now it’s in Yemen. You see, when states implode, it creates an opportunity for those powers that are standing to either expand their interests and sphere of influence or defend its sphere of influence that they enjoyed already.
In each one of these cases, the main battle lines are sectarian, and therefore, Saudi Arabia sees any kind of a Shia empowerment, be it in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, as a net loss; and Iran sees any kind of a Sunni takeover of Syria, Sunni takeover of Iraq at this point or a Sunni defeating Houthis as a net loss and a net gain for Saudis.
So without an outside power forcing a cease-fire in these cases as we did in the Balkans, these two sides are going to fight until they arrive at a point of either accepting defeat or realizing that they can’t go any further. The fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry has intensified is not because of a material change in the inherent capabilities of the two states. It is because of two things. One is that the Arab world collapsed because of American invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring, and that created a scramble for the leftovers, right? If Iran picks up most of the leftovers, the Saudis are net losers. If the Saudis pick up most of the leftovers, Iran is the net loser.
The second issue is that the Saudis and other Arabs believe that during the Obama administration, Iran successfully moved the United States into a more neutral position which, again, in a zero-sum calculation, it is a net loss for the Arabs.
Was it a naive or foolish move on the part of the Obama administration to turn toward Iran and try to entice them into the family of nations through the nuclear deal?
I don’t think it’s foolish. It is what it is. I mean, when Nixon went to China, he had the same kind of an impact on the Japanese. I mean, if you have any kind of a regional or global strategic architecture be there for a long period of time, everybody’s foreign policies becomes calcified in that context. So any kind of a change to that, whether you consult with them before or you shock them like Nixon shocked the Japanese and Obama shocked Saudi Arabia, it’s bound to be disturbing, because you’re telling people, “You’ve got to go back to your own strategic drawing boards, and don’t count on us the way you used to count on us before.” All of the way in which we coexisted before is no longer there.
But how do we evaluate that shock? How do we evaluate whether or not that was a good or a bad policy?
Well, from the viewpoint of Saudi Arabia, it was a bad policy. But also it comes to Saudi Arabia after the fall of Iraq, after Arab Spring, after the fact that they’re in a scramble with Iran. They’re not thinking whether this is actually a good thing or a bad thing. In the middle of that fight, when the Iranians are fighting to the knife over Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, that the Iranians will construe the nuclear deal as a net strategic advantage, meaning that they not only have taken Iraq, Syria and maybe Yemen, but they’ve taken the United States, and the Iranians potentially looked at this — some Iranians, I don’t want to say all — that having the United States in a more middle position between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a good thing. But the real result of whether this was a good strategic move or not cannot be calculated now.
Why can’t Iran drop the slogan “Death to America” and begin to deal with the United States? Why is it necessary for them to set themselves up in opposition to the United States in the way they have, in opposition to Saudi Arabia? Why can’t they share the neighborhood?
I think it’s much easier for them to move their position on Saudi Arabia.
But they don’t do it.
Well, no. On Saudi Arabia, they can memorize nice things like we want cooperation, coexistence; we’re happy to exchange ambassadors; we’re happy to talk over Yemen. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be good friends. But they have moved significantly on Saudi Arabia since Khomeini died. So if you read Khomeini’s last will and testament, what he says about Saudi monarchy is just completely unacceptable for a leader of a country to say about leaders of another country.
Right. He called for the downfall of the monarchy.
No, no. But he called them also really nasty things in his last will and testament, I mean, things that are not OK to say.
He ridiculed them.
He ridiculed them. But then, you know, you had a period under President Rafsanjani where he signed a security pact with King Abdullah. He went to Riyadh; he normalized relations. And then things, again, began to fall apart after that. So the Iranians can sort of get into sort of a cold peace with Saudi Arabia if not warm relations.
But in their demonstrations, in their annual celebration of the revolution on Revolution Day in February, they carry posters, “Down with Saudi Arabia”; “Death to Saudi Arabia.”
Well, that’s the politics of today. America’s a different problem because it’s embedded in their whole definition of revolution. And there is too many political factions in Iran that are still tied to Iran seeing itself as a revolutionary government. In other words, giving up on anti-Americanism really means a Gorbachev moment, a Deng Xiaoping moment.
And they’re worried about that Gorbachev moment that would lead to the dissolution.
No, I think it’s more fundamental. There’s no Gorbachev. I mean, it actually requires somebody–
Well, Gorbachev didn’t last long.
They didn’t last long. But let’s say Deng Xiaoping. I mean, you have to have a leader who has absolute control, who can bring the rest of the political establishment with them who actually has made a decision that we’re going to sleep tonight as revolutionaries; we’re going to wake up in the morning as something completely different. So giving up on anti-Americanism basically means that Iran has to make a determined decision that it’s going to transform itself.
During the nuclear deal, we saw that it’s not there. It really agonized over whether or not they should sign a quote-unquote “narrow arms control deal” with the U.S. and try to contain any momentum that that may have. So yes, we can talk to the Americans; we can sign a deal; we can abide by the deal. But it’s a very limited deal. And it doesn’t mean anything more. And actually, we’re going to redouble our anti-Americanism just to prove the fact that there is nothing more to this than an arms control deal.
I’m worried that when we talked about these various states and the wars, that we’re dealing with each of these singularly in sequence; we’re not giving a global view. So when we mention Iraq and then Syria and then Yemen in the same sentence, it’s hard for us to pull it apart. So I’d like to just talk about, in summary, I mean, Iran has been successful in Iraq. Just talk about their victory in Iraq.
Well, it is victory to a point. Iran has a victory to a point in Iraq. Its victory, number one, was that Saddam Hussein and the notion of a powerful anti-Iranian Sunni dictator with a large military that would be in the side of the Iranians is gone.
That’s thanks to the United States. And that is a strategic gift. That means that Iraq goes from being the most effectively anti-Iranian state to being sort of a Finland next to Iran.
So for Iran, it’s a gain.
It’s a gain. But there is losses, too, which is, first of all, between 2003 and 2013, let’s say, they’ve lost significant portions of Iraq in a major way to ISIS. They had to fight sort of rearguard battle to prevent either the Kurds or the Shias in the south falling.
The Syria War and the Iraq War has raised sectarian tensions in the region to a point that now serves as a serious limit to Iranian influence in the region. So yes, the Shias have become closer to them because of sectarianism, but the Sunnis have become even more alienated.
Because of pluralization.
Right. And if you look at 2017, ’18, Iran has control over smaller portion of Iraq than it did in 2006. And the Sunni portion of Iraq now looks a lot more threatening to Iran than it did even during the insurgency.
The Sunni portion of Iraq, the cities are destroyed.
There are millions of angry Sunnis who are going to come back in the form of another ISIS and another set of headaches. This is kind of like the northern wall in Game of Thrones, right? You can defeat nightwalkers one time; they’re going to come back. I mean, that’s the situation Iran finds it in. Unless there is a Sunni ruler there that takes control of the Sunni region and you can forge a deal with and arrive at an understanding, you’re dealing with a vast area that now spills into Syria as well where millions of angry, destitute, marginalized, disenfranchised Sunnis are seething with anger.
So ISIS 2.0.
ISIS 2.0 in a military term. But the sectarian anger that Iran hasn’t been defeated. Just because ISIS has been defeated doesn’t mean that Iran, among the large, vast Sunni population in the region actually has regained support or tolerance, let’s put it.
Let’s talk about Syria. Syria is an Arab Spring uprising that quickly devolves into a civil war and a sectarian war or a war in which Iran and Saudi Arabia take sides and list their proxies, whether it’s Hezbollah or Ahrar al-Sham or other groups fighting on the Sunni side. I guess I want you to tell me the story of how we got to where we are in Syria.
Well, you know, Syria did start as an Arab uprising. I think you know the Arab Spring started in parts of the Arab world which is much more homogenous, Tunisia and then Egypt. Overwhelmingly, everybody’s Sunni; everybody’s Arab. And therefore the implications of the uprising was much more about integrity, jobs, freedoms, right? As it moves to this sort of polyglot of the heartland of the Middle East where you have these states that are ethnically sectarian-wise, divided, under minority rules, the main implication of any challenge to the existing order is not about empowering the individual. But it’s about changing the balance of power between sects and ethnic groups. Having witnessed what happened in Iraq, the minority decides to fight to the knife, and the majority believes that Iraq rules should apply to them.
The Assad regime, the Alawite minority that’s allied with Iran, decides to fight.
Decides to fight because it sees what happened to Saddam. And if the point was not clear, early on, Assad invests in actually stoking sectarian violence by deliberately targeting Sunnis in the names of Alawites, getting them to retaliate against Alawites.
And releasing Sunnis from prisons.
Prison, exactly. So he has a policy of using sectarianism in order to shore up Alawite backbone.
Let’s stick with Syria if we can. This is hard for people to get their heads around. He actually releases Sunni jihadists that are in his prisons in order to polarize the situation and justify the Alawite fight to–
Well, not only to stoke sectarianism but also to show the West that this is not a democracy movement; this is a jihadi movement parading under the banner of Arab Spring. So this war very quickly descends into sectarianism.
And what do the Saudis do?
Well, they also see the benefit of the best way of containing the spread of Arab Spring to the Arabian Peninsula is also to portray this to the Sunni population there that this is not really about one man, one vote and franchisement. This is really a Shia power play. So in Bahrain, this is not really a pro-democracy movement; this is an Iranian-backed Shia takeover of power.
And in Syria.
And in Syria they support the Sunnis. So very quickly, the Arab Spring, the governments on the ground see sectarianism as a strategy of survival. And then you have Iran and Saudi Arabia, and many other Sunni governments and also the Shia government in Iraq, view every single conflict in the Arab Spring as potentially have a bearing on the stability of the Iran regime. So the Iraqi Shias who didn’t like Assad because he had supported the insurgency now view the fall of Assad and the idea that the Sunnis would take over Damascus as a mortal threat to Baghdad, because if the Sunnis took Damascus, then the Iraqi Sunnis would become completely unruly, and they would be out of there. So the Iraqi government begins to give Assad billions of dollars in money and support and oil and gas and the like. The sympathies of Shias [was with the] Shia uprising in Bahrain. The sympathy of the Sunnis was with the Sunni government.
So very quickly, you know, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, they begin to see do they win or lose if there are these changes of regime? Iran wins in Yemen if the Houthis take control; Saudi Arabia loses. Saudi Arabia wins if Assad falls; Iran loses. So what starts as a pro-democracy movement disturbs the balance of power between the sects. The initial reaction of the governments is to use sectarianism to their own advantage. This brings, if you would, the godfathers in the region who clearly–
Iran and Saudi Arabia.
And not just Saudi Arabia. Other standing states, but let’s say the Sunni states, vis-à-vis Iran, who obviously see either strategic gain or strategic loss in the outcome. Now, one of the reasons I would say the Arab world is really bitter is that Iran has held onto Iraq and has also held onto Syria as well, and they haven’t been able to vanquish the Iranian client in Yemen either. So the sole victory for the Saudis is really on the Arabian Peninsula, in Saudi Arabia itself, where the uprisings early on were successfully quelled by King Abdullah and in Bahrain where there was decisive action taken, and the uprising ended. But in the broader Middle East, for now, the Iranians have held their own. And that’s part of the entire reason why these two are still like two gorillas in a cage, are jostling against one another.
So this also drives why it is so important to Mohammed bin Salman, the king in waiting to defeat Iran in Yemen.
Well, it’s the strategic importance, because Yemen is very important to Saudi Arabia. But also, you know, Saudi order of power as a leader of the Arab world, as a leader of the Muslim world, is now greatly dependent on being able to stave off what looks like an Iranian sweep, and partly I think the United States and the Arab states themselves are at fault, because even at the earliest phase of the uprisings in Syria, they characterize the fall of Assad as something good because he would downsize Iran.
So in the mindset of the region, they made it all about Iran. Even to this day, even if at times Russian support for Assad may be more important, it is Iran that is sort of most closely associated with Assad. So the Iranians, by the same token, have a vested interest in not losing face, and at the same time, they have held onto Iraq as well.
How active is Iran in Yemen?
It’s less active than it’s been in Iraq or Syria for the reason that it’s not easy for the Iranians to operate in Yemen logistically speaking. The Houthis are also not really Shia. They belong to a sect of Shiism which follows their own imam and their own religious leaders. They’re not of the branch of Shiism that Iraqis and Iranians are. And historically, they have not been close to Iran.
So if the Houthis don’t have a large amount of support from Iran, what threat are they to Saudi Arabia? And why does Saudi Arabia feel that it needs to be in there with this bombing campaign?
Well, the threat is always in the mindset of the one who’s threatened. I mean, there is a threat to broader Saudi’s strategic interest if the perception around the Arab world and the Muslim world would be that the quote-unquote “pro-Iranian group” has taken over Yemen, which is the soft belly of Saudi Arabia.
So at the level of prestige and appearance, that would be a blow. Secondly, who knows what Houthis, if they were allowed to take control of Yemen and consolidate power, would, over time, do? So the idea of a client state in the long run, an Iranian client state in the long run on the Red Sea and shores of the Arabian Sea, is a strategic vulnerability for Saudi Arabia.
And then once they got into the conflict, the Saudis could not afford to come out conceding, because then, you know, they would lose all face. So I think the Saudis have now a lot of their strategic credibility vested in Yemen, and that’s actually what makes it very attractive for Iranians to keep it going.
How is it that Assad being an Alawite has a sort of honorary membership as Shiite? How does that come about?
Well, it came about largely as a strategic measure. In the sort of universe of Islam, Alawites are sort of beyond the pale of Islam because they don’t really follow the Sharia, and they don’t follow Islamic law. But they’re closer to Shias than they are to Sunnis. And once they were rulers of Syria.
I think first Imam Musa al-Sadr in Lebanon and then Khomeini issue fatwas that say the Alawites are within the family of Shiism, so technically, they’re Shias. And because Shias are part of the Islamic world, therefore, they are an Islamic government. Now Salafis don’t even believe Shias are Muslims, let alone the Alawite offshoots. But this was largely a strategic decision made. This was not something that was decided in some kind of meeting of clerics. It was a decision that the pre-eminent Shia religious political leader of Lebanon made in allying his organization, Amal, with the protection of the Assad regime in Lebanon. And then Khomeini, in the thick of a war with Saddam Hussein and trying to at least have one country in the Arab world which he could count as a friend, provided this kind of religious legitimacy to the Assad family.
How is it that Iran and Saudi Arabia can come to any kind of accommodation with one another?
Well, there’s a couple of ways that can happen. One is that their conflict just rages on until both sides exhaust themselves like Lebanon in the 1970s. So once there is no more fighting to do be done in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, there might be the beginnings of a desire on both sides to sort of say, “OK, what kind of a deal can we make to finish this?”
Is there a role that the United States should or can play?
Yes, absolutely. The United States can fast-track this process similar to the Dayton Agreement. In other words, it doesn’t have much leverage with Iran. But it could maybe create a broader European, Russian, Chinese gathering. Or it can do it itself. It can seriously, basically, push the two sides to arrive at some kind of a political agreement that would end the fighting.
Is that likely to happen with the current administration that has tilted its policies back toward Saudi Arabia?
Well, not unless it tilts at the same time in the other direction. So the tilt toward Saudi Arabia is good because it might give the Saudis the sense of confidence in American support that they didn’t have under Obama. So it was much more risky for them to accept any kind of a compromise with Iran, which then would confirm Iran’s regional hold. Now, with the Trump administration so effectively behind Saudi Arabia, they may have a great deal more of confidence.
And the U.S. may also have more ability to persuade Riyadh to do certain things. But on the other hand, the U.S. actually has very little leverage with Iran right now, neither military leverage nor positive leverage. And unless and until it can also exercise leverage on the Iranians, it would be very difficult to bring them to some kind of agreement.
What is it that Iran is getting out of its involvement in these countries?
Well, look, this is very much sort of power politics going back to European history pre-World War I, World War II and the like. It’s a state with regional fears and regional ambitions, so Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq is simultaneously defensive and expansionist.
They were invaded by Iraq. They want to Finlandize weak Iraq. They want influence in Iraq. They see Hezbollah as a defense against Israel. To sustain Hezbollah, they need Syria. To sustain Syria, they need Assad. If they lose, they believe that they’re in a war with the United States and all of their Sunni neighbors. And if they sniff any kind of weakness on Iran’s part, they’re going to go for the jugular.
And therefore, they have to fight for all of their equities in the region to the knife because if Assad falls, if the Iraqi regime falls, if Hezbollah goes, it’s going to be open season on Iraq. So that’s the defensive part.
The offensive part is that Iran sees itself as a great power. It has a vision of the Middle East as it’s near abroad, which is not very different from the way Saudi Arabia sees the region or India sees South Asia or China sees Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. So the Iranians believe that they’re a big power in the Middle East, and they are not to be excluded from the Middle East. And if there is a vacuum into which they can expand, they want to expand.
Is Iran a sponsor of state terrorism today?
Iran definitely has supported terrorist organizations and still supports terrorist organizations. But there’s also a level at which the description of terrorism is very much used politically the same way as in the 1970s. You know, one man’s freedom fighter was another man’s terrorist.
When you say Iran supports terrorist organizations, you’re talking about whom?
We’re talking about Hezbollah. We’re talking about some of the small militia groups in Iraq that carry out terrorist attacks. But the fact of the matter is that the largest problem of terrorism for Europe and the United States is not tied to Iran. It’s tied to Sunni jihadi ideology and movements. So it’s not Iranian-backed groups that are attacking metros or malls in Berlin or Brussels or Paris. This is not coming from Iran or Iranian-backed groups. Iranian-backed terrorism is a very different species than the post-Al Qaeda and post-9/11 terrorism phenomena we’ve confronted.
The Saudis would say, “Look, they’re using terrorist methods across the Middle East to weaken the social order, the political order, and that that itself poses a great threat to the West.”
Possibly. But I think the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, by and large, the one that really concerns Europe and the United States today, is a Sunni problem, not a Shia problem.
Bernard Haykel made the point that it’s a battle between chaos, which is Iran, and stability, which is Saudi Arabia.
It’s not that simple. One man’s chaos is another man’s stability, right? The Iranians would view that the Sunni government’s support [of] Sunni insurgency in Iraq or Syria that has been the cause of chaos in those countries, that if it was not for the broader support of the Sunni world that the Sunnis in Iraq would have accepted the rule of the Shias.
You know, the Middle East is in the throes of fundamental change that Iran and Saudi Arabia are playing in, but they’re not necessarily the cause of it. Iran didn’t start or cause the Arab Spring, right?
There are Shias in Bahrain or other places that try to emulate it. Nor did Saudi Arabia cause the fall of Saddam. But this sort of vortex of chaos and calamity that is engulfed in the Middle East is much more fundamental.
It has to do with structural problems and division of power that has reigned in the Arab world going back to the post-Versailles treaty. Now one side tries to accuse the other side as being the source of the problem, so the Iranians accuse the Arab governments of supporting Sunni radicalism and ISIS, and the Sunni governments accuse Iran of being behind this set of problems. Both sides have their proxies. They have legitimate strategic interests that are immediately identifiable to anybody who studied history and politics in Europe or anywhere else in the world.
And they are also using public opinion in order to further their issues. But the problems of the Middle East are not attributable to Iran alone. Nor can Iran solve it and then not attribute it to the Arab Sunni states. And nor can they solve it by themselves.
Middle East will arrive at peace when its political order in these broken states can be reconstituted in a manner that is sustainable and viable and that the order can be accepted by all outside actors that have a vested interest in it.