Vali Nasr works at the Council on Foreign Relations and writes on Foreign Affairs for many prestigious American newspapers. In this interview he pointed out the birth of a new Middle East, and stressed the need not to undervalue the Shia-Sunni conflict, “or we’ll be surprised, as in Iraq”. About a possible American attack against Iran, he added “Such an attack could create a wave of violence that the Sunni governments could not necessarily control, but they would be secretly happy.”
In August Muqtada al Sadr demonstrated in Baghdad for Hezbollah. What are the (political and financial) relations between the two groups? Is it true that Hezbollah is a model for Al Sadr’s group, as the Washington Post has suggested?
The Sadr family has deep ties to Lebanon. Their ancestry comes from Lebanon and Muqtada’s grand uncle, Imam Musa al-Sadr, was the legendry head of Lebanese Shias. There have been reports that Hezbollah may have trained Muqtada’s movement in organizing social works and establishing political control, but there is no hard evidence of such a relationship. More importantly, Hezbollah does serve as a model, in that it combines political control and social work with effective military organization. Also Hezbollah’s rhetoric of combining Lebanese nationalism with anti-occupation military activity has been appealing to Sunnis in the Levant. Muqtada sees this formula as one that applies to Iraq. Hence Muqtada also combines Iraqi nationalism with anti-Americanism as part of his political formula. Hezbollah’s success in the recent war (especially in gaining popularity among many Arab Sunnis), is no doubt appealing to Muqtada, who is fighting for power in a country divided along sectarian lines.
In your book you write that war within Islam “will shape the future”. What do you mean?
I mean that the Shia-Sunni conflict, in some ways, is becoming like what the Protestant-Catholic conflict was for Europe, during the medieval period or recently in Northern Ireland. It’s about religion and identity, but also about politics and power. Shiism and Sunnism are like the major division in Christianity between Protestants and Catholics. For a very long time there was a Sunni domination over the Arab world, but now, because of what happened in Iraq, we have the very first case of that balance being disturbed by power-sharing in favour of Shias.
Are Sunni countries worried by Iran’s leadership and by this “Shia Crescent”?
Yes, they are. And that’s why the King of Jordan, the President of Egypt and the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia keep talking about it. It is not the Shia’s who talk about the “Shia Crescent”, it’s the Sunni’s who talk about it. We saw this very clearly when the Hezbollah war started. It was the Arab countries who very quickly said that this was a Shia alliance going to war with Israel, and they criticised it. It was not the Shia’s who said that this was a Shia alliance. Sunni countries have two worries. There are some Sunni countries that have Shia populations, like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, but there are some Sunni countries, like Jordan or Egypt, who don’t have Shia population but worry more about the balance of power-sharing in Iran.
Can this “Shia Crescent” also spread to other countries, like Bahrain and Pakistan?
Yes, particularly Bahrain. In the Arab world this phenomenon is of much more significance, because outside the Arab world, even though the Shias have been a minority, they have been more included in power. In Pakistan, for instance, Benazir Bhutto and her father, the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, they were all Shia. In Pakistan, you also have Shia generals and Shia ministers. And even in Afghanistan, after Hamid Karzai became President and the Taliban fell, the Shia’s were again included in the country’s Constitution and in the government. But in the Arab world it is now becoming far more bloody. In Iraq we are not seeing a peaceful transition. Now many countries are facing this issue of how do you share power between Shias and Sunnis, like Bahrain, but also Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon. They all have this issue of having different sizes of Shia population, from a majority in Bahrain to a minority in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. But everywhere the issue is the same: power-sharing.
It seems that this “Shia Crescent” is always fuelled by western attacks, as we can see in Iraq and Lebanon.
That’s very significant, because until recently (I mean in the past ten years, I am not talking about the Ayatollah Khomeini era) the main issue has been with Al Qaeda, which is Sunni. The Shia’s have not participated in terrorist attacks, and in fact when 9/11 happened the Shia population showed support for the victims through demonstrations in Tehran and Karachi. Even in Lebanon, Hezbollah was more focused on Israel, and in Iraq the Shia’s initially supported the United States and joined the government. But now we are going through a period where relations with the Shia’s are also becoming quite bad, and if the Shia’s also become anti-American and anti-Western, then you are going to have a far broader
extension of the problems of violence and terrorism in the Middle East.
Would it be easier for the West to deal with a divided Muslim world?
No, because we can not predict what the outcome of the conflict would be. The West should first of all understand this dynamic, because a lot of conflicts like Iraq can emerge from sectarianism, as rivalry and competition exist. We do not necessarily benefit from them, but if we don’t take them seriously we’ll be surprised. For instance, in Iraq we were surprised by the fact that ultimately the future of Iraq was put in jeopardy by the threat of civil war. Similarly, there may be cases where we need the Shia’s to balance against Al Qaeda, and cases where you need the Sunnis to balance against forces like Hezbollah. There is no uniform way, but the main problem is that the Western perception of the Middle East is based
on a regional system that existed before, before we had this Shia revival from Iraq. Now we are dealing with a new region, and we have to understand its reality.
Haaretz wrote that this war could produce a Sunni-Israel alliance. Do you believe that’s possible?
I don’t think that an alliance is likely, because the Arab-Israel issue is very important to the Sunni world, and the mood on the Sunni street is not conciliatory towards Israel. Sunni governments cannot openly have an alliance with Israel. What Haaretz suggests is that there might be a commonality of objectives, mainly if both are opposed to Hezbollah, even though for different reasons. We would have a similar situation to what Israel had at one time with conservative Arab governments against radical Palestinians forces: they were both opposed to them, but there was no open alliance.
How would Sunni countries react to an American attack on Iran? Would they be secretly happy?
Yes, I think they would be. But publicly such an attack could create a wave of violence they can not necessarily control. Just like Hezbollah’s attacks and the war with Israel ended up creating emotions on the Arab street and anger that was not forecast. The economy of many Arab countries is very vulnerable to what happens in the Persian Gulf, far more than to what happens in Lebanon. In many ways the Sunni countries may be very worried about Iran, but I think they are also worried about a war that may not end up being quick or decisive, exactly like it happened in Lebanon. And that can not be foreseen, and can be dangerous.
(A reduced version of this article has appeared, in italian, on the newspaper Europa)