Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Party of Ali Flexes Its Muscles...

Vali Nasr is talking sense. But couldn't Peter Waldman spare a paragraph to say that what Nasr says has happened--that the U.S. attack on Iraq has greatly strengthened Iran--was foreseen and feared by those Clintonites who pursued the policy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran in the 1990s? This isn't rocket science, after all:

WSJ.com - Rising Academic Sees Sectarian Split Inflaming Mideast: By PETER WALDMAN: August 4, 2006; Page A1: WASHINGTON -- As Vali Nasr dashed for the airport last week after briefing a small group of academics and policy makers here, a hand pulled the political scientist aside. "That was the most coherent, in-depth and incisive discussion of the religious situation in the Middle East that I've heard in any setting," said Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader and influential conservative. Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heaped similar praise on Mr. Nasr in May for giving what Mr. Biden called the most "concise and coherent" testimony on Iran he had ever heard.

From the violence in the Mideast, new realities are emerging -- and a new generation of experts to interpret them. Shiite Muslims are asserting themselves as never before. Followers of this branch of Islam, generally backbenchers in the region's power game, are central players in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq -- often acting out against traditional powers such as Israel, the U.S., and Sunni Arab states.

Mr. Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., calls this a historic "Shiite revival" and has gone further than most in identifying it as a central force in Mideast politics. He also frames a possible U.S. response: Engage Iran, especially over the issue of reducing violence in Iraq, and try to manage Tehran's rise as a regional power rather than isolating it. The issues are more than academic for the 46-year-old professor. He was raised in Tehran and hails from a prominent intellectual and literary family in Iran that traces its lineage to the prophet Muhammad. His father was once president of Iran's top science university and chief of staff for the shah's wife.

In 1979, after the Iranian revolution, the Nasrs "started from zero" in the U.S., says Mr. Nasr. He received a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing his thesis on the political dimensions of radical Islam, while his father, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, became a renowned professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University.

The younger Mr. Nasr has laid out his views in a series of speeches and articles.... Mr. Nasr's analysis begins with the idea that the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has transformed the Mideast, but not in the ways promised by President Bush. By replacing Iraq's Sunni-led dictatorship with an elected government dominated by the country's Shiite majority, the U.S. destroyed the Sunni wall that had contained the restless Shiite power to the east, Iran. The clerical regime in Tehran was immeasurably strengthened.

This power shift, Mr. Nasr argues, has reopened an ancient fault line between Shiites and Sunnis that crosses the entire region. The schism dates back to the prophet Muhammad's death in 632, when his companions -- the forebears of the Sunnis -- chose Muhammad's close friend and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to succeed him and become Islam's first caliph. Shiites believe Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, was more deserving.

Ali managed to become Islam's fourth caliph, only to face multiple rebellions. He was ultimately murdered while at prayer at a shrine in what is now Iraq. His son, Hussein, refused to accept his father's Sunni usurpers and was slain 19 years later. Shiites commemorate Hussein's murder in the holiday called Ashura, a 10-day period of mourning and self-flagellation. Their reverence for Hussein's stand against tyranny is the touchstone of Shiite political passions -- often invoked during the Iranian revolution, the ensuing war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and even recently by the leader of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in its war against Israel. Traditional Sunnis view Shiites as heretics, led astray by Persian Zoroastrianism and other pagan beliefs....

"In the coming years, Shiites and Sunnis will compete over power, first in Iraq but ultimately across the entire region," Mr. Nasr writes in his new book, "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future," published by W.W. Norton & Co. "The overall Sunni-Shiite conflict will play a large role in defining the Middle East as a whole and shaping its relations with the outside world."...

To adapt, the U.S. must "recalibrate" its diplomacy and re-establish contacts with Iran, he says. That would require disavowing any interest in "regime change" in Tehran -- an unrealistic aim anyway, Mr. Nasr argues -- but would offer the best hope of moderating Iran's growing influence. "The Iranian genie isn't going back in the bottle," he says. "If we deny these changes have happened -- that Cairo, Amman and Riyadh have lost control of the region -- and we continue to exclude Iran, we'd better be prepared to spend a lot of money on troops in the region for a long time," Mr. Nasr says....

"You can beat Hezbollah to a pulp, but you can't change the fact that around 45% of Lebanese are Shiites," Mr. Nasr says. Mr. Nasr also sees room for engagement with Tehran over Iraq.

Prior to the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Bush administration argued change in Iraq would help spawn democracy in the region. At a seminar in Toronto around the start of the war, historian Bernard Lewis, who was instrumental in advising Vice President Dick Cheney and other top U.S. officials on the Iraq invasion, said: "The Iranian regime won't last very long after an overthrow of the regime in Iraq, and many other regimes in the region will feel threatened."

This prediction was based on a pivotal misunderstanding about Iraq's Shiites, Mr. Nasr says: that their Iraqi and Arab identity would supersede their Shiite affinity with Iran. As it turned out, as soon as Shiites took power in Iraq, they eagerly threw open the gates to Iranian influence and support.... "Ethnic antagonism [between Arabs and Persians] cannot possibly be all-important when Iraq's supreme religious leader is Iranian and Iran's chief justice is Iraqi," writes Mr. Nasr in the current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. The references are to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iranian-born Iraqi religious leader, and the Iraqi-born head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi.

Mr. Lewis, in a phone interview, says he still believes the "tyrannies" neighboring Iraq feel threatened by the prospect of a stable democracy in Baghdad. He says Iran's activities in its neighbor are a sign of its fears.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, quipped about Iran's influence in a recent speech in Washington. When he met his Iranian counterpart in Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad said, "I used to joke with him that 'you guys ought to be much more helpful to us, because look, you couldn't deal with the Taliban problem, you couldn't deal with the Saddam problem, and we've dealt with both. That's a big deal. We'll send you a bill one day for that.'"...

But Mr. Nasr says U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq may converge because both want lasting stability there. Comparing Iran to 19th-century Prussia and Japan of the 1930s, he says it is important to manage the rise of regional powers. "You can't regulate them by isolating them," he says.

Bernard Lewis, by contrast, is embarrassing himself. The parties of order and oligarchy all over the Middle East have been strengthened by the example of the clusterf--- that the Bush administration has watered and fertilized in Iraq. Everybody in the secular middle class in the Middle East now has a renewed appreciation for the virtues of their oligarchical rulers.

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