Engaging the Enemy
Middle East expert Vali Nasr says it’s time for an entirely new policy toward Iran

In early January, conflict between the United States and Iran flared yet again, as Iranian speedboats apparently threatened U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz. The skirmish was the latest in a series that stretches back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In those three decades, U.S. policies have been consistently hostile to Teheran. But that approach is not working, and it’s time to change it, says Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School, who specializes in the Middle East. In an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Nasr and co-author Ray Takeyh argue that it’s time for us to recognize that the balance of power in the Middle East has shifted, and engage with the country that we have long viewed as the enemy.

“Like it or not, the Iraq war has changed the balance of power in Iran’s favor,” says Vali Nasr, a Fletcher School professor of international politics. “Iran is more influential and powerful today than it was in 2003.” PHOTO: MELODY KO

Taking such public positions on policy matters is nothing new for Nasr, A83, F84, who joined the faculty at the Fletcher School last fall and is teaching his first classes here this semester. In the past few years, he’s become a player in the foreign policy field, sought out by policymakers and the media for his opinions. You’re likely to see him quoted in the New York Times one day and recounting Congressional testimony on the Charlie Rose Show another, and he has been called to advise President George Bush—and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, too—on Middle Eastern politics. “I think it’s important to bridge the knowledge in academia and policymaking,” says Nasr, who is also an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Having studied Middle Eastern politics since the time he was at Tufts as an undergraduate—he received a degree from Fletcher a year later, and went on to get a Ph.D. from MIT—Nasr’s approach to the subject is grounded in practicality, not partisanship. That gets noticed, too. U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., called Nasr’s testimony on Iran before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006 the most “concise and coherent” he’d ever heard on the subject.

Nasr’s 2006 book, The Shia Revival (W.W. Norton & Co.) sets the tone for his message: look beyond the surface to see the complexities of the Middle East, and understand that power in the region is always changing. In the book, he points to the growing sectarian divide in the Islamic world between the majority Sunnis and minority Shias, and how it affects politics throughout the region.

“The main divide in Iraq is still between Shias and Sunnis,” he says, which drives that country’s turf battles and constitutional tussles. It’s also at the root of conflict in Lebanon, as Shias led by Hezbollah challenge the Sunni-led government in Beirut. “Elsewhere in the region, this issue is going to metamorphose,” he says. “Some places will maybe become more aggravated; some will become less so.”

No Easy Answers
Still, politics in the Middle East often defy easy explanations. “The same Sunni groups that dislike Iran for its support of the Shias in Iraq and are not approving of Iran’s Shia identity and Shia religion, may nevertheless respect the Iranian president for his anti-American rhetoric,” Nasr says. “American policymakers have got to understand it’s not a black-and-white picture.”

Take the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. “Before Iraq, the issues did not have this clear a sectarian overtone,” Nasr notes. “You never would have had a demonstration by Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction calling [its rival] Hamas Shia in a derogatory, negative way—because Hamas is reputed to be supported by Hezbollah and gets money from Iran. Before Iraq, they would have called them many names, but they wouldn’t have called them Shia. They are obviously calling them Shia because they understand that sectarianism can be played, used, manipulated to put their main rival on the defensive.”

One major driver of extremism, says Nasr, who grew up in Teheran until his family fled in 1979, “is the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Arab governments for power and prestige in the region. Clearly it has sectarian undertones—ultimately Iran is seen as the Shia power.”

Much of this is a reflection of Iran’s growing power in the region. “Like it or not, the Iraq war has changed the balance of power in Iran’s favor,” Nasr argues. “Iran is more influential and powerful today than it was in 2003. This is for a number of reasons, among them that its main enemies, the Taliban and the Iraq regime, have fallen. Iran has found much more elbow room in Afghanistan and Iraq,” which it borders.

The Iran Question
U.S. policymakers have long been vexed about how to best deal with Iran. One option, Nasr says, is to do what we’ve done for the past 10 to 15 years: keep our distance, not maintain diplomatic relations and “just sort of put pressure on them,” he says. “But in the meantime, the Iranians keep building their nuclear capability, and their power expands.”

The second option is to try to coerce Iran through sanctions or military action. The trouble is, “the United States has its hands full in Afghanistan and Iraq; it might growl at Iran, but Iran is not going to take the prospect of a war very seriously,” Nasr says. “So our ability to change Iran’s course is intrinsically limited.”

That leaves only one option, Nasr argues: change the rules of the game by trying to engage Iran. “The reality is that you need to change your Iran policy completely, which means that you have to accept that, yes, there are huge challenges—their nuclear program is a huge problem; their role in the Gulf is threatening to everybody—but the idea that you can somehow just slam them down and get everything you want from them is not going to work,” he says.

It’s not going to be easy, he acknowledges, but he holds out hope. “Engaging Iran and regulating its rising power within an inclusive regional security architecture would present the best way of addressing the concerns of America’s Arab allies, stabilizing Iraq and even giving a new direction to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program,” Nasr and Takeyh wrote in December in the New York Times. “Ultimately, security for both Arabs and Israelis will be more achievable if Iran is part of the region and is vested in its stability rather than excluded from it.”

Taylor McNeil is news editor in Tufts’ Office of Publications. He can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu. This story ran in the February 2008 issue of the Tufts Journal.