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Interview: ‘Middle East, South Asia going through big change’

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Professor Vali Reza Nasr

VALI Reza Nasr is one of the most important voices in international relations today. Currently dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the US, he has advised the US State Depart­ment as well as the Obama administration. The Iranian-American scholar has also written seminal books on Jamaat-i-Islami and Maulana Abul Al’a Maududi, as well as important works on Shia Islam and the new global Muslim middle class. Prof Nasr was recently in Karachi for the Adab Festival Pakistan and talked to Dawn about a range of regional and global issues.

Q: These are interesting times in the Middle East. What’s the forecast? Do we have more instability and war on the horizon or do you think things will settle down in a bit?

A: Well, in some places they will settle down, in some places there will be additional instability. A lot of issues that caused the Arab Spring are still there. At some point they will resurface. On the other hand some conflicts like the ones in Yemen and in Syria may very well settle down into a less acute situation than is the case now.

Q: How serious is Team Trump about regime change in Iran?

A: I think there are three issues that are on the table. There’s a desire to renegotiate the nuclear deal and the president says he is ready to talk and he wants a new deal. There are those in the administration who want Iran to change its policies and behaviour vis-à-vis regional issues and there might be those who actually want to change the regime in Iran altogether. I don’t think there’s a single policy in the Trump administration. I think the president himself is more interested in talking to Iran than in regime change.

Q: You’ve worked with the Obama administration. During that time we saw an attempt to undermine the nezam [Iranian establishment] with the Green Movement as the US was supporting that. What differences do you see in the approach?

A: No, the Green Movement happened within Iran, it wasn’t done by the US. Whenever you have a popular uprising of that kind, the United States instinctively supports it, gives it moral support, whether it was in Egypt, in Iran … anywhere in the world. Now it’s different because now essentially the American administration is pushing for a significant change in Iran’s government’s behaviour. I think during the Obama administration the US government was mostly interested in dealing with the nuclear issue rather than the broader set of things.

Q: Moving beyond the Middle East, do you think Russia and the US are in a new Cold War?

A: Yes and no. Definitely relations between the United States and Russia [have] deteriorated significantly. There [are] accusations of Russian interference in American elections. Russia is following policies that are counter to Nato and European interests. But Russia is not the Soviet Union. It doesn’t have the economic wherewithal, it’s not the ideological monolith it was then. Rather, Russia is playing more of a role of spoiler in international affairs. It’s challenging US authority, it’s challenging rules and norms that it believes constrain it. I think we are in a period of much greater friction with Russia, but it’s not a bipolar cold war anymore.

Q: You’ve done great work on Jamaat-i-Islami and Maulana Maududi. What future do you see for Islamist parties in Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world?

A: They are going to be relevant for some period of time. There are facts on the ground, there is momentum associated with their activity. There are constituencies that support them. But I think perhaps the heyday of Islamic activism is gone. Particularly in Pakistan, Islamic parties are not providing the solutions that society needs. There’s a reason why they are doing increasingly worse in elections in Pakistan. The reason for that is they don’t provide any solutions.

Islam itself will be relevant, the parties will perhaps be in the political process but I think the cutting edge of politics is moving elsewhere.

Q: What new work is in the pipeline as far as books go?

A: I’m very interested in the issue of what comes to the Middle East and South Asia in terms of the next regional order and next geostrategic order and how that fits into the broader global shifts that we’re seeing in great power rivalry between the US, Russia and China. I think the Middle East and South Asia are going through a period of very profound change both with the domestic make-up of many countries but also in terms of regional power, in terms of the way in which the distribution and balance of power in these regions work. And that feeds into the issues like rise of China, new politics in Russia, changing attitude of the United States. So that’s what I’m working on — sort of a grand strategy, if you would, for the Middle East and South Asia.

Q: And what sort of order are we looking at?

A: I think it’s yet to be decided. I think what we are seeing is that in the Middle East, the Middle East that we thought of as dominated by the Arab world with Iran, Turkey and Israel sitting outside is gone. The Arab world in large measure is much weaker after the Arab Spring. It is Iran, Turkey and Israel that yield a lot more power. In fact the most important rivalry in my opinion is not between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s really between Iran and Israel. And Turkey is now making much more of a concerted challenge to Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Sunni world, and leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a big Arab entity. So there is a shift of power away from the Arabs to the non-Arabs.

In South Asia we are beginning to look at the endgame in Afghanistan, which has in many ways decided the dynamics of politics between Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia, China and India. That will also change the way in which these actors relate to one another. And then there are other developments like CPEC [that] represents a major intrusion of China into regional politics, that’s decisive in the balance of power between India and Pakistan, between Pakistan and other regional actors. And that may not be the end. China may also make other, similar pushes into Iran, into Afghanistan, into Central Asia that plays into global politics.

This interview was first published in Dawn on February 5, 2019
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