Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival is among the best books that I have read in my relatively quest to understand the Middle East well enough to teach an undergraduate class on its history. Nasr, an Iranian-American professor and son of an Iranian academic, became one of the hot interviewees in the news media from writing this book as the gruesome sectarian violence really exploded in Iraq in 2006. It’s a good treatment of the religious politics and culture of the region and really helped me to get a handle on some of the major trends in the region. I’ll have more to say about it when I review the whole book, but I thought that this passage was helpful in thinking about Iran as a regional actor:
Just five years ago [i.e., in 2001], Iran was flanked by hostile Sunni regimes—the Taliban-Pakistan-Saudi axis to the east and Iraq to the west. Iranians have welcomed the collapse of the Sunni wall around them since 2001 and see the Shia revival as the means for preventing its return. In fact, the post-9/11 U.S.-led destruction of the Taliban and Saddam regimes has freed Iran to expand its regional influence at a time when the country’s vibrant cultural and economic scene demands greater expression…. The Shia revival will further bolster expansion of Iran’s regional influence and its claim to “great power” status. This in turn is tied to Iran’s nuclear ambition, which aims both to protect and to perpetuate the country’s regional role.
… It was an open secret that Saudi Arabia, Iran’s perennial nemesis, was a major financial backer of the Pakistani nuclear program, no doubt with the [Saudi] kingdom’s security interests and regional ambitions in mind. In was in worrying about that axis—and the threat from Ba’thist Iraq—that Iran first became interested in a nuclear arsenal. An Iranian nuclear capability would have helped Iran to contain the Sunni pressure and even reverse the balance to its own advantage. The prospect of a nuclear Iran will now ensure that the post-2001 strategic gains will not be reversed. An Iranian bomb will also be a Shia bomb, confirming Shia power in the region and protecting Iran’s larger footprint.
Iran’s position also depends on the network of Kalashnikov-toting militias that form the backbone of Shia power represented by the web of clerics and centers of religious learning. From Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army in Iraq, the Baseej volunteer force in Iran, and the Army of Muhammad (Sipah-i Muhammad) in Pakistan, Shia militias project Shia power and enforce the will of the clerics. All these militias have been organized, trained, and funded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—itself a Shia militia before it grew into a full-fledged military force. They are links in a chain that represents the muscle of the Shia. (222-223)
I think that is helpful to remember that whatever else Iran’s goals are, it is still a regional actor with some of its concerns dictated by its region. Sometimes the way that we think about the Middle East can almost treat these countries only in relation to U.S. interests or the interests of our allies (which is one way that we should think about the region—we are after all a sovereign nation with interests and allies who need to be considered). But if we don’t consider the regional and historical contexts we risk compromising our interests by misconceived actions.
It’s clear from the book that Nasr is no fan of the dictatorial Iranian regime, so I think that his regional perspective on Iran needs to be considered as we also consider the dangers of an anti-American, anti-Israel, and religiously radical regime obtaining nuclear weapons.