Bridging the gap

Talking with the first Iranian-American appointee of the Obama Administration


Bridging the gap

Before accepting his new position as senior advisor to special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Vali Nasr had already distinguished himself as one of the leading analysts on the Middle East and South Asia, appearing on CNN, ABC, NPR, and lending his expertise to articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time Magazine and Newsweek.

Author of The Shia Revival, Democracy in Iran, and The Islamic Leviathan, Nasr is also a Professor of international politics at Tufts University, and an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think-tank focusing on foreign policy. He is also a Senior Fellow with The Dubai Initiative of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. PAAIA's Rudi Bakhtiar caught up with Nasr as he prepares for his new role in the Obama Administration.

R: How would you describe your new role in the Obama Administration as senior advisor to Ambassador Holbrooke?

V: I have worked with Ambassador Holbrooke for some time now, most recently during the presidential campaign. I think he is one of America’s most capable diplomats, a man who has the ability to tackle the thorniest issues that confront the U.S. in the Middle East and South Asia. His current mission involves resolving the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I will be serving as his Senior Advisor in shaping American policy in this conflict in particular by addressing the political dimension of America’s strategy and bringing it into alignment with the overall goals of addressing security concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

R: You lived in Pakistan as a doctoral student and studied Islamist movements there, and have traveled to Pakistan many times since then. How do you believe your experience on the ground in Pakistan will shape your policy advice?

V: I have in addition traveled to Pakistan many times over the past two decades. I have also written extensively, including three books, on Pakistan’s politics, regional role and the role of Islam and extremism in its history. I hope to use that experience and knowledge to inform America’s approach to addressing the current crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

R: What, in your opinion, are the most significant challenges the U.S will face in the South Asia/Afghanistan region in the next ten years, and the biggest opportunities?

V: It is events in Afghanistan that have had the most significant impact on U.S. foreign policy over the past decade. The events of 9/11 and what followed in America’s relations with the Muslim world all had their roots in instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and now almost a decade after 9/11 Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to pose the most serious challenges facing American security and foreign policy. In many ways for America to get past this phase of its involvement in the Middle East and for the region to also turn the page the crisis in Afghanistan has to be solved. But this is a complex problem. Most immediately, the challenge is to contain and end the Taliban insurgency, and the lawlessness that reigns in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But to solve that problem we have to tackle other problems: establishing a viable government in Afghanistan, strengthening the government in Pakistan, addressing economic problems in the two countries, addressing the drug problem in Afghanistan, stabilizing relations between the two countries, changing America’s image in that part of the world, and building lasting partnerships between U.S. and the countries of the region and more important between the countries of the region. There are also other issues such as securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that have to be tackled. In short, the security problems require making sure Afghanistan and Pakistan become functioning and stable countries in a region with well-defined relations between regional actors.

R: You're well known here in Washington (and around the world) as a Middle East expert, and have been involved in policy-making for some time. How did your career morph from academia to politics?

V: I did not change careers so much as extended the purview of what I was doing beyond scholarly research into policy-making. I have continued to research, write articles and books. In fact I am jut finishing a new book before starting at the State Department. I have also continued with teaching and a good portion of my time over the past five years has been dedicated to working with my students. My involvement in policy-making came in tandem with my academic life. The change rather came in trying to bridge the gap between academia and policy-making worlds. America has some of the world’s leading academic institutions and there is a great deal of knowledge in them about the Middle East and other regions of the world. There are many Iranian-Americans who have excelled in this environment. However, traditionally those in academia have not been connected to those who make decisions about the world. In recent years there has been growing interest in policy-making, media and also general public in deeper understanding of issues relating to the Muslim world in general and places in that region where America has immediate interests. I have tried in my on way and in areas I know about to provide the necessary link between these worlds by addressing the concerns of policy-makers by relating what I know from my own research and writing. I have found great deal of interest in Washington in learning more about the Middle East, and then one thing led to another and I became more involved in policy-making and also talking to media.

R: The focus, in your new position, is solely on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Would you like Iran to eventually also become part of the equation, or is it already?

V: I believe that Iran today plays a pivotal role in the Middle East. Iran’s influence in one form or another is present across a vast region from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Ultimately America’s interests in this broad region as well as in individual arenas of conflict will necessitate contending with Iran. How the Afghanistan crisis turns out will ultimately impact U.S.-Iran relations and in turn how U.S.-Iran relations turn out will impact Afghanistan. So I think at some point there will be a convergence between the various issues the U.S. is dealing with in the Middle East and the future of its relations with Iran.

R: When did you come to the United States and what was that experience like for you?

V: My family migrated to the United States after the revolution; in fact, immediately after the revolution swept Iran. It is an experience that I share with countless other Iranian-Americans. Those early years were a difficult time for me and my family. We left everything behind in Iran and had to start from scratch in a new country; we had to deal with our loss and loss of the many family ties and bonds of friendship we left behind. Life was uncertain and although America was welcoming to all of us who took refuge here, nevertheless the deteriorating image of Iran after the Hostage Crisis was challenging. I remember the difficulties of being an Iranian then at school or working at odd jobs. Abruptly cutting from an environment and a life is always difficult, more so if the problems that pushed you into exile follow you there. But I guess time writes its own verdicts, and thirty years on, like many other Iranian-Americans, I too eventually settled into the rhythm of a new life and came to terms with what 1979 meant for us all. I think I never quite escaped the weight of the tumult that changed our lives as I was drawn to studying Iran and the political movement that changed its history.

R: Favorite Iran memory?

V: I have too many memories of Iran, and sometimes I think perhaps not enough. But what is always in my mind, what comes to my mind when I think of Iran instinctively, is the view of the majestic Alborz mountains looking down on Tehran; that was what I saw first thing every morning out of my room’s window since I can remember and then for so many years after, that is until all of a sudden I didn’t see it anymore.

R: I meet a lot of college students working with PAAIA, and many of them ask me if I know you...and tell me how much they look up to you. For those who want to be where you are some day, what piece of advice can you give them?

V: I am honored and humbled to hear such sentiments. I too am enormously proud of what the young Iranian-Americans have accomplished in this country and continue to accomplish. My first day in the State Department I met young Iranian-Americans working at various jobs as diplomats, foreign service officers and specialists managing this country’s foreign policy—and not on Iran-related topics but on variety of global issues. I cannot think of any other migrant community that has done so much so quickly in America. I doubt that given what the Iranian-American youth are accomplishing in academia, medicine, sciences, media, law, business, arts and now also in politics, that they need any advice. They are doing just fine. Iranians are hard-working by nature, and they value education. Our culture celebrates excellence. I think so long as our youth hold on to these values they will go far and make us, this country and the country their parents came from proud.

R: I know you don't have a lot of down time with three kids and your busy work schedule, but when you do, what do you do for fun?

V: I love to spend quality time with friends and family. I think the measure of a person is the quality of his relationships. When time is scarce family matters more, and I revel in spending time with my children, especially because I am grateful to them for their patience for giving me time to write and do other things. I love to read novels, that is whenever I get a chance, and I also love to travel, provided I get to set foot out of a hotel or conference room. I guess we all have favorite activities, but ultimately what matters is to be productive and to be satisfied with what you do, and doing it well. If by fun we mean a sense of joy and elation that gives color to our lives and lifts us above the grind of daily life I would venture to say that it has to come from within, and that requires a balance between everything we do.

R: You have played a big role in PAAIA as a board member of PAAIA Fund. How important is an organization like this to our community.

V: I think PAAIA is enormously important to us. America is a country of immigrants. Every community that came to this country before us ultimately found a right balance between its original identity and its American identity, and then enshrined that balance in organizations that represent it. It is time for Iranian-Americans to do the same; to properly define themselves for the larger American society, and hold on to the values and identity that matters to them and that they want to pass on to their children. PAAIA plays that critical role. America is also built bottom up by interest groups and grass roots organizations. A community as prosperous and accomplished as the Iranian-American community can only play its proper role in this society if it invests in organizations that can pool its resources and project its voice. As Americans we can all fulfill our potential the best we can, but as Iranian-Americans we cannot get anywhere unless we gel as a community. The wisdom of the Persian saying: “Yek Dast Seda Nadarad (one hand cannot make sound) tells it all. Iranians need one another to be one community, and more so to represent themselves in this vast country. I hope that PAAIA will be a trailblazer in this regard and will chart the way for many more Iranian-American organizations to take form in different fields and with different missions to capture the entirety of the Iranian-American experience and make sure it takes its proper place in American society, politics and culture. Each of us came to this country for a different reason and at a different time, but we all know that something unique binds us together and defines our lives in America. It is quite clear that that something matters to all Iranian-Americans; PAAIA was formed to capture that something and make something more of it, for us, for our children, and for the larger American society. We are here to stay and to make our mark, we know we can do it as individuals now it is time we did it as community.


more from PAAIA

Kourosh, you misunderstood me big time! IRI is not the revoution

by gol-dust on

You are getting too excited here. People didn't revolt and die to have this criminal IRI in place! What I meant was that IRI does not represent the principle and objectives of the revolution which were AZAADI & ESTEGHLAL! Therfore, we should continue our struggle (unfinished revolution) till we achieve those objectives. IRI should be overthrown when the US, UK & Israel stop interferring in Iran's affairs! Otherwise we cannot have real independence!

We have less freedom and independence and everything else now than we had before the revolution. If we don't achieve this, then those shaheeds would have died in vain! Is that clear now? Merci!

Kourosh Aryamanesh

Good for him

by Kourosh Aryamanesh on

Kourosh Aryamanesh

It makes you proud doesn't it? Being a MONHALLEH Iranian myself I have more pride but somehow can not help it to get goose bumps when I hear his last name. I just hope he won't give the same advice his father gave to you know who. The last thing I want to hear is SEDAAY ENGELAAB and see another Islamic Scholar which is not a good thing for humanity specially trying to untangle all the Shia, Sunni crap and explain the role of Islam. If he has a sense of humor he should introduce Tozeeh ol masaael Imam to his bosses over a bottle of wine. Success to him and wish him well



by KouroshS (not verified) on

How is the economy doing in the LaLa land that you live in?

Just curious.


Dear Mort Gilani

by Abarmard on

I am not sure of the exact deficit in the Iranian economy but find your input interesting. However, I do not share your conclusion.

Thanks for taking a time. In the future time we can discuss this further.



by KouroshS (not verified) on

Goodness! Do you mean to inform us that the oppression, supression, repression, torture, failed economic policies, support for terrorism, severe restriction of social freedom...

let me catch my breath...

baseless and idiotic arresting of young people for expressing their opinions, spying on their own people and SO MANY OTHER ITEMS, mean that this regime is still YOUNG and needs time to settle in?

So, What more should we expect once they have finished reaching their objectives? while you are at it please also tell us
when not "writing on the web" are you more or less concerned about the U.S.?

You know, being a hypocrit is a lot worst than being a LIAR!

Mort Gilani

To Abarmard

by Mort Gilani on


The Islamic regime has lost its political clout after the election of President Obama.  We witness that from the tone of the language by IR’s foreign agents, Rafsanjani, and world diplomats.  That is why the regime is now looking inward for political adventurism like the case for Ms. Saberi, the harassment of Iranian bloggers and minority groups, and constant threats by revolutionary forces.  Ahmadinejad can talk bluff and bluster till the cows come home, but it is evident that even people in his camp are droping the ball on him.

The regime will be sixty (60) billion dollars in the red this year and will have deficits for the near future. The Islamic republic would not be able to sell bonds in the market because nobody in their right mind is going to buy an Iranian bond, and  no significant investment money is gonna go to Iran.  So, the available tools for the Islamic Republic to deal with impending economic tsunami are
1) printing money which will result in hyperinflation, or
2) cuting subsidies which will turn their base against them, or
3) imposing taxes (we know how popular that is!)
In my view, the Iranians will recover from their spell of Gaza in Palestine and Mehdi in Jamkaran before 2011.  I envision a collapse similar to that of Czarist Russia in 1917. I am afraid, the consequence will be no more Islamic Republic.


he deserves high respect if ... (to Mehrban)

by Anonym7 (not verified) on

Mehrban, I also remember a couple of his interviews during Bush days in which in a subtle way he advocated lifting of sanctions. If our impression is correct, ...., that would be enough (in my opinion) to have high respect for him.


I have heard Nasr talk

by Mehrban on

I have heard him talk on a couple of panels.  He seems to me an academic rather than an ideologue.  He has been an early proponent of talks with Iran and the lifting of sanctions.  He may have been one of the early voices that has brought the negotiations with Iran into the mainstream political thinking of even the Bush administration.   He seems even keeled and reasonable.  One of the reasons for his recent appointment may have been a new regional approach in Afghanistan which recent talks with Iran on Afghanistan bear witness to.  

As to if he would be a decision maker on Afghanistan, my guess at this point is probably not.  Obama's Afghanistan policy is still heavily a military approach although he has mentioned "shared responsibility" and "civilian efforts". With guys like Gates, Petraeus, Jones, Clinton, Holbrook,and whole host of others from the State department and military, Nasr will probably be (at least for now) what his title suggests, a Senior Adviser.


This guy is OK

by Abarmard on

Nasr also has a problem similar to many of us: being too far from Iran for too long!

Dear Mort Gilani, just out of the curiosity and not argument, how do you see a collapse of this system? How do you predict the change? What do you think are the consequence of such collapse.

Would love to hear your point of view.


Happy Monday.



Gol-dust? Liar??

by Aboli (not verified) on

When did I ever say you were a liar?
All I said was:

" Can you tell us more about your this tall, handsome and intelligent brother, who was killed (collectively) by the US, UK and the late Shah?
Is he famous? Has anyone ever heard of him?
What did he do?
How was he killed?"

I'd still like to know .

Mort Gilani

To Mr. Kadivar

by Mort Gilani on


"Lastly and purely from an intellectual point of view and Regardless of
the nature of the democratic regime we may one day have in Iran ( if we
Ever get to that stage that is, which I am afraid will not be the case
for our generation to live it)  be it a Secular Republic or a
Constitutional Monarchy"

Dear Mr. Kadivar,

Could you please shed some light on how Islamic regime with ~20% unemployment, ~30% inflation and ~60 billion dollars budget deficit for this year can escape a total collapse?

Even Mr. Rafsanjani pleaded to Iranian public to vote in the upcoming presidential election to insure Revolution for the NEXT FEW YEARS.


Jaleho, I'm going to read his book

by Ostaad on

But before I go, I just wanted to remind you that Vali Nasr could not have possibly been the person who put the Shieh-Sunni division on people's lips in the US. The Shieh-Sunni division had been (ab)used by the Brits since Iraq's creation as a country, and the US has been aware of it for quite some time.

I am very interested in seeing the results of Mr. Nasr's influence in the US foreign policy in regard to Iran.

Shazde Asdola Mirza

ژاله عزیز، حیف از شما که از حزبلاه حمایت کنی‌

Shazde Asdola Mirza

اگر بد فهمیده‌ام یا زود قضاوت کرده ام، از شما پوزش خواهم خواست، ولی‌ به نظرم می‌رسد که شما حامی‌ حزبلاه و حاکمان جیببوری اسلامی هستید.


Petition to bring Omid's crimials to justices

by HateIRI (not verified) on


Please join and invite your firneds


Dear Jaleho

by hooshie on

My poor girl, you are so vulnerable aren't you? I can just visualize a wounded looking Jaleho, going up and down my little text thinking: "I'll teach that B...d Hosshie a lesson!! Who is he to correct my English?" (LOL). Look I don't want to sound like Literary critic but I can see how he/she can so easily make his/her targets explode in anger. In your desparation to find a fault with in my writing, you have even scrutinized my punctuation and English/American spelling!! Moreover, you have been trying, rather pathetically, explaining/justifying your errors (can't hold myself ...). Girl, I am sorry but ... you poor thing. You know, I could have further embarrased you by pointing out your grammatical errors but I didn't bother until you claimed to have made only one mistake(see here):

"once the national aspirations has awakened."

I suppose you meant "have awakened." At least my errors were typos, as opposed to your grammar error!!

OK, OK, enough of being Literary critic. Admit it that you are going to be more careful from now on (lol). BTW, I live in the US but my English is still influenced by my UK days. 

And as for "transporting" (I suppose you are trying to say "conveying" your message, I must say you have got the wrong end of the stick. Trita Parsi is no match for Vali Nasr. Nasr has got it in his blood. Parsi has got it in his bottom!


that doesn't count Shazdollah?

by Anonym7 (not verified) on

Shazdollah, cutting and pasting is not challenging! I happen to disagree with Jaleh on what you pasted, but want to see what you have to say about it! Please enrich our minds from the sea of your intellect!
BTW, are you a monarchist, Shazdolla?


Darius,you are a gentleman! Merci 4 your thoughtful explanation!

by gol-dust on

Your explantion was much more than I expected. Merci for everything! Your story is very revealing and personal, and I thank you for sharing it with us! I am suprised how well your English is even though you live in France! How is your french?

First of all GOL DOUST is a real last name and my dad's invention. Frankly, I am as much concerned about the US as I am about IRI, when writing on the web! Of course, IRI would be much more dangerous!

I believe the revolution is not finished since it has not achieved its objectives of freedom and independence.

Long live Iran! Down with IRI and Israel!


Dr. Nasr is the man

by Pouya Alimagham (not verified) on

I'm a graduate student at Harvard and have taken a class with Professor Nasr at nearby Tufts University and I must say, he's an amazingly informed and objective professor.

Both Tufts and the Obama Administration are fortunate to have him.

Thanx to PAAIA for the interview.


Granted Shazdeh jan,

by Jaleho on

Both of your recent comebacks were far better than your asinine first comment. One was a good poetry, and the other although a cut and paste of my pearls of wisdom, at least showed where you might have an objection ;-)


Practice on those lines instead of one line bi-mani nonsense.


Dear Ostad,

by Jaleho on

I presented my opinion about Nasr based on his books, the many many lectures he gives in the local area that I am, and I don't understand what you mean by the "vague reference to Shia-Sunni division." If anything, Nasr made his name by throwing this "Shia- Sunni division" after Iraq invasion on the lips of every American who had not heard the terminology hitherto, and all of a sudden all became experts on Iraq, thanks to that new-found knowledge!

If your question is meant to understand Nasr better, you can read his book, "The Shia Revival," I wouldn't pay a dime for it myself of course. If you want a shorter version of that ideology, he had some article in Foreign Affairs, where Ray Takeyh also wrote a good article about Iran. That sums it up for Nasr's point of view in my opinion. You can look it up by a google search or have one of your students do it for you.

Regarding your other statement: " What I'm after is whether Nasr is a decision maker or a report writing minion.  What impacts will he have on decision making about Afghanestan? Can he influence/change decisions supported solely due to Israel's pressure?  " My understanding is that he would give his opinion on policy, and like I said, he is chosen since his opinion is in line with what US wants to hear about the Middle East. I countered that his point of view in NOT a reflection of realities in the Middle East, rather what US WANTS to hear and has been pursuing in the greater ME for a while now. He is going to be one of many advisors, even among those from the Kennedy school and Fletcher, so I don't think he can change or influence any decision making greatly. He certainly would be listened to, and I hope he uses his influence to clarify misunderstandings about Iran, but I doubt that he would.

Shazde Asdola Mirza

ژاله تو و ارشاد؟

Shazde Asdola Mirza


ژاله تو و ارشاد؟ حیا کن سر جددت!

رو ماست و خیار خور سر قبر خر زشتت!

خون ریزی ملاّ و خمینی چو عیان است،

لکه بنشیند‌ به قبا و به سرشتت!

ابلیس فقیه است، گر اینان فقهایند

شیطان نبود بدتر از این نکته زشتت!

Shazde Asdola Mirza

Zer Ziyadi: redefined by Jaleho the IRI lover!

by Shazde Asdola Mirza on

Zer Ziyadi by Jaleho:

"... Nasr comes as close to an Iraninian Ahmed Chalabi as you can get!"

"Nasr exemplifies American wishful thinking ... to isolate Iran and the more revolutionary Shia factions in the region, such as Hezbollah and militants in Iraq ..."

"Nasr is exactly the mud maker they dream of ... and down with those dream will go the carrier of people like Nasr."


Dear Hooshie,

by Jaleho on

First, thanks for the correction. When you write a fast unimportant comment using a second language, it does happen that you interchange two words that both have a meaning, sound the same, but have a different meaning. You should know that yourself since in your few line attempt at correcting my one mistake, you made at least five errors yourself, spelling and punctuation. I know that you feel smart doing so, but next time you decided to be a jackass correcting others, double check your own work! For example, you put period and commas inside the quotation, not outside. Also, the correct spelling is "within," and it is not "devide," it is "divide." I also think that you are US based, and your "candour" would be in question ;-)

Second, would you extend your logic regarding Mr. Nasr to Hooman Majd?

Third, I totally agree with you, Trita Parsi would have been a far better advisor than Nasr, but that was the essence of my comment, no? That is, I wanted to convey that in my opinion, the reason that Nasr has been selected is because he repeats the lines that the US administration wants to hear. Now, if I were successful in transporting that message to you with whatever broken language, I'd be one happy camper.


Jaleho, you seem to have some dibs on Nasr, but...

by Ostaad on

when it comes to specifics you come empty-handed. Describing Nasr as a person who is "as close as an Iranian Ahmad Chalabi", and your vague reference to the Shia-Sunni "division" are not specific enough to warrant serious discussion.

I posted a question about what his REAL duties and scope of his authority are, and I have not gotten a single specific answer. What I'm after is whether Nasr is a decision maker or a report writing minion.  What impacts will he have on decision making about Afghanestan? Can he influence/change decisions supported solely due to Israel's pressure?  



by Prof. Dr. Danesh, Sociologist (not verified) on

Now that Mr. Nasr has gotton officially endorsed into the americanaa power politics he better hold on to his gun and know the border without which he can get easily blurred in th emiddle east politics and eventually get dragged into the deadly and murky world of espionage...


Poor Dr Nasr!

by hooshie on

He is a figure of suspicion to the passive Hezbollahis and a hate figure to the active Shahollahis. Unfortunately his family background doesn't help him much either. He is on one hand the son of a former court minister and the chancellor of the Aryamehr university and on the other he is a great grandson of Khomeini's guru Sheykh Fazlollah Nouri! On the whole he should have a balanced view of both sides. BTW,



Principles cannot be bent otherwise they are not principles. If you find name calling wrong, then you shouldn't call names when it suits you, should you?



I suppose by "carrier of people like Mr Nasr" you mean "career of ....". Let me reassure you that Vali Nasr's career is not dependent on the Shia-Sunni devide but on the West vs Islam conflict which is not something to go way, at least wthin our life time. There are many who wish to have been in his place (Trita Parsi make notes) but simply lack his candour.


Cheap shot Shazdolla!

by Anonym7 (not verified) on

I don't agree with many of Jaleh's views and several times had had heated debates with her. However I have found her very tolerant, polite, and knowledgable. Your cheap shot is just going to discredit you more, go do some reading, come back and challenge her!
BTW, are you a monarchist, shazdolla?


Sorry Shazdeh, as much as

by Jaleho on

I try to ignore your inanities and platitudes, you just won't stop "zer ziyadi!" So, go on, have fun, if useless and baseless utterance is your fun.


We are Proud of you too Dr. Nasr

by ./. (not verified) on

He is a symbol of great background from wonderful parents and friends in Iran while growing up. He is proud of his Iranian heritage, and we are proud of him. Compare him, if you wish, with a similar personality from Zio-Nazi background. They would be stealing America's secret, spying, and doing all sort of other EVIL deeds against America in the name of their "love for Israel"!. Hear we have an Iranian that like other iranians values his host's generosity and values the culture of the host and respects their laws and system. He is at the same time proud of his Iranian backgroud.
I hope Madam secretary of state is reading these posts and perhaps decides to no longer subjucate this great nation of USA to Zio-Nazis.

Thank you.

Shazde Asdola Mirza

Jaleho = servant of the disgusting IRI

by Shazde Asdola Mirza on

Shame on the slaves of the Islamist Repression of Iran!