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.
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