Jaipur, Jan 25: The rise of the Islamic State is among the attempts by Sunni hardliners to reverse Shia Iran's gains in Iraq, and comes paradoxically at a time when Iran, long seen by the western world as the source of instability in the Middle East, is now being needed to manage the same instability, says regional expert Vali Nasr.
He also noted that a move towards increased fundamentalism by Sunni powers of the area, such as Saudi Arabia, which is refusing to engage with Iran, now back out of the cold after the nuclear pact, is not a very "strategic" option since their economic power from oil production is lessening (especially the US due to shale gas), these states are vulnerable themselves, and it sets them on a collision course with the West due to the terrorist attacks by IS.
At a session titled "The Shia Revival", named after his 2006 book, at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday, he said all this was part of the conflict in the Middle East between Shias and Sunnis, which dates back to a millennium but had risen in the present as a proxy war after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and more recently after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"Shias and Sunnis look on the post-2003 politics of Iraq differently," he said, noting while the former see it as the first modern Shia Arab state, the latter were disturbed at a state that contained the Shia "threat" had been changed adversely - and by the US, seen as their reliable ally against Iran after 1979.
Nasr, the dean of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a former foreign policy advisor to the Barack Obama regime, contended that Sunni Muslims are "extra sensitive to political developments" and quick to discern anything that can change the balance of power.
The Iranian revolution had raised the prospects of a Shia threat and Sunni powers, especially Saudi Arabia which has had a relationship with the US which even predates the US-Israel alliance, had feared Iran because of two factors - first the prospects of Shia predominance, and secondly because it was anti-monarchial in nature.
However, the fear did not abate even though all the efforts of Ayatollah Khomeini's regime to export the Islamic revolution eventually failed to go beyond Shia Iran, despite they having "doubled down as the most anti-US/anti-Western" power possible which made the world see Iran and its proxies like the Hezbollah as the bad guys. This perception of being "messianic lunatics", as host Jonathan Shainin noted, lasted till 9/11.
"Incidentally, the Hezbollah has been the only Arab army to have defeated Israel," he noted.
Nasr holds that the matters complicated due to regime change in Iraq were further complicated by the Arab Spring " which did to several Arab states what the US Army had done to Iraq - broke down the state".
The Arab Spring saw an implosion in several authoritarian (Sunni) states, and taken to its logical conclusion -- of democracy and elections -- would have disturbing consequences for Sunnis, especially in states like Bahrain where Shias are in the majority, given the example of Iraq.
"That is why the IS with its goal of a Sunni caliphate, has struck a political resonance," he said, adding it is trying to roll back the Iranian gains in Iraq, as well as wrest Syria for the Sunnis.