Vali Nasr is a respected author on Middle Eastern affairs and has written numerous books on topics such as the history of Shia Islam, American foreign policy, and Islamic political institutions. He currently stands as Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The Shia Revival gives an informational account on the history of the Shia branch of Islam and how it has developed as a socio/religious identity with Iran as its most powerful political actor. The book takes into account how Islam did not develop as a monolithic doctrine and has many differing philosophical interpretations that has lead practitioners of the faith to a wide array of customs. The Sunni/Shia divide is the most notable theological schism within Islam and has historically been used as a political tool by which modern Middle Eastern states consolidate power over populations.
The author notes that sectarianism in the Middle East is propagated by both Sunnis and Shias who are engaging in traditional power politics in order to obtain religious legitimacy. The book details the long history of Shia/Sunni fighting and how politics has shaped the debate over the philosophical underpinnings of Islamist thinking. Nasr claims that the powerhouses of Iran and Saudi Arabia are both directly and indirectly waging a war in order to spread their version of Islamic jurisprudence. The current upheaval in the Middle East has opened up competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia as both try to shift the balance of power in their favor. Both countries are destabilizing the region by financing proxy militias and regimes that align with their political interest.
Currently, Iran is militarily supporting and financing Lebanese Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria, and Shia groups within the fledgling Iraq government/military. This is considered as a Shia power bloc by Saudi Arabia. With the passing of King Abdullah in January 2015, the new heir to the throne, King Salman, has instituted a more robust foreign policy to counteract the perceived dominance of Iran.
The most obvious display of Saudi Arabia’s military adventures is in the region’s newest conflict. The Yemeni Civil War has become a staging ground for Saudi Arabia to posture itself as the leader of the Sunni power bloc. They are engaging in aerial bombing of the Houthi insurgency after the group overthrew the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia believes the Houthis are secretly controlled by Iran and that Yemen is at risk of being politically dominated by a militant Shia faction. Saudi Arabia is engaging in warfare that is meant to give Iran an explicit warning. This is uncharted territory and portends a long inter-state conflict that will challenge the old borders of the Middle East to better suit Sunni/Shia political divide.
What about the non-state actors financed and controlled by Iran and Saudi Arabia? In the post-Arab Spring Middle East, inter-state conflict by traditional actors will loosen the definition of power and destabilize current political systems in the region. It is non-state actors who will push to re-define what a nation-state actually means to a population rich with ethnic and religious diversity. They will be the ones envisioning and enforcing how Islam will shape the type of political institutions that are created once violence is exhausted.
The most obvious example of this is in Syria. In simple terms, Iran is working to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. Shia militias are being mobilized by Qassem Soleimani, a powerful commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. There are also reports of the Iranian backed Lebanese group Hezbollah making way into Syria to add more strength to Assad’s fighting force. Saudi Arabia is competing for strategic gains by supporting hardline Sunni Islamist rebels, many of which have ties to the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra.
Syria’s political boundary lines are quickly dissolving. As the civil war lingers on it will become more complicated to decipher what a post-civil war Syria would look like. The political foundation of the country has been destroyed and will be difficult to re-develop, especially with the existence of both regime-affiliated and Sunni Islamist conclaves. A coalition government with elements of the Assad regime still holding power is impossible to fathom as there are no concrete state institutions to legitimize a power-sharing accord. Syria is a landmark battle that will shape great power politics of the Middle East.
The ongoing conflict in Iraq draws close parallels to what is happening in Syria. Nasr points out that Iraq as a possible Arab Shia state has distressed Gulf Arab states and has precipitated growing scrutiny of Iran’s activity inside the Shia dominated government. Recent reports from Wikileaks indicate that Saudi Arabia is supporting Sunni political actors who will work with the Kingdom to destabilize the central government of Iraq.
Syria and Iraq’s shared border is a cause for concern as various militant groups vie for control of strategic land and resources. As both countries break down into political insolvency, fanatical Islamist groups are scooping up land they wish to develop into a Shariah based Islamic Caliphate. As non-state actors rise in power, the proxy battles between Iran and Saudi Arabia may develop into a fully fledged war between states.
The book has done an excellent job at predicting future conflict in the Middle East and how Shias gaining power in Iraq has spurred Iran’s growth into a regional power. The book asserts that democracy will give way to Shias controlling infrastructures of government and that this trend will further embolden Sunni extremism. One of the more interesting lines of thought in the book is that Shia political Islam has moderated because of its evolution through political repression and revolution. As we see Shia political thought develop as an Islamist institution (presumably with Iran at its head), Sunnis have entered a dark phase.
Concerning the United States, Nasr gives note to how the U.S should interpret the Shia’s political and military gains and why sectarian balance in the Middle East has traditionally been very insecure in the political arena. He encourages the United States to not underestimate the resurgence of the Shia as a political movement and to start making inroads towards diplomatically connecting with important actors.
The current nuclear negotiation with Iran is a good example of a possible breakthrough in relations after 36 years of no formal contact between the two countries. A nuclear treaty can help foster more political inroads and help develop a formidable alliance system in an ever increasingly chaotic region. One area where this may be happening is in the fight against the Islamic State. Reports indicate that the U.S is currently working with Iran to help the Iraqi military defend its territory against gains made by the Sunni terror group.
This is a new development in Iran/U.S relations but must be looked at as a temporary arrangement as each has a competing strategic outlook for the region. The United States must re-evaluate its long-term policy for the Middle East and develop a strategy that will not favor one sectarian power bloc over the other. The Middle East can no longer be understood by political border lines due to the effect of post-Arab Spring civil wars. The spillage of the Syrian Civil War into Iraq has already complicated U.S policy in the region. The U.S must create a holistic strategy for the Middle East. Having one policy for Iraq and a different one for Syria is ineffective and will not stop the expansion of Islamic extremist groups.
The book notes the views and perspectives of the people involved in the Shia uprising and what it means to be able to stride to the forefront of revolutionary politics. The Shia Revival gives us historical information in the context of the Shia’s eyes and why they are working so aggressively to assert their place in a Sunni dominated power arrangement.
Nasr gives us the foundation for looking at the issues at hand through a lens of neutrality, explaining regional civil strife in terms of complicity by both the Sunnis and Shias. In essence, he does not give legitimacy to groups like Hezbollah, but provides an angle that helps explain why it receives support from the Shia population (even in Sunni populations after the Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006 when Israel was forced to end the fighting). He explains that the Shia do not view Hezbollah as terrorists but as a newly forming political party that will fight for Shia representation in the Lebanese government. He notes that Hezbollah’s perceived victory in the 2006 war with Israel was a major turning point for the group which helped its leaders gain an upper hand in a country traditionally governed by a Christian/Sunni elite.
All in all, Nasr’s attempt to re-create the Middle East solely by the religious divisions that mark its history does not fully explain the political repercussions that are seen today, but gives an inside view to how the inner workings of sectarian strife will help to define the consolidation of power or the distribution of power.