Vali Nasr: Should the U.S. talk to Iran?

Vali Nasr is an Iranian-American political commentator and scholar of contemporary Islam. Born in Iran, Nasr and his family immigrated to the United States following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nasr received a BA from Tufts University in 1981 and a masters from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1984. He earned his PhD from MIT in political science in 1991.

Known for his view that wars within Islam will shape the future, Nasr has testified before Congress and has advised the President and Vice-President regarding sectarian violence in Iraq. Nasr is the author The Shia Revival, Democracy in Iran, and The Islamic Leviathan.

He has taught at the University of San Diego and the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard and Professor of International Politics at Tufts. A Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nasr has been published in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. He is an editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Islam and has appeared on CNN, the BBC, National Public Radio, and not least of all The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

  • Transcript


Question: Should the U.S. talk to Iran?

Vali Nasr: I would. I think there is no harm in talks. There is plenty of evidence historically that you may get much more from talks than not talking. 

You have two options. You either let Iran go nuclear, or you have to get into a war with Iran which can open the gates of hell in the Middle East, essentially.

Now if those are your only options, I think talking should be given its chance, even if that chance is very little. I think direct talking with Iran can change the context of every issue that’s on the table.

Well you have to let the Iranians decide who their ____ is. But the reality is that it’s not a very good idea for the United States to try to choose factions in Iran it wants to talk to. This is as bad an idea as foreign governments trying to decide they only want to talk to [U.S.] Democrats, or only want to talk to [U.S.] Republicans.

I think in the past, I think during the [Bill] Clinton administration, one reason things didn’t move forward was because Washington basically made it clear it only wanted to talk to reformists. So you talk to the Iranian state, and at the level.

Initially the talks do not need to be at the highest levels. Just having serious talks by people who are representatives of the states is all that matters. I think the personality of talks are not as important right now as a decision in America by President [George W.] Bush, and in Iran by the Supreme Leader, not by the Iranian president. Because the head of state in Iran is a Supreme Leader. The decision by these two men – the Supreme Leader and the President of the United States – that they want a different U.S.-Iran relationship, and they want constructive talks, that’s all that is required for talks.

Who actually sits at the table is much less important than getting that level of commitment. That’s what happened with China. The opening came when two men – Mao and [Richard] Nixon – decided. They didn’t know where they were heading. They didn’t know who was going to say what and what the talks would be. But they made the fundamental decision that they’re going to give engagement a serious chance.

Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007