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.
Question: What forces have shaped Israel?
Vali Nasr: Well I talk not as an expert on Israel, but as an outsider to this topic. But I do think the whole experience of the Holocaust, the discussion in Europe. from the 1930s onward about the fact that Jews needed a homeland of their own in order to be safe; that only in a Jewish homeland would there be a level playing field and would maybe secure, are extremely important.
Particularly because at least for a very long period of time all the way ‘til the 1980s, a large number of Israeli leadership actually were born in Europe, had experienced the Holocaust. Their families had experienced the Holocaust. For them, it was something very, very real.
We are only now beginning to see the rise of a second generation of Israelis who, regardless of knowledge of Holocaust, their personal experience may be quite different. Also for a good chunk of Israel’s early history it was a quite still insecure, vulnerable country.
I think in reality a major turning point came with the war of 1967 when Israel was able to actually defeat the Arab armies, capture Jerusalem, feel much stronger. I think both of these sentiments, in my opinion, are there. I mean a sentiment of insecurity and vulnerability.
But also underneath it there exists a certain degree of confidence, and sometimes maybe overconfidence on the side of Israel. Israelis are aware of their weaknesses, but they’re also quite aware that they’ve beaten the Arabs every single time, particularly since ‘73 onwards. There is no Arab army to stand up to them. And I think there is a kind of, if you would, a paradox in Israel that the security and psyche of Israel is driven by simultaneous fear of the collapse of the sea of hostile Arabs, but also with confidence that Israel can take many, many different actions to protect itself.
And that’s exactly why Iran creates such an anxiety. Because an Iranian nuclear program can take away some of Israel’s sense of confidence in being able to protect itself.
Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007