Vali Nasr: What is the nature of the Iranian threat?
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.
Vali Nasr: Well what happened in the past five, six years is that all the wars and changes in the Middle East actually strengthened Iran’s position. Iran has sort of emerged, if you would, as a great power in the region.
Now there are many people who say that’s not really true. This is nothing that Iran did that gave it this status. It actually is a weak country. It has a weak economy. It has a divided society.
All of that might be true, but it takes 10 minutes being in the Middle East to know that the Iranians think they are a great power, and the Arabs around them think they are a great power.
And a lot of politics is about perception. The perception in the region is that the glass is half full for Iran; it’s half empty for the Arab world.
But compared to 2001 or 2002, Iran’s influence in the region has expanded, and the influence of the Arab world has declined; that Iran militarily feels that it has much more elbow room if the U.S. wasn’t there. The Arab countries now feel vulnerable that Iran has effectively penetrated the Arab world. It controls Southern Iraq. It wields a lot of influence in Iraq.
Iran is big player now in Lebanon, much more so than before 2006.
And look, the Palestinians are now completely divided into two territories. And guess what? The Arab governments are only influential in one territory, and the Iranians are influential in the other one. Iran has a lot more influence than it had in the past. It has much more capability than it had in the past.
The other issues are really a reaction of a reflection of this. In other words, the sectarian issues are becoming more important because it falls right in the middle of an Iranian-Arab rivalry. The language of the Arabs in the region is anti-Iran, anti-Shiia. And so long as the Iranians and the Arabs are in this rivalry, the Iranians are Shiias; most of the Arabs are Sunni. Sectarianism is an issue. Relations is an issue. Nationalism becomes very important.
The other issue is even the Palestinian issue has become now a political football between Arabs and Iranians. I mean, people argue that the whole purpose for an Annapolis Conference and a new peace effort was to create a united Arab front against Iran. So Iran was really the ulterior motive; the bigger fish in the picture.
Now for everybody in the region, Iran poses a challenge. For the Arab countries, this is classical balance of power issue. It’s not necessarily just about the Iranian regime. It’s a country of 70 million people; very wealthy, very large, very nationalistic with imperial ambitions going back.
It now feels that it’s being let loose in the Persian Gulf. And any country – whether it’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia – any country reacts to a relative loss of power with anxiety.
So everybody looks and says, “Can we go back to re-balancing Iran?” That’s a natural reaction.
The United States has a challenge because the United States for a very long time invested in a vision of the Middle East which was based on the idea that the Arab world was the most dominant factor, and stability in the Middle East depends on stability in the Arab world. Now all of a sudden we see that Iran is much more important – from Lebanon, to Palestine issue, to particularly the Persian Gulf where everything we care about right now is over there; and to Iraq, which is our most important issue in the region.
Now all of a sudden the Arab world that we invested so much in is not able to control, and influence, and shape things to the extent that was the case five years ago [i.e. circa 2002]. We have to play catch up with reality.
Now one of the ways in which the [George W.] Bush administration is trying to do this is to take the clock back to 2002. That’s not going to happen easily, bloodlessly, effortlessly. Iran’s not going to go back in its cage easy. The question is: can we cobble together a new framework for the region that deals with the reality, which is Iran is more influential? Arabs may be a little less. Come to a new balance.
For Israel, the problem is very different. Israel and Iran now essentially are the two great powers in this region. The Arab world is sandwiched between.
You had for a period a unipolar situation in the Middle East where Israel was conventional military, dominant; the Arab world, by and large, was becoming an ally of the U.S. Syria or Libya were not mattering much. Iraq was broken down by the U.S. Iran all of a sudden is emerged as the counterweight to Israel. It’s trying to shore up rhetoric against Israel; anti-Holocaust rhetoric; pro-Palestinian rhetoric; rejecting talking, etc. And it’s trying to woo the Arab world away from Israel. And Israel and the United States are trying to woo the Arab world against.
But that means that the real power players are not the Arab world. The Arab world is the prize in a bigger fight between Israel and Iran over power in this region.
Now Israel; whenever you have nuclear capability, there’s always a fear about its use. But I don’t think that’s the really most important issue here.
I mean look at South Asia. Pakistan and India hate one another. They have a live issue between them. Ever since they’ve gone nuclear, they haven’t gone to war with one another. There is a nuclear peace in South Asia.
But the reality is that the issue is a bit more complex. It’s not that whether Iran, the minute it gets the bomb is going to launch it. First of all, Iran is many years away from a bomb, and many years away from getting parity with Israel, which has some 200 nuclear weapons and second strike capability.
The reality is that when India and Pakistan each went nuclear, they went different paths. India relaxed. It began to focus on economic growth and real things. Pakistan became much more dangerous. It became much more adventuristic. It would send jihadi fighters into _________ and Afghanistan. And even right now the Pakistanis would do things that other countries would not get away with against the United States, which is giving them money. Why? Because they believe they have some kind of immunity because of a nuclear capability.
India will not invade Pakistan even though it has a bigger army. Now the question is, which one will Iran be? Will Iran be India, or will Iran be Pakistan?
And then the bigger question is an Iranian bomb will play the same role that American nuclear weapons played in Europe during the Cold War. The Soviets had many more tanks, many more soldiers. They could have just walked into Western Europe. We couldn’t match their numbers. But once you have the nuclear weapons in the picture, conventional superiority becomes irrelevant. Nuclear weapons are an equalizer.
For in the minds of Middle Eastern countries, Israel has absolute conventional superiority. It has a fantastic military which has proven itself in war. It’s highly technologically advanced, and it has a superb air force. Now the minute you have a nuclear capability, all of that conventional superiority will become irrelevant.
So for Israel, a nuclear Iran is an absolute strategic loss. I’m not convinced that there will be nuclear war. I mean, one never knows, but I’m not convinced that that’s the most likely scenario, the most likely outcome. But one can be absolutely sure that once Iran has a nuclear weapon, Israel will lose its conventional superiority and the balance of power in the region will shift.
Israel will not be able to, for instance, operate in Syria or in South Lebanon with the ease that it does. Many Arab countries that right now complain about Iranian nuclear weapons may actually benefit from a nuclear shield and become a lot more anti-Israeli. And you’ll end up with a much more constricted Israel in a Middle East which still has many live, unresolved issued that threaten Israel’s security.
Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007
Iran has emerged, Nasr says, as a great power in the region.
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Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.