MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Professor Nasr, welcome to the program.
VALI NASR: Thank you.
BLOCK: You see Syria as really crucible for a power struggle in the Middle East. Why don't first we lay out the forces at play within Syria itself?
NASR: The Syrian dictatorship has reinforced these sectarian divisions. And what we're seeing is that as the Syrian state is beginning to unravel, these sectarian divisions are also coming to the fore.
BLOCK: Now, the main regional powerbrokers, as you call them, are Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia vying for power in the region. How does that rivalry play out in the struggle within Syria?
NASR: Well, this rivalry is actually fairly old. It's been playing itself out for the past 30 years since the Iranian Revolution, where both Iran and Saudi Arabia have claimed leadership of the Islamic world; one as a Shia power and the other one as a Sunni power. So what we're seeing is that while Arab Spring is unfolding, at one level bringing peoples' power to challenge dictatorships, at another level, you're seeing Iran and Saudi Arabia each looking at how this will impact their relative regional power and taking sides accordingly.
BLOCK: One thread here then seems to be the dictatorships or authoritarian regimes, however repugnant, were successful in tamping down, suppressing sectarian divisions. Now, those tensions are boiling over as part of this Arab Spring.
NASR: Well, they were good at tamping it down, but they also aggravated it. Whether it was Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Syria under Hafez Assad, these are regimes that empowered minorities and relied on this suspicion between minorities and majorities to keep the dictatorship going. So even today, we see in Syria that the government very deliberately is trying to stoke sectarian violence by organizing Alawite militias attacking Sunni targets hoping that that would preserve the lifetime of the dictatorship.
BLOCK: Vali Nasr, you have advised the White House, you've advised the State Department. What are the implications for U.S. policy here? How would the U.S. balance the pressures for democratic change in the Middle East with fears about the darker outcomes that you foresee in the region?
NASR: And then we have to engage the oppositions as well as governments. We have to coordinate our allies in order to put pressure on various parties in this to make sure that we don't have a sectarian blowup of the kind that we saw in Iraq. It is possible for oppositions, for different divisions in the society to have a much more congenial and consensual way forward, but that at times requires those who have influence on the various actors to exercise them, and that has to begin with recognizing what the problem at hand is.
BLOCK: Professor Vali Nasr, thank you very much.
NASR: Thank you.
BLOCK: Vali Nasr, professor of International Politics at Tufts University. He's also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.