FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith spoke to Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on September 18, 2017 for the documentary Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
How serious is the conflict in the Middle East? I talk to a lot of people. They say, “How’s the Middle East?” I say, “It’s a mess; it’s in crisis.” And they say, “It’s always been that way, hasn’t it?”
The current crisis in the Middle East is very important, largely because it goes to the heart of distribution of power. And I would call it the sort of security architecture of the region. Boundaries that were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Versailles are now open to contestation. The internal political architecture that was borne out of the colonial experience with a particular distribution of power between minorities and majorities and also between authoritarian regimes and their subjects is also being contested.
So today, foundations of the region’s political structure are in flux. So this is much more than a dispute between two countries or a simple political uprising and demand for democracy. This is really a fundamental reorganization of power in the region in a manner that we actually don’t know where the dust will settle.
Nowadays, when you hear the Arabs complain about Iranian meddling in the region, what they’re essentially saying is that the balance of power between Arabs and Iranians has been lost not — I don’t think actually because the Iranians are doing any more but because the Arabs have imploded. What the Arabs are really worried about is that the balance of power in this region is shifting to Turks and the Iranians away from the Arabs.