In April 2007, Vali Nasr made his debut on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report to discuss his latest book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. Nasr, already a veteran of The Daily Show and several more traditional news outlets, came to play the role of Middle East expert with overflowing gravitas.
Colbert brought the silly. Post-intro, he zigzagged across the studio set, arms raised and flashing his trademark campaign-trail smile before he sat down fireside with Nasr to discuss the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and why anyone should care. (Colbert said he thought the difference was "whether they greeted us with flowers or candy.") Nasr—dressed smartly in a gray suit with silk shirt and tie—sat amused but unruffled as he deftly fielded everything in Colbert's sarcasm-drenched arsenal. He turned the seven-minute segment into a crash course on Islam, Iraq, and how the recent Shia resurgence could fuel conflict in the Middle East for years to come as the two Islamic sects vie for control of newly democratized countries. He likened the sectarian violence to the Catholic and Protestant tensions in Northern Ireland, prompting Colbert to ask: "Which ones are the Catholics, so I know whom to root for?" Nasr suggested the Shia because they also have saints.
"Before we went on air, Colbert told me, 'Talk to me like you're talking to a drunk,'" says Nasr, sitting in his uncluttered and well-appointed office at SAIS, where he has been dean since July 2012. "He says, 'I'm going to act. You treat me like a drunk, and that will help.' And it did. I was trying to keep it simple."
Keeping 1,400 years of Islamic history and the current state of Middle East politics simple should merit high marks for degree-of-difficulty. Therein lies the Nasr appeal. Whether he's talking to a foreign diplomat, seasoned elected official, comedic TV host, student, or pretzel vendor on the street, Nasr can eloquently break a subject down. Friends and colleagues call him a rare breed who combines staggering intellect and humanity with a gifted ability to write and communicate to almost any audience. Those in his inner circle describe him as fearless, stoic, honest, insightful, humble, genuine, determined, and loyal. "Vali is an irresistible character," says friend Kati Marton, author, journalist, and widow of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who worked closely for two years with Nasr during his time at the U.S. State Department. "He has a great twinkle in his eye, a boldness and charm. He's very interested in people, and that comes through."
Nasr has more than 36,000 Twitter followers— not bad for an academic. He has advised senior American policymakers, world leaders, and celebrities, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretary of State and 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, senior members of Congress, and Hollywood power couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. (He advised the former on her humanitarian work and the latter on a movie script.) The author of seven books, including two New York Times best-sellers, Nasr also is a prolific writer of op-ed pieces for The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Newsweek, Time, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, and has provided commentary on major news networks and talk shows, including Charlie Rose: The Week, Meet the Press, Fareed Zakaria GPS, This Week with Christiane Amanpour, and others.
As dean of SAIS with a full plate of administrative and fundraising responsibilities— he's lost track of the number of overseas trips he's taken to visit alumni and potential donors— Nasr has hardly decelerated his output as an analyst, commentator, and adviser. He is currently in demand for his latest book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (Doubleday, 2013), in which he provides a candid firsthand account of his two years at the State Department as senior adviser to Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the book, he critiques an Obama administration too eager to overvalue military input and shy away from diplomatic efforts in the Middle East for fear of public backlash and looking soft. With a sober but impassioned tone, Nasr describes an Oval Office climate that made it hard for foreign policy experts to be heard, and the dangers America faces if it continues to turn its back on a volatile region at a time when China and Russia seek to insert themselves.
Nasr says it was difficult to write a book critical of an administration he advised, with many of the major players still in office, but ultimately he felt a responsibility to place his arguments on the table while there was still time to change direction. "I think the Middle East matters enormously to the United States," he says. "It's a region of the world we have a great deal of anxiety over and concern with. And even though we may say we are tired of it and might want to leave, that is not a choice I feel that we can make because events in the region don't give us that luxury. The consequences are too great." Without America's support and power, he says, moderate voices and those striving for democracy could be drowned out by Islamic extremists, endangering hard-fought gains that cost many lives.
Born and raised in Tehran, Nasr is the son of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a well-known academic in his home country and today a foremost scholar of Islamic, religious, and comparative studies. Nasr says his family was upper middle class, not quite wealthy but comfortable and with access to power. His father was chancellor of Aryamehr University of Technology (now Sharif University of Technology) and spent a period in government, and his grandfather was a physician to the Iranian royal family.
At age 16, in the middle of high school, Nasr was sent to a boys boarding school in England, a place quite unlike Hogwarts, he says. He calls his time there a liberating experience. He learned English and was encouraged to study history, geography, and literature, subjects considered soft back home in Iran. Teachers praised his active imagination and analysis, and his ability to probe deeply into topics. The Muslim Nasr scored highest in his divinity class, where he wrote about the New Testament teachings in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew. In his spare time he played soccer and squash and earned spots on the judo and debate teams.
Then the Iranian Revolution happened. "All of a sudden, our lives are turned upside down," Nasr says. "In an instant, the course of your life was being decided by a very traumatic political event. One not just shaping your life but the life of the whole country and region." Shortly before the Shah left Iran and the regime fell, Nasr's family migrated to the United States, and all his ties with his home country were severed. He took just one suitcase, he says, leaving behind books, records, and other prized possessions. Back in Iran, his home was plundered and then sold, and a number of friends and family members were executed.
Nasr says the political upheaval and violence in his home country in many ways came to dominate the next phase of his education. "I became very interested in political science, specifically Middle East politics," he says. "For me, it was unavoidable to focus on issues of Islam and politics, which were not only shaping policy here but influencing global politics as well." Nasr wanted to explain the political phenomenon in the Middle East and answer the big question: Where was it all headed? This overarching thought became the focus of his academic inquiry.
The Nasr family settled in Boston, and Vali looked to enter college, setting his sights on Tufts University. But he had left boarding school without completing his degree. So his father set up a meeting with Tufts' dean of admissions to see if an exception could be made, given his son's unique circumstances. Nasr recalls he showed up that day with a pouch overstuffed with two years' worth of transcripts, test results, and papers to prove his worth. "[The dean] politely told us we were way past the deadline for applications and that next week they would release the [admission] results. But then he paused and reached into his desk, took out an application form and told me to fill it out right there and then." Nasr was put on the waitlist and ultimately accepted in time to enroll at Tufts that next fall. "The kindness of people can have a tremendous impact on a life," he says.
As a U.S. resident, Nasr had to adjust to a new culture at a time when Iran had become an enemy of the United States. He watched alongside fellow students as the Iranian hostage crisis played out in the news and the image of Iran was rapidly transformed. The experience exposed him to issues of intolerance and misunderstanding between the United States and the Muslim world. "From 1979 onwards, very clearly you have this enigma of Islamic fundamentalism becoming the core of U.S. perception of the Middle East and American foreign policy," he says. "So that gradually became the focus of my study. How can I help provide that understanding both at the academic level and the practical level?"
Leila Fawaz, a professor of Lebanese and eastern Mediterranean studies at Tufts, met Nasr when he enrolled in her class freshman year. The young student made an immediate impression on her. "I have had many TAs through the years, but he was hired while an undergraduate, which for me was exceptional. He was that informed and good," says Fawaz, one of the people to whom Nasr dedicated his 2009 book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World. "He was always reading. We had this Asian bookstore in town, and he would often come right from there to my office and tell me what to read. He had that sort of confidence."
After earning a master's degree in international economics and Middle East studies from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts (1984) and a PhD from MIT in political science (1991), Nasr taught at the University of San Diego, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the Fletcher School. He also taught at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego, and was a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. In addition to his role at SAIS, he is currently a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he served as senior fellow from 2006 to 2009.
From early on in his career, Nasr's writing drew wide attention and praise from peers. For his doctoral dissertation and early published work, Nasr chose to delve into religious and political matters in Pakistan, India, and Malaysia. Pakistan would feature prominently in his first three books: The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama'at-i Islami of Pakistan (University of California Press, 1994), Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (Oxford University Press, 1996), and Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power (Oxford University Press, 2001). Nader Hashemi, an associate professor at the University of Denver and a leading expert on Middle East and Islamic affairs, says those early scholarly books established Nasr's reputation in academic circles. What struck Hashemi, he says, was how authoritative Nasr was on diverse subjects. "Those first few books of his were truly groundbreaking in the field," he says. "Nobody else was focused on Pakistan the way he was. He conducted all this incredible empirical field research. He basically owned a piece of academic territory."
Hashemi says that Nasr has always managed to stay well ahead of the curve, predicting the sectarian division and violence that would come to pass in the Middle East. "His track record is incredible, and he's able to sustain this serious critique on foreign policy in such a forceful manner," Hashemi says. "I tell my students that a lot of people write on policy, but when some write something it's worth taking your time to print it off immediately and digest it. Vali Nasr is one of those people. His writing is just pregnant with insight."
Nasr garnered a new and larger audience with the release of The Shia Revival (W.W. Norton, 2006), his first book written for a general reader. The work offers a pocket history of the bitter 1,400-year struggle between the Sunni and Shia sects—tracing its roots from the succession of the Prophet Muhammad—and how the nuances that differentiate the various religious and theological aspects of Islam play out in modern-day politics. Nasr characterizes the conflict as "a struggle for the soul of Islam," a battle of competing theologies unleashed by the war in Iraq and its aftermath. The book was widely lauded for advocating a political order that both sects can share, bringing all parties to the table. John Esposito, author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, called it the "best book by far on Shiism and Shia-Sunni conflicts." In it, Nasr wrote, "Sectarian conflict will make Sunni extremists more extreme and will rekindle revolutionary zeal among the Shia. At times the conflict will be bloody." His prescient words have played out in places such as Iraq and more recently Syria, where the Shia militant group Hezbollah has rallied behind the Syrian army in its battle against opposition forces and the Sunni majority.
Nasr says he decided to write a mass-audience book because he thought the discourse on the Middle East was too academic and inaccessible. "The book came out [in 2006] at an important juncture in the Iraq War, when it moved from an invasion to a battle against the insurgency. People were asking, 'What is this Shia versus Sunni thing? We thought they were all Muslims and now it's mission critical.' I thought people were missing the whole basic backdrop. What is a Shia? Largely people didn't know. It's like going somewhere and saying, 'What is a Catholic?'"
All told, 2006–2007 turned out to be a pivotal period for Nasr. In addition to the success of his book, he met diplomatic heavy weight Richard Holbrooke at a conference in Aspen, Colorado, where the two sat next to each other during dinner. Holbrooke, then a top political adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign team, by many accounts struck up an immediate kinship with Nasr, and the two remained strong allies until Holbrooke's death in December 2010. Maureen White, senior adviser to the State Department for humanitarian affairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, says that Holbrooke put immense faith and trust in Nasr. They both thought America's role in the world could not solely be based on its military might but needed more reliance on its values. American diplomatic efforts, they argued, could not be routinely thwarted by the American military perspective and objectives, no matter how well intentioned. "Richard loved Vali," White says. "He respected Vali's intellect and the way he could weave a story about a nation and its people with such depth. Vali always knew his stuff, but he was never dismissive of others who knew less and was always even-tempered. The way Vali brings people together is masterful." Marton says, "Richard took Vali out of his academic ivory tower and right into ground zero of turbulent U.S. foreign policy alongside one of its great chess players. In Vali, Richard found a man who he trusted instantly to be his loyal friend. He was able to temper Richard's analysis with his own academic take. The two created a seamless machine."
Wherever he has been, Nasr has garnered a cult of followers. When he departed Tufts, former students gathered for a farewell party, and many cried. At the Council on Foreign Relations, colleagues affectionately referred to Nasr as "the Persian Prince." He had a reputation for making time for everyone, interns and fellows alike, no matter what the demands on his time.
Colleagues say Nasr prefers to be the calm of a storm, the one who doesn't get flustered when others are shouting around him.
Says Marton, "I've never met a man who combines such sharp analytical power and a very profound sense of America's place in the world with such enormous passion and compassion. He has a humanity that quite frankly you don't encounter that much in Washington. The old saying is that if you want a friend in Washington get a dog. I would correct that and say if you want a friend in Washington, get to know Vali."
At SAIS, colleagues praise him for bringing new vitality to the campus. Nasr has played a central role in attracting a star-studded list of speakers including Robert Gates, Madeleine Albright, Brent Scowcroft, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and the deputy prime minister of Turkey. He has overseen the establishment of a long-sought tenure track at SAIS and a student-run social media team, and set forth on an ambitious agenda of building on the school's strengths, including the recruitment of new faculty who can cut across regions of expertise and academic disciplines. He also hosts a biweekly breakfast where he meets with students to talk about whatever is on their minds.
Nasr says he's enjoying his time as dean of a school he's long admired. "I took this position because I thought it provided a unique opportunity to think strategically about what an education in international affairs means to the production of the next generation of world leaders, and research on global issues at this particular time in our history," he says. "We are seeing a shift in power with the rise of China, new emerging markets, and an energy revolution. The mission of schools like SAIS will have to change as the global scene changes." And he will no doubt be there, documenting and deciphering each of those changes.