Foreign Policy Blogs

A Candid Discussion with Kamran Bokhari of Stratfor


Kamran Bokhari is Vice President of Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at Stratfor, a leading geopolitical and intelligence consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. Mr. Bokhari is a distinguished scholar and expert in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs. He has given briefings to the U.S. and Canadian governments on important geopolitical issues in the Islamic world and played a fundamental role in shaping Stratfor’s knowledge base in the region.

Mr. Bokhari is the author, most recently, along with Farid Senzai, of Political Islam in the Age of Democratization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Mr. Bokhari has given thousands of interviews to leading global media outlets around the world. In addition to his work at Stratfor, he is a fellow with the Washington-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a senior consultant to the World Bank. Mr. Bokhari sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss political Islam, his book, U.S.-Iranian relations, and geopolitics in the Middle East.


What was the rationale behind writing a book on political Islam and what are the key theoretical frameworks used in your book?

There are a number of reasons that led us to writing a book on political Islam and democratization. The initial interest in these two issues emerged several years prior to 9/11, which resulted in my MA thesis on this subject when political Islam (much less its interaction with Islamism) garnered limited interest. After the Sept 11 attacks, however, there has been an astronomical increase in the volume of literature on political Islam. Despite this, Farid and I strongly felt that much of this work raised more questions than it answered – a major lacuna in the existing body of work, which we have tried to fill with this book.

There was a need for a framework that could help make sense of the deluge of information on the geopolitically diverse and complex phenomenon of contemporary political Islam that has been in circulation for the past 12 years. In addition, we believe that political Islam could not be discussed in a vacuum; rather it is properly understood when placed in the context of the wider democratization trend in the Arab and Muslim worlds.  Thus, we use democratization theory to try and make sense of the evolution of Islamism in the Middle East and South Asia since the beginning of the 1990s.

Our thesis is that democracy in the Muslim world will take root but it will be different from what we have in the west given that Muslim democracies (to varying degrees) will allow for religion to have some (as yet undefined) role in public affairs. That said, there will be countries that may not democratize given that more radical forms of Islamism are dominant there.

We offer two separate 3-tiered typologies that classify different Islamist movements. The first is based on how different Islamist groups seek to establish their envisioned ‘Islamic’ polity and the second one is based on the different attitudes that exist among Islamists towards democracy. In addition, we offer a spectrum that identifies the various types of Islamists and secularists with regards to their views of the role of religion in politics. We then apply this framework on seven case studies: Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran, Arab Shia (Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia parties), and Turkey’s ruling AKP Party.

Given the latest developments in the region, what direction, in your opinion, is the Sunni-Shiite rivalry headed to and what nature is this rivalry made of?

We refer to this rivalry as geo-sectarianism, which we feel has grown to levels not seen since the emergence of the nation-state era. Until late August, it appeared as though the gains made by the Iranians and their Arab Shia allies since the regime-change in Baghdad were about to  be eroded with U.S. military action in response to the use of chemical weapons by elements of the Assad regime. But the Russian initiative to have Damascus give up its chemical weapons arsenal and more importantly the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement process moving from the back-channels to the public sphere has completely turned things around. There is a reason why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and its Arab allies are furious at Washington.

The Obama-Rouhani diplomacy has swung the pendulum in favor of Iran, especially because Washington did not want to roll back Iranian influence at the cost of creating a jihadist haven in Syria, which is likely to be much more significant than what al-Qaeda had in Afghanistan pre-9/11. What complicates this geopolitical sectarian situation is that we have 3 primary actors trying to pursue divergent interests. These include Iran, KSA, and al-Qaeda-led transnational jihadists. Further compounding matters is Turkey’s role and that of the United States. While an Iran moving towards international rehabilitation is likely to be able to retain its interests in the Levant, the United States wishes to establish a regional balance of power by countering Sunni radicalism with Shia geopolitical aspirations.

What were the key factors behind the change of U.S. policy in Syria? Was there a realization that Bashar Al-Assad was the best worst option given the threat posed by Saudi-backed Jihadi groups and their sectarian violence against non-Sunnis and other religious minorities?

The Obama administration since the beginning of the Syrian civil war has sought to avoid any major intervention in the conflict. This has been in keeping with the new doctrine that has emerged following the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. That said, Washington did initially seek regime-change in Damascus as a means of undoing the unintended consequences of regime-change in Iraq, i.e., the growth of Iranian influence across the northern rim of the Middle East because of the rise of a Tehran-allied Iraqi Shia regime.

The mass uprising that quickly transformed into civil war in Syria was a way for the United States to prevent Iran from creating a contiguous sphere of influence stretching from central Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. As a result, it began to cautiously support Syrian rebels but it didn’t take too long for Salafist-jihadists of various stripes to dominate the Syrian battlefield forcing the United States into a situation where it is now seeking a difficult balance between Sunni and Shia radicalisms.

Washington sees an opportunity to do so in the process towards détente with Iran and by trying to work with Saudi-backed Islamic Front (an alliance of Salafist-jihadists forces that oppose al-Qaeda). Therefore, the United States does not prefer Assad over the Sunni Islamist insurrectionists. Rather it eventually seeks to push out Assad as well as al-Qaeda and establish a sectarian balance of power in Syria, which will define the wider regional balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Why should Saudi Arabia be concerned about the current U.S.-Iranian rapprochement? In what ways do you think the restoration of U.S.-Iranian relations would impact the Saudis’ strategic position in the Middle East?

While Saudi Arabia does take comfort from the fact that Iran (given the ethno-sectarian and financial arresters in its path) faces limits in its ability to project power in the Arab world, Riyadh cannot be too comfortable given that its biggest ally is now seeking to improve ties with its biggest rival.

Though the founding of the Islamic Republic represented a major threat to the Saudis, the Kingdom had long been comfortable with the fact that there was an adversarial relationship between the United States and Iran, which would play a key role in arresting the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions. The Saudis were angered by the American move to topple the Saddam regime as a result of which Iraq fell into the Iranian orbit. However, they were still at relative ease that Iran, under the Ahmadinejad administration, was under increasing sanctions and thus geopolitically under lock and key. Furthermore, the Syrian uprising provided a potential way in which Saudi Arabia could punch a critical hole in the Iranian sphere of influence. Toppling the Assad regime could not just seriously undermine Iran’s ability to support its premier regional proxy, Hezbollah, but also render vulnerable the nascent foothold that Iran had established in Iraq.

After struggling to mobilize international (read US) backing for the rebels, the Saudis were extremely optimistic in the wake of the Aug 21, 2013 chemical weapons incident that Washington finally would engage in military action. Even if the Obama administration was only preparing for limited airstrikes, the Saudis hoped that they would be sufficient to provide an opening for the rebels (who had been losing territory to the regime forces since the beginning of the year) to build upon and eventually take Damascus. This is why when the United States moved away from military strikes, the Saudis became furious.

What further forced the Saudi hand was that within weeks of the American-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, the Obama administration brought to the public light the backchannel talks it had been holding with the Rouhani administration. Faced with a major setback to their strategy, the Saudis decided to push ahead with a new strategic doctrine whereby the Kingdom would pursue a foreign policy independent of the United States, its long-time guarantor of national security.

From the Saudi point of view, it was critical that it rush to assert its leadership of the Arab world. After all the region is in a great state of flux with Arab states in turmoil due to the Arab Spring and the emergence of Muslim Brotherhood style Islamists (whom the Saudis and their allies consider a key threat from within the Sunni Arab world). All of this internal Arab chaos is unfolding at the same time as Iran is in the process of international rehabilitation and while the Saudis are going through a historic internal transition with power moving away from the sons of the founder of the modern kingdom to third-generation princes. The Saudis are hoping that the U.S. desire to not allow Iran to exploit its rehabilitation and enhance its regional power and the American search for moderate Salafist-jihadists in Syria will provide it with leverage to combat an Iran unencumbered by international sanctions.


Do you think Iran under the Rouhani administration is re-defining its strategic imperatives vis-à-vis its energy and geopolitical interests in the Middle East and Central Asia?

President Hassan Rouhani represents the pragmatic conservative camp led by the regime’s second most influential cleric, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has long argued that Iran can better realize its geopolitical imperatives by steering clear of a bellicose foreign policy. The latest wave of sanctions targeting Tehran’s crude export capability allowed for this camp’s perspective to gain the upper hand within the regime. Rouhani’s victory in the presidential election is a result of this internal struggle. Essentially the president’s faction sees diplomacy as the best way to further Iranian geopolitical interests.

What is working to Rouhani’s advantage is that the clerical and security establishments also support this initiative because the hawks too realize that Iran’s ability to expand while under sanctions has peaked and pushing a hawkish agenda will only lead them towards decline. Differences remain and many within the hardline camp are not comfortable with the normalization of relations with the United States because they feel that it leaves their positions vulnerable to greater democratization of the Islamic Republic. However, they do know that they can no longer maintain domestic stability much less project power beyond its borders without a significant respite from sanctions.  

From a strategic perspective, what would the Iranians be willing to relinquish in return for the full removal of sanctions and re-integration of their battered economy into the global trade system? Could the extent of the Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas become part of a quid pro quo arrangement?

The Iranians are hoping that they can reach an arrangement with the Americans whereby they can practically demonstrate that they have no intention of developing weapons and only seek a civilian nuclear program in exchange for substantial dismantling of the sanctions regime. Tehran is also trying to exploit Washington’s deep concerns about the rise of radical Islamism in the largely Sunni Arab world and hoping to offer assistance in countering Sunni Islamism in exchange for normalization of Iran’s international political economic relations. In this regard, the Rouhani government is hoping to exploit Washington’s desire to create a geo-sectarian balance of power to the extent that it can take advantage of it.

As part of this process, Tehran wants Washington to recognize the Islamic republic’s regional sphere of influence. A critical component in this regard is preventing Sunni control of Syria, which is worth a lot more to Iran than the nuclear program. Cognizant of the fact that a return to status quo ante in Syria is impossible, the Iranian objective is to limit Sunni empowerment in the Levantine country. Achieving this is the key to preserving Hezbollah’s status as a state within a state in Lebanon and securing the wellbeing of the Shia-dominated regime in Iraq.

Thus, Iran is not ready to trade away support for Hezbollah as part of a give-and-take with the United States. Rather, Tehran would like to reach an understanding with Washington on the future of Hezbollah, especially since it is the one non-state actor that serves as a counter to Salafist-jihadists in Syria and Lebanon. On the issue of Hamas, Iranian influence over the group has waned given that the Palestinian Islamist movement, in the wake of the uprising in Syria, does not see wish to be an Iranian proxy; rather part of the Sunni Arab fold. That Hamas still wishes to maintain tactical level relations with Iran is something Tehran would like to use to be able to have influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How would the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan this year impact the security situation in the South and Central Asia? Could Iran impact the security situation in this region upon the U.S. and NATO withdrawal?

When the Obama administration began negotiating with the representatives of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the United States had hoped that it would lead to a power-sharing deal prior to the completion of the drawdown of NATO forces by the end of 2014. Over the course of the past year, it has become increasingly clear that the negotiations with the Taliban have not made much progress, and will remain a work-in-progress, long after the drawdown of U.S.-led western forces in the country. Furthermore, the Afghan state, in the wake of the fast approaching post-Karzai scenario, is entering into a period of increasing uncertainty. As it is, we are witnessing tensions between the Obama administration and Karzai government over the bilateral security agreement that will determine the status of residual US forces that Washington and Kabul both wish to see stay in Afghanistan for the next decade.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly clear that neighboring Pakistan no longer enjoys the level of influence over the Afghan jihadist movement as it once used to. In fact, Islamabad has been weakened due to its struggle against the rise of domestic Taliban insurgency as well as a floundering economy. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has an interest in supporting anti-Iranian/Shia forces on the Islamic republic’s eastern flank as a way to compensate for the problems Riyadh is facing on Tehran’s western frontier.

The fact that the Saudis’ main allies in Pakistani enjoy a government with a comfortable majority in Islamabad allows Riyadh a great deal of leverage in Southwest Asia. What all of this means is that the security situation in South and Central Asia is likely to deteriorate after the NATO drawdown and the eastern flank of Iran is also going to see an intensification of the geo-sectarian proxy battle between Riyadh and Tehran in Southwest Asia. In its bargaining with the United States, Iran is also trying to leverage American concerns for this region in order to counter Saudi moves and actually expand the existing influence it has historically enjoyed in Afghanistan.