Former CIA case officer Robert Baer says that it took him 15 years in the Middle East to "begin to decode it". In his latest book The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, Baer declares it is time to re-think Iran, and the West must stop treating Tehran like a Cold War-style enemy.
When I spoke with Baer in Sydney last Friday, he made the point that our current policies toward Iran set us on course for far greater problems in the future. In Baer’s view, perpetuating popular Western misconceptions of Iran — from being an Islamofascist state or a medieval throwback, to a country consumed with an irrational hatred of the West — does great harm to the search for stability in the Middle East.
Baer acknowledges that the apocalyptic, Holocaust-denying rhetoric of their President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hasn’t helped, but above all else, Baer believes Iran wants acknowledgement and legitimacy.
It should be stated that Robert Baer is not an Iranian apologist. He clearly views Iran with caution and pays a lot of attention to the dangers he sees there. Iran has a history of state-sponsored terrorism, including the killing of 241 US marines in Beirut in 1983. As a US intelligence operative Baer would himself have been a potential target for Iran throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Still, the West’s misunderstanding of Iran within the US government, defence circles and foreign policy think tanks, clearly frustrates him. "They are not a fascist state. They let me in — an ex-CIA guy who used to deal for many years with the Iranian opposition. They understood I was not a threat or still a spy or anyone that could do any damage. [By contrast] I cannot go up to [Osama] bin Laden’s cave and wander around. Or Saudi Arabia — I can’t go to Saudi Arabia because of my Saudi book." (In 2003, Baer published Sleeping with the Devil, How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude. It was later adapted for the film, Syriana.)
In expressing his frustration with the conduct of US foreign policy discussions, Baer says, "Iraq was reduced to WMDs, and it’s the same with Iran. They are reduced to a nuclear threat." The ongoing speculation of a nuclear weapons program, according to Baer, "is just flat wrong". He added, "They want to survive, and for them to take a nuclear weapon and test it, it would be an act of suicide. Even if the Israeli’s didn’t hit them, the sanctions and embargoes would destroy the country. They are not going to do it." Yet, as he outlines in The Devil We Know, US foreign policy is clearly fixated on this worst-case scenario of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Baer sees very real (non-nuclear) threats from Iran, believes that it is vital that some consideration is given to identifying the motivations behind those threats. So what does Iran want? Baer believes it is essentially access to more oil and a Shia-controlled Mecca.
In just two weeks, the 2003 Iraq invasion achieved what Iran wasted eight years and millions of lives trying to do fighting the US-backed Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. The world’s most powerful army destroyed Iraq’s T-72 tanks and scattered Saddam’s remaining defences. With a Shia majority population, it was only a matter of time before Iran’s proxies were filling the power vacuum and controlling Iraq. For the initial years, it did so through waves of violence. Then Iran turned down the level of violence, giving US forces the chance to claim "the surge" a success and slowly extricate themselves.
For Iran, this annexation means they now — by proxy — control much of Iraq’s internal affairs. Most importantly, Iran now controls Iraqi oil supplies and Baer believes that by 2015, when full oil production in Iraq is achieved, Iran will control more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and have even more clout through OPEC than it already does.
For the US (and world) economy, this points to the possibility of oil prices going beyond $200 per barrel, possibly $300. As Baer points out, suddenly the price of everything they buy increases massively. The Devil We Know presents a very clear case that our oil dependency and lack of alternative energy sources are causing enormous problems independent of the threats of climate change, arguing that the West’s economic reliance on oil is politically unsustainable.
In this context, it becomes clearer that the US should be motivated towards cooling things down in its relationship with Iran and moving towards détente. While this might seem far-fetched in the current climate, Baer says we need to look for its precedent in the US-China relationship and the inroads made under president Nixon. More functional relations between the two opposed superpowers have brought enormous benefits and stability for both since 1972.
In coming to the negotiating table, Baer believes that the Iranians will be willing to bargain over the shape of their nuclear program, but they see nothing to be gained by undoing the expansion Iran has achieved in the region.
Baer says, "I can see why they would want [a nuclear weapon]eventually because Saddam should have had one … In essence they want one but I think they are going to time it a lot better. The Iranians are really, really smart, sophisticated people. I’ve seen the backside of their diplomatic negotiations and talks and I would say they are infinitely more sophisticated than their American counterparts. I have seen them comment [on US military engagements], places we shouldn’t have been, what’s happening in the United States — and their analysis was as good as the New York Times and the Washington Post."
Iran’s influence in the region can be understood through the example of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He had studied at the Shia seminary in the Baqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, and like many Lebanese Shia from the south, Nasrallah initially accepted the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But something changed and by early in 1983 he had joined Hezbelloh. He agreed to the draconian rules of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards: keep Iran’s hand hidden at all costs; never discuss anything important on the phone; deal in cash; use the name Islamic Jihad Organization for attacks against the West.
Although Nasrallah was not a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini and was instead influenced by the rival Da’wa Party, he became a clandestine operative — a terrorist for Iran. As a proxy for Iran, Nasrallah-led Hezbollah defeated the Israeli army in 2006. The IDF, armed with the most sophisticated and advanced technology, was forced into retreat, unable to decisively overcome Hezbollah’s tactics of guerrilla street fighting. It is alleged that even today, Israeli intelligence is unable to identify Hezbollah’s field officers and they are the only "army" known to use fibre optics — which are impossible to intercept — for their telephone communications.
Asked what he thought of Nasrallah, Baer stated, "The man is brilliant. He was a soldier who figured out: I need an army. I don’t need to kidnap Americans, I don’t need to blow up airplanes, I need an army. So he got an army. Then he realised he doesn’t need to go to war with Israel: I need a country. So you have this alliance between Nasrallah and the Iranians which has just worked out brilliantly."
Nasrallah assumed leadership of Hezbelloh in 1992, following the assassination of Abbas al-Musawi. Today Nasrallah lives in a non-descript two bedroom Beirut apartment building and continues to practice his devout faith. He is seen as a hero throughout the Arab world, Sunni and Shia — and also, critically, as a leader of a political movement, not a terrorist organisation. Nasrallah learnt, during the Lebanese civil war, how to establish order and control in the midst of chaos. This was a lesson which the Revolutionary Guards’ proxies in Iraq were to apply to great effect.
After the fall of the Shah in 1979, Iran conducted a relentless terrorist campaign throughout the Middle East and Europe. However in Baer’s view, Iran has more recently been stepping back from using terrorism for geopolitical return.
Iran has pragmatically positioned itself to influence the entire Middle East. Overcoming their outsider status as Persians, traditional enemies of Arabs, Iran has repeated its successful alliance with Nasrallah throughout the Arab world, in non-descript operations and projects — not only through terrorist activities but many welfare projects such as the Iranian hospitals in places like Dubai and Egypt, looking after prisoners upon their release from Israeli jails, and religious indoctrination.
It is partly through these activities, Baer says, that Iran has become, "a superpower by proxy, it is a superpower in the sense that it has this incredible deterrence capability. We can’t ever fix Iraq like we wanted to. Our superpower has its limitations. What they do is that they learn, and we don’t learn."
While the US-backed Gulf Arabs display their ridiculous wealth — with their luxury yachts, gambling in the world’s casinos or buying airborne palaces, President Ahmadinejad presents an Iran which appears almost socialist, offering welfare and respite. The Iranian mullah may command significant wealth, but it is hidden behind closed doors. This apparent self-discipline commands respect from Palestinians. Why else do Sunni Palestinians identify Shia Iran as the only nation that will stand up for them? (Palestinians are the only Arab population of whom a majority — 58 per cent — support Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb.)
Baer says that, "For Iran [the strategy]is empire by proxy, and [it is]relatively cost-free. The amount of money they spend on defence is really nothing. When they pull their tanks out, it’s really for show. They have created a poor man’s superpower army and an astute ability to respond to a potential attack. That is what is most important. You can bomb [their]bases, you can even invade Iran and they probably won’t be able to stop you but the hurt just begins after that. You don’t want to do it."
To better explain the importance of the Iranian (non-nuclear) threat, Baer describes some of the country’s conventional offensive capabilities. They include: Iran’s ability to launch missiles in the Strait of Hormuz (currently hidden in caves, undetectable by the US or Israel), crippling the world’s major oil supply in three minutes. And Iran’s distribution of C-4 explosives (often in non-descript products such as cans of realistic-looking "olives") sent — it is suspected — for many years to contacts throughout Europe, who are essentially Iranian proxies with European passports, ready at any moment to respond to Tehran.
Predictably, Baer identifies Palestine as an impediment to any possible engagement with Iran. He argues, "[the]US needs to do something about the Palestinians. A two-state solution and [the implementation of UN]Resolution 242. Give up part of Jerusalem. Project a policy of [implementing all]UN Resolutions… not just ones against Muslims. Iranian anger against the US is that basic. Come down on Israel for its nuclear weapons; come down on Israel for Gaza. With the closure of the settlements, a lot of their anger would be removed.
"But it’s that basic: a sense of unfairness from the West. They are saying: ‘They’ve got all these sanctions, Iranian companies are going to be sanctioned — well what about the Israelis’ nuclear weapon?’ And you say, ‘Well, the Israelis aren’t really violent’. They aren’t violent to the US? Well they attacked the USS Liberty in 1967 and almost sunk it, killing 34 crew. There is a Judeo-Christian bias in the way we look at the Middle East. And what the Iranians are saying is, ‘Well we have a Muslim bias and we’re going to see who wins’."
President Obama recently appointed Dennis Ross as a special advisor on the Middle East to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. I asked Baer what he made of the appointment. "Not the ideal guy," was his reply. "[Obama] should pluck some academic. But Obama is worried about Israel. There is an emotional attachment to Israel in the US. It’s not just Hollywood or Israeli public affairs. Americans live in the back of their minds with the Holocaust and their ideas of what is this shining city on a hill. What Obama is saying is, ‘I really can’t cope with a huge change in the Middle East. Forcing Tel Aviv to close down the settlements, I don’t really have the political capital, I don’t have the people that understand it’. So he goes back to the Clinton group in a huge way."
I had read previously of Baer’s distaste of lobby groups that influence US foreign policy, and asked him to expand on that. "Look at New York City," he replied, "look at the major newspapers. They have a Zionist agenda. They do. I’m not Jewish. I’m not anything. I don’t care about the Israelis. And I’m not anti-Semitic. It’s just a fact. I suggested to my publisher writing a book on Israel, and he said forget it." (I should add, his agent also told him not to write a book about Iran — because no one would read it.)
Baer continued, "You can’t talk about the reality of Israel. The only place you can talk about the reality of Israel is in Israel. If you go to the Israelis — I’ve said to them — ‘Why are all the people in Gaza so glum?’ The Israeli’s say, ‘If you lived in a prison, so would you.’" He adds that, "they have very good reasons for having that prison, but we can’t even talk about it. They tell you things you will never hear in the United States."
I asked Baer for his reply to the proposition that Israel should be allowed to defend itself, and he responded, "We are actually harming the Israelis. If you keep postponing some sort of accommodation with their neighbours, you are going to have 500 or 600 million people on your border, all with rockets and no one is going to be able to help you."
Again he sees the US policy as unsustainable — essentially the US defending its "interests" throughout the Middle East at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. "The more the US puts in money and diplomatic backing, the worse they are making it for the Israelis. What we are talking about is a dream of American Zionists, which is something different from what the Israelis need or want. We are interfering in their politics, to their ultimate detriment."
For the Arab world, an Iranian superpower is equally threatening. In The Devil We Know, Baer outlines steps which could potentially accommodate Iran and maintain regional stability — and the steady flow of oil, "if it is done responsibly. If there is a certain de-fanging of Iran, where you are leaving in place the [US Navy] Fifth Fleet and implement resolution 242. I think the Arabs would be happy [then]. To simply give the Palestinians a state.
"The Gulf Arabs are really afraid that the US will run out of steam and give up. They hope that there will be fortresses that will protect them from Iran. They are terrified of Iran. They consider the Iranians a superpower. China and Russia aren’t going to invade them — it’s Iran."
The Devil We Know highlights the complexity of this feared Iran. Baer sees President Ahmadinejad largely as a figurehead, without any real power. He adds that the Iranian Minister for Oil (for example) may not in fact exert any real power. Instead, real decisions are made by Ayatollah Khamenei and faceless bureaucrats among the cadres of Revolutionary Guards. Iranians don’t keep records of meetings or decision making — why implicate yourself at a later date?
As Baer says, "Iran has been the third rail of international relations. You know, it helped (US President) Carter lose his presidency and almost took Reagan down." During more recent US administrations, Russia and China have both reached out to Iran, providing weapons and commerce. To Iran, there is bafflement as to how the US chooses its allies: the Saudis (excessive wealth and corruption), Israel (no oil), Afghanistan and Pakistan (corrupt and both impossible to govern as a single nation state).
Perhaps it is time for the new US Administration to pursue a different course and re-think Iran.
Robert Baer’s book The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower is published by Scribe.
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