Editor’s note: RealClearWorld recently had the privilege of interviewing acclaimed author and former CIA case officer Robert Baer. His memoirs, See No Evil, were adapted into the hit 2005 film Syriana. In his latest book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, Baer makes the case for a reappraisal of America’s approach to an increasingly ambitious and imperialistic Iran. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
RCW: Many of the recent books on Iran focus primarily on the nuclear question. You take a different approach in The Devil We Know. Why?
BAER: What you have in Iran is a country that is very good at projecting power throughout the Middle East. What they are attempting to do, whether they succeed or not, is essentially build an empire in the Middle East. They justify this imperialistic expansion through an anti-colonial message—for instance, the liberation of Lebanon, of Palestine, etc.—and they have been extraordinarily effective at doing this. I don’t know of any other instance in history where anybody has tried it this way. Past Persian empires have always done this through invasion and occupation. It’s more like an empire by proxy, which is something that’s hard for the average person to understand.
RCW: You referred to Iran’s ambitions as an empire by proxy. One of the more common arguments against confronting Iran is that they are a small country with an economy the size of Switzerland’s. How can such a country desire empire, much less attain it?
BAER: Well, they would again prefer proxies and blackmail. The fact that Iran can take control of the Gulf’s oil resources ostensibly puts them in charge of the world’s economy. You might argue that the American military will be there to prevent this, but that’s provided we stay. But you need the military to do this. Do we want to put a million troops in the region to contain Iran and police the Middle East? And engaging the Iranians would be difficult, because any action we undertake could result in a form of proxy retaliation. One of these measures could be shutting down the world’s oil supply. We’re up against a regime with advanced capabilities in guerilla warfare, an extensive network of blackmail and an unassailable message: “We are being colonized!”
RCW: You argue that Basra fell to the Iranians without a single shot being fired. U.S. General Raymond Odierno recently took some heat for accusing Iran of bribing government officials in Baghdad. Has Baghdad already been compromised by the Iranians?
BAER: Yes. (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq) Ryan Crocker said it was the Iranians blocking a basing agreement. It was the Iranians buying elections and buying up the parliament. That tells me that Iran has de facto control over the country. Crocker didn’t say it was just a question of bringing a few parliamentarians around; he said Iran. That was his official statement. Crocker was the ambassador to Lebanon at the time I was there, and he calls this Iraq’s “Lebanonization.” Observers use Serbia as an example for Iraq and say we accomplished a victory there with just American troops. But they did it there with the Sunnis and Shi'a together. They were complicit in lowering the level of violence. Iran could make life hell if they unleash the Shi’a on us, as they’ve already done in the south of Iraq. The Iranians could fight us forever in Iraq, but that doesn’t actually serve their immediate interests. They know to just remain patient because eventually the Americans will leave. I don’t care if we even reach a basing agreement. Iran will undermine it. Unless we’re committed to placing a million troops in the region to contain this empire—as we did the Soviet empire—the basing agreement simply won’t have an effect.
RCW: We’ve watched as the price of oil has declined over the past two weeks. Add the fact that Iran has their own domestic economic woes—skyrocketing inflation, high unemployment and limited energy refining capabilities—and you have a recipe for some really poor economic conditions. Do these conditions at all hinder Iran’s imperial ambitions?
BAER: Not in the least. Throughout the 90s, when oil was at $20, $12 and even $11 a barrel, Iran was increasing its aid to Lebanon. It’s a national security issue for them, and much like our own security concerns, this issue can overcome any economic difficulties. And, an empire by proxy is relatively cheap. We’re talking about small arms, not tanks and airplanes. Large weapons are useless against the Americans, and Iran will never be able to match us in that area. Instead, they prefer small, efficient arms that can be acquired very cheaply. Not even a hiccup, really, in terms of Iran’s national budget. I don’t expect Iran to give up its message, nor do I expect them to abandon Hezbollah. Iran will stumble along, despite economic concerns, and one might argue that serious economic concerns will push the Iranians to force an economic union with Iraq.
RCW: Staying on the energy issue, there was a report last week about Iran holding talks with Qatar and Russia about the possibility of forming a “Gas OPEC” to regulate and fix the global gas market. Does this play into Iran’s regional ambitions, and what role do the Russians play in all this?
BAER: Well, if the number one and number two gas producers of the world form a cartel it could certainly be damaging. This is what Syriana was about. If you control all of the gas output to Europe, you basically have the Europeans right where you want them economically. The Iranians know this, and so do the Europeans. There’s an axis between the Russians and Iran, and it mostly involves weapons and gas. Qatar has done some pipeline development with them, too. The East is essentially forcing a dependence—an economic connection—that is just as important as Europe’s connection to the United States. The Europeans won’t continue to tolerate our adventurism in the Middle East, not unless we want to put more bases and more troops in the Middle East to police the region for them. I just don’t know if Americans would tolerate that.
RCW: There’s a presidential election coming up in Iran. It’s looking like a strong possibility that former president Mohammad Khatami may run against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the office. Does it matter to us who wins that election next year?
BAER: It doesn’t necessarily matter for us, because if we’re going to deal with Iran it will be with someone other than the president. But, it would go a long way if Khatami could run and be elected. Iran could perhaps be molded into a moderate and reasonable force in the Middle East. Someone we could deal with. Ahmadinejad has an impolitic way of putting things, to say the least. The man does not know how to put things in reasonable terms, and we’ll need him out of the way before we can move on with Iran.
RCW: You call for a pretty ambitious reappraisal of our alliances in the Middle East.
BAER: It’s very ambitious. Basically, we would need to abandon our current relationships with the Sunni regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for Shi’a Iran. I don’t know of another instance in history when a country aligned with not just another country, but more importantly, a sect. But much of this is assuming that Iran has control over the Gulf’s Shi’a population 10-20 years from now. But the Shi’a are also more disciplined than the Sunnis, and they would be a more stable ally we could rely on.
RCW: Is there concern in Iran that the West is attempting to organize the Sunni Arab regimes against them?
BAER: It’s more than what they’re afraid of; it’s what they’ve seen already in the region. Iran’s plans can be undermined by pure sectarian conflict pitting Sunni against Shi’a. We saw this in Lebanon when Hezbollah went into west Beirut to confront Sunni militias there. As soon as they neutralized the situation, rather than occupying Beirut, Hezbollah turned the area right over to the military. Iran wanted to avoid civil war in Lebanon. It’s very important for the Shi’a to maintain their alliance with the Maronite Christians there, and the Iranians are sensitive to this fact.
RCW: What then can the United States do in response to the Islamic Republic’s imperial ambitions in the region?
BAER: We have to accept some of this as a fait accompli. It took the United States over fifteen years to come around and treat the Chinese as a global power. I think that’s what we need to do with Iran and use it to our benefit. The Sino-Soviet split was huge towards the end of the Cold War, and we need to utilize the Iranians in a similar fashion. We need a Nixon goes to Peking moment.
We’re the ones who invaded the wrong country. From a pure power politics perspective, we should’ve kept the Iranians down, not the Iraqis. Iran is a far more relevant actor than the Iraqis. Now we need to adapt and deal with those consequences.
RCW: Will the next American administration be equipped to engage the Iranians in the way that you’re proposing?
BAER: I think we’re equipped in terms of realpolitik. Even with the current administration, it became clear with the emergence of Gates and Rice that the adults were put back in charge. Even in Israel, Olmert came out and rightly pointed out the negative regional consequences of an attack on Iran.
There was an absence of seriousness on our part when we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. But now that the world seems like a very serious place to us again, we don’t have the leisure to do anymore than we’ve already done. Once we approach the Iran issue with a little more seriousness, I think we’ll find that things will improve for us in the region relatively quickly.