Thursday, October 09, 2008

Robert Baer on NPR's Fresh Air, Part 1.

Note: This post is the first in a series of three...

Last Thursday I heard an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross that jarred me outside of the narrowing spectrum of presidential politics. Gross was interviewing former CIA agent Robert Baer, who has 21 years of experience working in the volatile Middle Eastern region. Baer was on air to promote his new book about Iran, which is entitled The Devil We Know. He shared some incredible and disturbing insights about this growing Shia nation that made me re-evaluate my thoughts about world politics and the United States' involvement in the Middle East. Like most of my fellow citizens, I rely heavily on media sources that have a diminishing journalistic presence abroad. This means that my understanding is limited to "conventional wisdom".

Baer's central message regarding Iran is decidedly different from what you are likely to hear about this key player in Bush's "Axis of Evil". It is his contention that this age-old Persian nation is actually the most stable and powerful player in the Middle East today. As a result, he believes that the trajectory of our involvement with this quintessential "rogue nation" will lead to one of two outcomes- either we will open negotiations with Iran, or we will find ourselves in a 30-year war with them. It should be clear to anyone with a sane assessment of our economic prospects that only one of these options remains viable. Iran can marshall a million soldiers for the battlefield immediately, and we are already pushed against our limits.

Of all powers in the Middle East, it is Iran that has most benefitted from our invasion and occupation of Iraq. Saddam Hussein and his Sunni contingent represented the most significant check on Persian power. The US attack on Hussein led to a democratically elected body that is overwhelmingly composed of Shi'ites.. The situation on the ground currently favors the Shia majority in Iraq, and Baghdad is now dominated by leaders of that sect. The New York Times reported in August that the Iraqi national government is in the process of rooting out the leaders of the Sunni Awakening, an organization that has been cooperating with the American military to quash violence in the Anbar Province. Meanwhile Iran has been instrumental in getting Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down in the face of the Bush Administration's surge.

As far as Baer is concerned, Southern Iraq is already being managed by Tehran. He likens Iraq's relationship to Iran to that beteween Canada and the United States. Former Iraqi president, and current consultant to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is now a major player in the Iraqi oil market. Eventually, the Iranian leadership would like to see the United States leave Iraq peacefully, and cede its stabilization efforts to Iran. To that end Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been working with the American authorities to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. When this occurs, all pretense of Iraqi self-government will be called into question. But Baer insists that this doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing.

The main objective of Iran is indeed to consolidate its influence over Iraq and to reign unchallenged over the Persian Gulf. Baer is not denying Iranian imperial ambitions. But he is questioning the ramifications of its growing regional power. While the consensus in the US seems to be that we should stop Iran at all costs, Baer suggests that we might be better off exploring a partnership instead. His decades-long observation of Iran leads him to believe that the nation may be a better associate in the Middle East than current US-ally Saudi Arabia. Indeed he makes the point that the Iranian extremists he has met are actually much more rational than their Saudi counterparts. And he is impressed by the maturing worldview of the Iranian leaders.


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Anonymous Steve said...

So we're supposed to partner with a nation led by a man who has called for the eradication of the Jews? How come people on the left are allowed to throw suggestions like these out without being called racists?

The Iranians as a people may be a very good bunch, but until their extremeist President and other leaders are replaced, then we can never partner with them.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


There will be a series of three posts on this topic. I believe if your question hasn't yet been answered, then it will be.

But in simple terms, Baer says that Ahmadinejad has nothing but symbolic power... it is the clerics and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that run foreign policy. And the anti-Israeli rhetoric is mere posturing. Baer is not advocating "sitting down" with Ahmadinejad.

I ask you to hold your judgment until after reading Part 3 if possible.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Oh and by the way, I meant to include a link to the entire interview if you want to jump ahead. I've gone back to insert it.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

I'll stay tuned.

I'm not opposed to the idea of peaceful relations with Iran, and if the anti-Israeli rhetoric can be removed from the equation, then more power to our diplomats.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would really like to know what other countries, both allies and others, think about Iran and their position in the global community. Any links that you know of?

It will be interesting how the rhetoric re Iran and other so-called "enemies" changes once Obama is in charge.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


It would be great if a reader with that knowledge (or one with enough time on their hands to research the available information) would share what they know (or find out).

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Conspiracy theories all around.
Gotta love them.
Some people never learn.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

It's amusing how often people resort to the "conspiracy theory" crutch in their feeble attempts to discredit views that contradict their own limited world-views. It's really one of the worst types of intellectual laziness.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Dagrims said...

These sites offer some insight into other countries' relationships with or views of Iran: - (last paragraph)

11:07 PM  
Blogger Dagrims said...

Oh, you don't have to post this, but I thought you'd really be interested in the link:

I'm sure you can get a good blog post out of the article.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's also amusing how some people feel the need to take the "wipe Israel off the map" quote out of context. Steve up there likes the term 'eradication' better. I just think that NOT ALL JEWS WOULD AGREE WITH YOU, STEVE! Certainly not these guys: ( Look, from what I gather Ahmadinejad would simply like to see a free referendum (vote) between the Israelis and Palestinians to determine future of the Jewish state. What's wrong with being democratic about the situation instead of the Israelis always dealing with the Palestinians by military force to reinforce their self-determined occupation? Oh that's right, we're not supposed to talk about the rights of Palestinians, they're labeled "terrorists". Great, now one of your readers is probably going to call me an anti-Semite for suggesting the Arabs should have equal rights to things like land, food, water and their houses not to be bulldozed. In so many ways I wish Bush could be more like Ahmadinejad. I mean, at least the Iranians are keeping their economy together since they dropped our worthless dollar for trade: (

1:11 AM  
Blogger 2Cents said...

I have to agree with your suggestion that Saudi Arabia is a terrible ally. They've been dangerous for a very long time in the same way that you can be knifed in the back by a friend far easier than by an enemy. I share your concern about them.

However, I agree with your other commenters that Iran would not make for a good ally - yes, the people (especially the youth) are pro-American, but the leadership is quite virulently anti-American. With repeated pledges to wipe our ally Israel off the map and envisioning a world without America, I hardly think it wise to even consider an alliance without a complete change of leadership.

While I'm at it, I have to admit I'm unconvinced of your comments on my post that I'm 'dangerously ill-informed' about the Middle East. Most of my assertions are based on the work of others, but nevertheless I guess I'll have to wait for the other parts before making any final judgment, or before seeing the error of my ill-informed ways.

Another thing I feel should be pointed out - no one is non-partisan. Everyone has their own bias, their own experiences, and their own perspectives. No one can remain neutral, and therefore we must instead seek to understand that bias when trying to decide how applicable their words are.

I look forward to parts 2 and 3.

1:50 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for the links. I'll try to sort through them when I can clear up some time. In the meantime, did you draw any general conclusions from them?

8:18 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for the comment. I admit to using a bit of hyperbole to draw you into giving Robert Baer a fair hearing. I ask you to forgive my (apparently successful) tactic. It's becoming more and more difficult to get folks to consider other views, and perhaps I went overboard in my wording. I don't want you to think that I was suggesting that I knew more about the situation than you, but rather that I had heard another perspective that you perhaps had not. I do maintain that it is dangerous not to consider the full range of opinions about Iran. Baer's is a perspective that significantly challenges the conventional "wisdom".

Anyway, I respect the tone of your response and I invite my readers to give your blog a read.

In this thread you wrote:

"However, I agree with your other commenters that Iran would not make for a good ally - yes, the people (especially the youth) are pro-American, but the leadership is quite virulently anti-American. "

Robert Baer is calling this commonly-held assumption into question. I don't agree that we have to wait for a change in leadership to meet with Iran and try to find out what is possible. If you accept this proposition, than you are basically suggesting regime change (and what's your plan to affect that?) or inaction. It seems irresponsible to suggest that relations can never evolve.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...


10:06 AM  
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