It seems I can’t resist reading yet another book about Iran. The latest one to grab my attention is The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower by former CIA agent Robert Baer. Baer, author of the best sellers Sleeping with the Devil and See No Evil, as well as the inspiration for the Oscar-winning George Clooney film Syriana, has flipped conventional wisdom on its head with his contrarian’s assessment of Iran. After spending years in the Middle East dealing with countless people, both openly and covertly, Baer proclaims both the good and bad news when it comes to the troubling nation of Iran.
First the bad news. With America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam’s regime, Iran effective runs most if not all of southern Iraq. In addition, for all intents and purposes it owns Hezbollah in Lebanon, the same Hezbollah that bloodied Israel’s nose in the recent cross-border war and as a result earned the admiration of the largely Sunni Arab masses. Iran has also made significant inroads with the Palestinian group Hamas, despite the fact most if not all Palestinians are Sunni and not Shia. Lastly, unlike some nations in the region, Iran is not a “tribe with a flag” (Saudi Arabia ) or an “army in search of a country” (Pakistan and until just recently, Iraq), it has been a legitimate nation-state for well over 2000 years and has a sophisticated, battle-tested military. It is an assertive, formidable country to be reckoned with.
Now the good news. Because Iran is a nation-state and not a stateless terror group like Al-Qaeda, according to Baer it’s in its best interests to act rationally. While it might play the part of a Persian Empire, asserting its newly regained role as regional master, it will not engage in nihilistic terror for terror’s sake, hoping to bring down the current regimes in the region in vain hopes of establishing a Sunni theocracy under a re-established Caliph of old. Just as America was able to co-exist peacefully with the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War despite obvious ideological differences, so can we with Iran in today’s Middle East.
Can it work ? Maybe. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed Baer’s book and I respect the bulk of his arguments, he downplays strength of Iran’s nuclear program and the potential an Iranian nuclear arsenal would have on the region’s power dynamics. Perhaps being a secular-minded westerner, he also downplays the role religious belief influences political decisions among the nation’s leaders. Lastly, while I agree with Baer that Iran’s current president is not the primary person running the country, Baer should be aware that he still takes his orders from someone and his bizarre and bellicose comments do not spring from a vacuum.
Baer has written a credible book and his points must be taken seriously. Otherwise, we might someday find ourselves between Iraq and a hard place.