Date: Fri Dec 19 2008 - 22:01:20 EST
Let's Negotiate With Iran!
Thursday 18 December 2008
by: Gilles Anquetil, Le Nouvel Observateur
Former CIA agent Robert Baer argues for negotiating with Iran, "When the
United States lives in the illusion of having unlimited money and power,
that always leads to catastrophe." (Photo: Greg Martin)
The former CIA chief for the Middle East has published a provocative
essay in which - in order to avoid war - he exhorts the United States to
stop demonizing Iran.
From 1976 to 1997, Robert Baer was an agent for the CIA, including a
stint as regional head for the Middle East. He is the author of "See No
Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism" and
"Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude."
His most recent work is "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian
Superpower," which has just appeared in French.
Le Nouvel Observateur: In the 19th century, the "Great Game" designated
the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires, notably for control of
Iran. Today, it's Iran that aspires to become a new empire. Do you believe
it has already achieved that imperial role?
Robert Baer: Not yet, but it inevitably will. Oil is crucial: we
Americans are much more dependent on cheap oil than the French. Now Iran
could very well take control of the Persian Gulf by closing the Strait of
Ormuz, and could destroy Saudi oil installations within a few minutes,
thanks to its missile batteries. It would thus very easily deprive the
global market of 17 billion barrels of oil. It will not do that, but this
threat constitutes a deterrent force that prevents the United States from
invading or attacking the country. On top of that, 90 percent of the
inhabitants of the Gulf are Shiite and are, at this time, very sensitive to
Iran's influence. Let's be clear: the Arabs, whether Palestinians,
Egyptians or Jordanians, have conducted a completely ineffectual battle
against Israel. Only Shiite Hezbollah, supported by Iran, has been able to
push back the Israelis. So the Arabs are forced to turn to Iran, which thus
becomes an empire by proxy and which excels in that role. The Iranian
people are intelligent, and their civilization is age-old. There is
absolutely no doubt Iran is more open to modernity than the Arabs. It's a
country that is strategically very patient and that calculates its moves
for the long term, versus an American enemy incapable of planning its own
actions more than a week ahead of time. I would summarize the situation
this way: Iran is the most stable, the most influential, and the most
powerful country in the Middle East and the United States will either have
to fight against it for the next 30 years or achieve a coexistence
agreement. Yes, we must negotiate with Iran without delay.
From Lebanon to Gaza, from southern Iraq to Syria, Teheran only acts
backstage. Is Iran a post-colonial empire?
It's a hybrid empire, based simultaneously on ultramodern weaponry and
a strategy of guerilla and asymmetrical warfare. Consequently, the Iranians
avoided direct intervention in Beirut and dictating their conditions to the
Shiites. They prefer to send agents to Hezbollah who speak perfect Arabic
and melt into the population. Even in Basra, in Iraq today, no Iranian
presence is palpable. And yet, Iran controls everything there. It's a
system of encirclement. Iran has succeeded in convincing the Arabs that it
alone fights colonialism. And, in fact, theirs is a post-colonial, rather
than a colonial attitude. Iran's secret is that it grants its allies,
including Hezbollah, power and respect. Its agents have trained Hassan
Nasrallah not to receive orders, but to count on his own forces and to
assert himself as an autonomous leader. And Nasrallah will never pull back
from that approach. Certainly, in some respects, the Iranians, from the
heights of their ancestral culture, despise Arabs, but they are careful
never to express that contempt or to dictate behavior to the Arabs. This
system of power delegation is based neither on money nor force, but on
shared faith. This is the Iranian message: Iran alone is able to put an end
to Western domination of the Middle East. So Iran represents, even if only
by default, the only credible hope.
How do you explain the United States' blindness with respect to Iran?
It's a deliberate blindness, just like the one that led to the
sub-prime crisis. It comes from an unfounded optimism such as presided over
the invasion of Iraq which even The New York Times supported. That
blindness is also the fruit of complete ignorance about Iranian
civilization, which they reduce to the sole personality of Ahmadinejad.
When my book came out in the United States, they took me for a fool! But I
continue to think that we must allow consideration of Iran as a worthy
interlocutor, unless we want to fight a 30-year war against it, which the
United States can certainly not allow itself. We would have to mobilize a
million men and spend every last dollar. And in the name of what, such a
war? Democracy? Zionism? That would be pure folly. The Persian Gulf would
go up in flames; the price of oil would reach $400 a barrel and the
American economy would be under a new shock.
But Iran has serious problems: galloping inflation, an economy 80
percent dependent on oil, a lack of industrial infrastructure, growing
youth hostility towards the mullahs, a social crisis, endemic corruption,
divisions within the conservative camp ... How can such a fragile country
develop an imperial strategy?
In spite of its weak points, it's a country able to mobilize a million
men: soldiers in the regular army (a remarkably effective one), Guardians
of the Revolution, and that doesn't count the outside Shiite militias that
allow it to intervene by proxy. And many Iranians, including students
hostile to the regime, approve their government's foreign policy. Even
though they desire a Western-style liberalization, Iranians share an
ancient and powerful nationalism. Moreover, they support a foreign policy
based on protection of Shiites, whether they be in Iraq, Lebanon or the
You think the most dangerous country in the region at this time is
Pakistan. You advocate negotiating with Iran, however, which you consider
more stable, and even, to a certain extent, more trustworthy.
Yes. In Pakistan, what interlocutor does one choose? There are whole
provinces of the country that escape government control. Pakistan is not a
homogeneous country; it's a mosaic as well as a powder keg. The inhabitants
of Karachi and Lahore mutually despise each other, without even mentioning
Baluchistan. Islamabad is a capital created from scratch and completely cut
off from the rest of the population. The country risks exploding at any
moment; there's nothing to bring it together. Saudi Arabia is also a
country that is no less divided. If the price of oil were to fall to $10 a
barrel, it would collapse before Iran, which would be able to adapt. Iran
numbers over 70 million inhabitants, educated for the most part, and it
possesses competitive technology. All we'd need from a strictly economic
and realpolitik point of view for Iran to become an ideal ally is for
Ahmadinejad to fall. I learned about a secret agreement concluded in 1986
by Pasqua and Marchiani with Iran for the liberation of the French
hostages: it was a very cynical agreement, but, since then, Iran has never
attacked French interests or citizens, directly or indirectly. Yes, Iran
could be a trustworthy interlocutor.
With his new team, will Obama be up to playing the Iranian card?
Five secretaries of state have already let the opportunity go by. I
believe Obama represents the best hope for change in this domain. But that
will require a new awareness in Washington, where a politico-media lobby
rages that constantly holds forth the same discourse. They keep brandishing
the threat of the Iranian bomb, of a new Holocaust, with Ahmadinejad as the
bogey man. They sum up everything by combining those three images, although
Ahmadinejad represents only a minority fringe of the Guardians of the
Revolution and is presently being challenged by Parliament. I don't believe
in the Iranian bomb any more than I believe in Saddam Hussein's weapons of
mass destruction! It's always the same propaganda. The war in Iraq at least
has the merit of making it understood that it's impossible - if only
economically - to create a neocolonial empire. It led to a reduction in the
United States' real power and prestige in the world. In this respect, the
financial crisis can only influence my country's foreign policy in the
right direction, since when the United States lives in the illusion of
having unlimited money and power, that always leads to catastrophe.
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
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