On Oct. 2nd, Terry Gross interviewed Robert Baer, an ex-CIA agent. Baer’s memoir of his years in the Middle East inspired George Clooney’s movie, Syriana.
I’m going to give you a teaser here, a few of the fascinating observations Baer made, in hopes of luring you to the NPR site to listen to the whole podcast:
Mr. BAER: Well, I think, first of all, that we instituted, and I should add, in principle, very rightly, a Jeffersonian democracy of sorts [in Iraq]. One man, one vote, which put the Shia in power. They’re approximately 65 percent of the population of Iraq .
All of the Shia leaders elected in 2005 have very strong ties to Tehran . Their families live in Iran . They take refuge there, especially during the violence of 2006. The Iranians are starting – they’re planning, and they’re starting to build a pipeline that will go from Basrah , Iraq ‘s main export route, to Abadan . The economic ties are strengthening by the day. Not only that, but you have the Iranians are able to put down Shia insurgencies, like Muqtada al-Sadr.
GROSS: You think Iran was behind that?
Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. I think – because when Muqtada al-Sadr was in trouble, he fled to Tehran. He’s in a religious school now. Again, I like to go back to current reporting, and the L.A. Times reports that it was Iran that put Muqtada al-Sadr under control. And, in fact, the L.A. Times went on to say that Iran is taking over his militia directly. Incidentally, it’s to the benefit of the United States . There has been little or no Shia violence in the last year. Iran has been a key player in the surge.
GROSS: So what do you think Ambassador Crocker meant when he said Iran was standing in the way of an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq?
Mr. BAER: It’s very simple. The Iranian plan or the Shia plan, if you like, is to thank the United States for getting rid of Saddam Hussein and then very politely asking it to leave by 2011. At that point, Iraq will regain much of its independence but will have an alliance with Iran . I know, I likened it to our alliance with Canada . But basically, Iraq cannot move in issues on national security without a green light with Tehran or at least some sort of accord between the two capitals.
GROSS: So why wouldn’t Iran want an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq ?
Mr. BAER: Well, what they don’t want is an open-ended agreement between the United States and Iraq which would leave U.S. bases or U.S. troops or a security arrangement. Iran would like to pry us out Iraq very peacefully without leaving chaos behind or any sort of civil war, of course.
GROSS: So Iran wants the U.S. out completely, no bases, no remaining soldiers?
Mr. BAER: They want us gone. They want us out of the Gulf. If they could arrange it, they want us out of the Gulf. The way they look at it, the Persian Gulf is called that for a reason. It’s an Iranian body of water. 90 percent of the rim of the Gulf is Shia. All those Shia either look to Qom , the Holy City in Iran , or they look to Najaf, the Holy City in Iraq , which is very heavily influenced by Iran .
GROSS: Well, since you’re saying that Iran wants basically to be an empire and to have proxies, including Iraq , would that make it even more dangerous for the United States to do what Iran wants and withdraw completely from Iraq without soldiers or bases?
Mr. BAER: No. I take this as good news. In my book, I take a look at Sunni fundamentalism, and I took a look at Shia fundamentalism, and when I started this book, I had no idea where I was going to go. I spent a lot of time with a Hezbollah group that set off car bombs that fought this 18-year war. In Lebanon , I spent a lot of time in Israeli jails talking to Sunni extremists, suicide bombers.
And what I found, I walked away from all of this – I did this over a course of three years – was that the Shia, because of the nature of their sect, it is much more disciplined, and we are capable of making a deal with them which will hold. We are not capable of making the same deal with the Sunni, who are anarchists. You know, it’s a stretch using that word, but they are anarchists.
So I think we’re – my story is a good news story. People may look at this and say, look, we have to do something about Iran. We may have to attack Iran to stop it from getting an empire or stop its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. But I look at it as a reliable ally, Iran , somebody that could help us manage the Gulf or manage Iraq. I think that, thanks to Iran, we can walk away from Iraq having gotten rid of Saddam and leave behind a fairly stable country, but only if we start talking to the Iranians and reach some sort of a security accord.
GROSS: It’s a hard sell to convince Americans that President Ahmadinejad of Iran is a good negotiating partner and somebody you can really kind of, you know, trust in organizing peace in that part of the world.
Mr. BAER: Well, it’s a very – especially in the election because, I mean, even McCain, you look in the debate, aside from not being able to pronounce the man’s name, but more important than that, he is a spokesman for a hardcore of revolutionary guards. He is not the de facto executive authority in Iran . That’s held by Khamenei, the supreme leader, and a group of officers. There is a Polit bureau, an informal Polit bureau in Iran which runs the country. Ahmadinejad is not even in that Polit bureau. So looking at Ahmadinejad today is sort of like looking at McCarthy during the 50s. He’s an irrelevant voice.
GROSS: When you say irrelevant, I mean, McCarthy really changed the United States for a long time. He might – but he wasn’t the executive power, so you say.
Mr. BAER: No, he couldn’t call a nuclear strike on Moscow just as Ahmadinejad cannot call a nuclear strike on Tel Aviv. Nor can Ahmadinejad call, you know, call for a war against the United States in the Gulf. So what he says is irrelevant. What Khamenei and Rafsanjani, in this informal Polit bureau, say is much more relevant. And if you look at their comments very closely, their public comments, they were actually fairly rational. You can identify a core Iranian national interest. Yes, it’s expansive, but it’s not insane. And they do not want World War Three.
They think that they have won in Iraq in the sense that Iraq is no longer a hostile country. And Saddam is gone. They’ve won in a sense in Afghanistan because the Taliban, their mortal enemy, is gone as well. They look at the United States , its interest in the Middle East , as waning. I mean, even when you look at Olmert’s statement this week, when he said, we have to give up the West Bank . We have to give up East Jerusalem, and then you finally look at Lebanon , where Hezbollah is the de facto government, has a veto over the cabinet. The Israelis lost the 2006 war, and the Iranian star is rising. And in any time you have a country that is doing this well, it’s not that they want the status quo, but they cannot afford a war with the United States, and that’s why I think we can negotiate with them.