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Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower

Written by Robert BaerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert Baer



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On Sale: September 30, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-44978-8
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Over the past thirty years, while the United States has turned either a blind or dismissive eye, Iran has emerged as a nation every bit as capable of altering America’s destiny as traditional superpowers Russia and China. Indeed, one of this book’s central arguments is that, in some ways, Iran’s grip on America’s future is even tighter.

As ex–CIA operative Robert Baer masterfully shows, Iran has maneuvered itself into the elite superpower ranks by exploiting Americans’ false perceptions of what Iran is—by letting us believe it is a country run by scowling religious fanatics, too preoccupied with theocratic jostling and terrorist agendas to strengthen its political and economic foundations.

The reality is much more frightening—and yet contained in the potential catastrophe is an implicit political response that, if we’re bold enough to adopt it, could avert disaster.

Baer’s on-the-ground sleuthing and interviews with key Middle East players—everyone from an Iranian ayatollah to the king of Bahrain to the head of Israel’s internal security—paint a picture of the centuries-old Shia nation that is starkly the opposite of the one normally drawn. For example, Iran’s hate-spouting President Ahmadinejad is by no means the true spokesman for Iranian foreign policy, nor is Iran making it the highest priority to become a nuclear player.

Even so, Baer has discovered that Iran is currently engaged in a soft takeover of the Middle East, that the proxy method of war-making and co-option it perfected with Hezbollah in Lebanon is being exported throughout the region, that Iran now controls a significant portion of Iraq, that it is extending its influence over Jordan and Egypt, that the Arab Emirates and other Gulf States are being pulled into its sphere, and that it will shortly have a firm hold on the world’s oil spigot.

By mixing anecdotes with information gleaned from clandestine sources, Baer superbly demonstrates that Iran, far from being a wild-eyed rogue state, is a rational actor—one skilled in the game of nations and so effective at thwarting perceived Western colonialism that even rival Sunnis relish fighting under its banner.

For U.S. policy makers, the choices have narrowed: either cede the world’s most important energy corridors to a nation that can match us militarily with its asymmetric capabilities (which include the use of suicide bombers)—or deal with the devil we know. We might just find that in allying with Iran, we’ll have increased not just our own security but that of all Middle East nations.The alternative—to continue goading Iran into establishing hegemony over the Muslim world—is too chilling to contemplate.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

1

The Iranian Paradox

One Friday morning in 2005, I attended prayer services at Tehran University. I was traveling with a crew from Britain’s Channel 4, and we were treated as VIPs. Security checks were waived and we were given the press booth right next to Ayatollah Kashani, who addressed the faithful for the next two hours. The vast hall was only half full, but Kashani’s sermon was long and furious, something straight out of 1979.

Out on the street, a demonstration was forming. There were effigies of President Bush, blood running from his pointed teeth. Across the street, some demonstrators unfurled banners: Marg bar amerika—“Death to America.”

I walked for a time among the demonstrators. There was one old man who seemed especially passionate about bringing death to America, shaking his fist and shouting. I walked up to him. “Do you mean all Americans?” I asked.

He looked at me curiously. “Where are you from?” he said. I told him I was American. He winked and leaned in closer to me.

“How can I get an American visa?” he asked.

Iran is a country of nuances. Unfortunately, at just the time it most needs to, the United States doesn’t see those nuances, or under- stand Iran for what it is: a country that’s deeply pious, yet desperately trying to modernize. Iran’s religious parties generally receive only about 10 percent of the vote—considerably less than in Turkey, a member of NATO and an American ally.

Americans see Iran’s president and mullahs as relics from a dark age, when in reality they’re a driving force behind Iran’s modernization. Since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s true, there’s been a conservative retrenchment, with hard-liners winning the presidency and a majority in parliament. A U-turn like this was all but inevitable with hostile armies on two of Iran’s borders. But once the wars are over, Iran will no doubt return to modernizing.

Iranians watch our movies, read our books, listen to our music. They have taken to the Internet and modern technology with an obsession equal to our own. Today Persian is the most common language on the Internet after English and Mandarin Chinese. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad writes his own blog.

In some ways, Iran has matched our own modern standards. The country’s population growth has plummeted from a high of 3.2 in 1986 to 1.2 in 2001, only slightly higher than Americans. The Iranians also keep an old Shia practice with regard to pleasure and sex, one that Sunni Muslims consider morally forbidden: zawaj al-mita’—“pleasure marriage,” or sanctioned prostitution. The way it works is, a mullah will grant a license for a man and a woman to marry for a set period—two hours, a week, a month. The mullah’s only concern is making sure the man pays for the child if the woman becomes pregnant. It’s paradoxes like these that make Iran so difficult to grasp.

The signs of change are everywhere. One of the most popular dramas on Iranian state television is about an Iranian diplomat who saves French Jews from the Nazis during World War II. The average age of marriage for an Iranian woman today is twenty-five; during the Shah’s last year in power, it was thirteen. And doctors reportedly perform more sex-change operations in Iran than in any other country except Thailand, with the Iranian government even paying up to half the cost for some transsexuals.

If you stroll around north Tehran, the part that runs up into the hills, that’s where you’re really struck by the contrasts. There are food courts serving Thai and Chinese food, with plastic trays and soft drinks. Young unmarried girls and boys share hookahs at outdoor restaurants, the girls’ head covers pushed back, down around the neck. In Iran, unlike in Saudi Arabia, religious police aren’t on every corner to enforce the “moral order.” And unlike in Sudan, there are no arrests in Iran for the grave offense of naming a teddy bear “Mohammed.”

While I was in Tehran, I was regularly invited to parties; I’d heard rumors they were as hip and wild as anything that goes on in the cosmopolitan Western capitals of the world. But I figured I’d already pressed my luck even coming to Iran, and anyhow I couldn’t stay up that late to find out. What did all this tell me about Iran’s imperial grasp? The parties, the love affair with the Internet, the changing sexual mores—they augur a country modernizing, looking beyond its borders.

One piece of Iran that’s trying to modernize but can’t is the economy. For the life of me, I couldn’t find a single good restaurant in Tehran. The restaurants reminded me of those in the Soviet Union: buffets with lousy service. There were more waiters than needed, but all of them stood around, surly, turning away when you wanted something. Kitchens ran out of everything. And breakfasts were peculiar, with mountains of watermelon and boiled eggs and nothing else. Omelets were apparently an outrageous luxury, though with relentless charm and cajoling you might get one.

Another thing that reminded me of the Soviet Union were the soulless, water-streaked cement apartment buildings, office buildings, and hotels. Concierges are invariably polite but hopeless in trying to help you with anything. Phones mostly don’t work, and Internet connections are erratic. To be sure, there are well-heeled Iranian elite reading Lolita and dining on nouvelle cuisine, but they keep out of sight.

Tehran’s big problem is the internal combustion engine. The Iranian national car, the Peykan, is one of the noisiest, worst- polluting, and least fuel-efficient cars in the world. It was in production for forty years, and many of the cars on Iran’s roads predate the 1979 revolution. With gasoline running as low as 7 cents a gallon until recently, though, there wasn’t much incentive for change. Even so, in the last three years, 250,000 Iranian cars have been converted to natural gas or hybrids, and today Tehran’s smog has cleared up enough to see the snow-covered Elburz Mountains to the north.

When I visited south Tehran’s Kumaila Mosque, ground zero of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, I noticed the distinct smell of opium smoke drifting through the narrow alleys. This was a conservative neighborhood, the place where the Islamic revolution started, yet there was an incomprehensible tolerance for a vice forbidden almost everywhere else in the world.

And it wasn’t as if the Iranian government couldn’t close down the opium dens if it wanted to. Iran is a police state. Every day I drove around Tehran, or walked around the streets and bazaars, I was stopped and my papers checked—just because I looked out of place, a foreigner. The tamperproof ID card I was issued by the Ministry of Information was more sophisticated than those you’d find in the United States—a permanent digital record of the ex–CIA agent, now an accredited journalist in Iran.

The contradictions continue. Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport is one of the most modern and least traveled in the world—and, I should add, the most polite. On arrival, I handed my passport to an immigration official wearing the hijab, or head covering. When she saw I was American, she said, “I’m so sorry.” She entered my name on the flat-screen monitor, then picked up the phone and called someone. A minute later, a man in a suit without a tie appeared behind her. He motioned for me to follow him.

There’s no point in pretending I felt anything other than dread. I knew the reputation of the Iranian secret police during both the Shah’s regime and the revolution. I remembered how we came across pictures of Iranian dissidents in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, left in the courtyard in the freezing cold, their legs broken with baseball bats. Or pictures of the CIA’s station chief in Beirut after he’d been beaten by Iranian proxies and left to die of pneumonia. Or of Iranian liberals in the late nineties, executed in their homes. Even today, the Iranians still occasionally serve up medieval punishment for crimes, including amputations and public floggings.

And Americans, even after a certain thaw in Iranian-American relations, weren’t immune from the Iranian police state. On March 8, 2007, the former FBI agent Robert Levinson flew to the Iranian free-trade zone of Kish Island—and disappeared like a diamond in an inkwell. At this writing, the FBI’s best guess is that a rogue element of Iran’s intelligence service grabbed him. Not exactly what you’d expect from a modern country. But this is the most important nuance of Iran: It’s a country desperately trying to modernize, not one that has already modernized.

I waited nervously until the man in the suit came back. “I’m very sorry,” he said, “but we must fingerprint you.”

As I followed him to his office, he explained that his ministry had started fingerprinting Americans after the United States instituted the same practice for Iranians visiting the United States. It was a simple matter of reciprocity, equal justice. I had to stop him from apologizing. Iran still had the capacity to surprise me.

A misconception Americans have about Iran is that Iranians hate us and our culture. But that’s not true. They simply hate what they consider our occupation of large swaths of the Middle East. I saw this most clearly when making a documentary about suicide bombers in southern Lebanon a couple of years ago. Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy whose name means “party of God” in Arabic, had invited us to film at its martyrs’ school in Nabatiyah, to see how their next generation was turning out—Allah’s little soldiers.

Nabatiyah itself holds a celebrated place in the history of Lebanon’s Shia. On October 16, 1983, on the Muslim holiday of Ashura, an Israeli patrol tried to cut through a procession of Shia faithful. Rocks flew, and the Israelis fired back, killing two Lebanese. The incident sparked what came to be known as the Islamic resistance, an insurgency the Israelis couldn’t put down no matter what they threw back at it.

Eighteen years of unforgiving war followed, until the Israelis finally pulled their troops out of Lebanon in May 2000. This was a critical turning point, the first time that Israel was forced to cede land under fire. The Middle East suddenly discovered Hezbollah, which emerged stronger than ever, both politically and militarily. For many Arabs, Nabatiyah was Hezbollah’s Boston Tea Party; Israel’s forced departure from Lebanon was its Waterloo. But Iran knew the fighting wasn’t over, and it built the school in Nabatiyah as an incubator for a new generation of suicide bombers, for the next war.

As we pulled up to the three-story school building, perched on a bare hill, I was struck by the eerie silence. The only sound was the mean, thin wind that cut across the jagged limestone escarpment.

Classes were in session, but there was none of the laughing or shouting you’d normally hear at an American school. There were no students out front. No cars or even a bicycle in sight—the students all walk from their homes in Nabatiyah. The grounds were immaculate, from the raked gravel walks to the avocado exterior and the whitewashed classrooms. The school was a model of order and cleanliness. But that’s something I’d noticed in the last twenty-five years about Iran and its proxy Hezbollah: they manage to impose order where there was none before.


From the Hardcover edition.
Robert Baer

About Robert Baer

Robert Baer - The Devil We Know
ROBERT BAER is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: Sleeping with the Devil, about the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the United States; and See No Evil, which recounts Baer’s years as a top CIA operative. See No Evil was the basis for the acclaimed film Syriana, which earned George Clooney an Oscar for his portrayal of Baer. Baer writes regularly for Time.com and has contributed to Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Middle East.
Praise

Praise

“A masterpiece…Baer's brilliant analysis of Sunni versus Shia, Arab versus Iranian, and Christian versus Muslim is shocking, revealing, and provocative.  Baer lifts the veil of Western media hype and challenges the simplistic solutions offered by ‘experts’ whose vision is blurred by the past. Through his knowledge, long-term experience, and ability to assess the changing landscape of this vital region, he not only shatters the foundations of conventional thinking, but also offers a practicable blueprint for turning things around.”
—John Perkins, author of the New York Times bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

“The most important and original book on the Middle East to appear in many years. Baer’s subject is the growing power of Iran; his goal is ending the pattern of American failure; his message is that we’ve been backing the wrong horse. This is a book McCain and Obama should ponder.”
—Thomas Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Man Who Kept the Secrets and Intelligence Wars

"The Devil We Know, Bob Baer has once again peered into the future and has brought back uncomfortable truths that won't satisfy any partisan. But his book does force us to do something that, unfortunately, doesn't come naturally to the chattering classes. Think.”
—James Risen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration

“An important text studded with keen insights into a nation about which America remains dangerously misinformed.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Timely and provocative...adds an important perspective to a crucial international debate.”
Publishers Weekly

“Challenges conventional wisdom…[a] timely and provocative analysis.”
Denver Post


From the Hardcover edition.

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