Persian Shrug

We should accept Iran's dominance in the Mideast, a former CIA officer says.

Reviewed by Shaul Bakhash
Sunday, November 30, 2008; Page BW02


Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower

By Robert Baer

Crown. 279 pp. $25.95

Robert Baer is not given to understatement. He previously wrote a scathing indictment of the Saudi royal family's influence in Washington (Sleeping With the Devil) and a swashbuckling account of his 20 years as a CIA operative (See No Evil) that became the basis of the George Clooney film "Syriana." Now, in The Devil We Know, he sets out to chart Iran's growing dominance in the Middle East and what the United States should do about it.

In his view, Iran is bent on empire and is already halfway there: It is "effectively annexing" all of southern Iraq, Lebanon and western Afghanistan. Most of Iraq's oil has fallen into Iran's sphere of influence, and the Muslim clerics in Tehran are close to establishing an oil monopoly in the Persian Gulf. They have a master plan to dominate the entire region, and the United States is virtually powerless to stop it, short of committing to 30 years of containment, "wars without end," a million troops permanently based in the Persian Gulf and the expenditure of trillions of dollars.

Thus, Baer sides with those who advocate negotiation rather than confrontation with Iran. He seems to believe that a long-term deal with Iran is possible. In exchange for good behavior, he suggests, the United States should give Iran security guarantees, establish joint patrols in the Persian Gulf, grant Iran a security role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and remove the rationale for Iranian meddling by settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Somewhere beneath the layers of over-inflated language in this book, there is a core of an important story. Iran is emerging as an influential power in the Persian Gulf. Its weight in Iraq is considerable. In Lebanon, as Baer rightly notes, it has perfected an effective, low-cost strategy that it may seek to replicate in Iraq and elsewhere: the use of surrogates to advance Iranian ends. Lebanon's radical Hezbollah organization has grown in strength thanks to a combination of Shi'ite Muslim resentments and Iranian money, arms and investments in schools, clinics and mosques. Iran clearly aspires to major-power status and sees itself as the banner-bearer of an Islamic awakening that can confront and confound U.S. influence in the region.

But Baer can rarely resist a super-charged, exaggerated assertion. On almost every page of his book, he bombards the reader with the verbal equivalent of shock and awe. "Iraq is lost. Iran won it," he writes. "Iran's empire is already half built; we can't stop it now short of starting World War III."

Baer not only attributes to Iran ambitions of breathtaking scope but also suggests it is capable of achieving them. He argues that having "tipped" Lebanon and Iraq, Iran is on its way to "tipping" the Palestinians, and once it has done so, "what's to keep them from doing the same in Jordan and Egypt?" In addition, he contends, Iran is reaching for the oil of the Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf. It has fixed its sights on the energy corridors -- present and future pipelines and shipping channels -- running through Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and the Straits of Hormuz. It has its eye on other "low-hanging fruit" in Central Asia and in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan. If the United States leaves Iraq (and the author doesn't think it can afford to stay), "Iran could simply bully the Gulf Arabs into accepting Iranian suzerainty," he claims. Yet this prospect doesn't seem to worry Baer very much. "Is it worth it for the Americans to protect the Arabs from the Iranians?" he asks rhetorically, strongly implying that the answer is no.

But Iran, its regional influence notwithstanding, is not the country the author depicts. It has largely squandered its oil revenues and does not have a vibrant economy. Other than oil, its exports are insignificant. It has legions of eager, bright college graduates, but many are unemployed or underemployed, and the regime fears its own people. Compared to the United States, it is a puny military power. The Bush administration may have wasted America's moral, monetary and military capital, but Iran is not going to bring the United States to its knees.

Having attributed to Iran overweening and fantastical ambitions, Baer tries to argue nonetheless that the regime in Tehran has evolved into "a classic military power," a pragmatic, rational actor that pursues "fixed, reasonable demands" -- which is why he contends that a stable U.S.-Iranian understanding is possible. Some of his proposals for a settlement appear sensible. But in his policy recommendations, too, Baer slips into verbal overkill; by the time he is done, he has handed over virtually the entire Middle East to Iran. "We cannot and should not try to stand in the way of Iran's quest to dominate Islam," he writes. As long as Iran guarantees the Saudi oil fields, he asks, "do we really care what happens to Saudi Arabia?"

Baer also recommends that the United States allow Iran to take direct control of the parts of Iraq it already commands through proxies (one-third of the country, including its main oil fields and its access to the Persian Gulf!); acquiesce in Iran's future control of Islam's two holiest shrines, in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia; and concede Iranian "dominion" in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the Gulf and Gaza. These are among Iran's core interests, according to Baer, and he finds none of them "impractical or excessive."

There is, after all, nothing to worry about. ยท

Shaul Bakhash is Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.

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