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The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower
By Robert Baer
279 pages; $25.95
Iran is waging bloody proxy wars throughout the Middle East. The fighting in the Gaza Strip was only the latest example. Yet, a former CIA officer is calling for the US to "take its medicine and sit down at the negotiating table with Iran" and to treat the Islamic Republic "like the power it has become."
The problem is not that Robert Baer fails to see that Iran is an aggressor. He knows that Iran seeks to "wear down the United States to the point that it will not want to confront Iran anywhere in the Middle East." He also understands that the US has two options: "either fight in a new 30-year war or come to terms." It's his conclusion, that Iran is "unconquerable - even with nukes," that makes Baer look like a washed-up ex-spy who has forgotten which side he's fighting for. He appears comfortable with defeat.
The author's conclusions seem to be based on some deadly analytical blunders. The Devil We Know is filled with misleading and apologetic assertions about Iran. Notably, it starts off with the ludicrous claim that Iran has "abandoned both terrorism and [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini's revolution." Perhaps he does not consider the Iran-funded Hamas's indiscriminate rocket fire into Israel a terrorist tactic. Or maybe he doesn't think it is terrorism when Iranian-funded groups in Iraq detonate bombs to kill and maim Americans.
That's not all. The author also claims that the pragmatic and rational Iranians are "trying to convince the Palestinians to abandon pointless suicide attacks against civilians." He states that the rocket attacks are the fruit of this new strategy. Baer could not be further from the truth. The steep drop in suicide bombings is a testament to the security fence erected after the outbreak of the 2000 intifada. Iran's clients, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in their unquenchable thirst to attack Israel, are now forced to fire rockets from behind the fence.
Similarly, Baer claims that the West "needs to realize the Iranians are potentially partners in a Palestinian settlement." He ignores the fact that Iran continued to supply Hamas and Islamic Jihad with rockets, guns and military training during the Oslo peace process of the 1990s. In fact, they were - and still are - among the deadliest hindrances to regional peace.
The next bit of asininity is Baer's claim that the mullahs are a "driving force behind Iran's modernization." In truth, the mullahs' track record of terror and their sponsorship of Hamas and Hizbullah have earned Iran painful economic sanctions from countries around the globe. These well-earned sanctions, in addition to Iran's pariah diplomatic status, have set the country back decades.
A frustrating theme throughout the book is supposed "American ignorance." Baer asserts that ignorant Americans "find it nearly impossible to get a grip on Iran... because it's so damned complicated."
True, there are nuances to learn about this country. It takes time to learn the complexities of any country. But it's not so "damned complicated" to understand that Iran is an enemy of the United States. Speeches by Iranian leaders inevitably include the mantra "Death to America." And even if you (mistakenly) ignore the 1979 hostage crisis, or the 1995 bombing of the US military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, there is no ignoring the fact that Iran is undeniably responsible for much of the insurgent violence against US forces that has sent so many of America's youth home without limbs or in caskets.
Another theme throughout the book is that Iran is now a "hydrocarbon empire," and that its "dominance in the Middle East is a fait accompli." However, Baer wrote his book when oil was $135 a barrel. Now, oil is in a tailspin at less than $50. The author's argument seems even sillier when he admits that Iran is experiencing an oil shortage and has "half the reserves it claims." More recently, upon the prompting of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the US Congress, India's Reliance Industries Limited ceased gasoline sales to Iran. There are now only a handful of suppliers remaining who will even work with the mullahs. This doesn't sound like much of a hydrocarbon superpower.
There are also factual errors. For example, Baer cites the existence of an al-Qaida affiliate group in Lebanon called "Usbat al-Islam." There is no such group in existence. There's Usbat al-Ansar and there's Fatah al-Islam. Incidentally, Baer wrote about the supposed existence of this group in a May 2007 piece for Time magazine, so this is not just an overlooked fact-check.
To give some credit, Baer's grasp of Iranian history, culture, and Shi'a Islam is relatively good. It better be, after running around the Middle East for the CIA. He should also be commended for sketching out some worst-case scenarios of Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, Kurdish territories, the Levant and elsewhere. Finally, Baer should be lauded for his criticism of pundits who lump Iran into the same "Islamofacism" camp as al-Qaida. He's right. Iran does approach its war against the West quite differently than the Salafi jihadists. Indeed, there are vast differences between Shi'a and Sunni fundamentalists. Our strategies to counter these two dangerous foes should differ accordingly.
Baer's strengths, however, cannot make up for the myriad problems in this book. The Devil We Know falls far short of establishing Baer as "one of the world's foremost authorities in the Middle East," as his book jacket boasts.
Baer muses that sometimes spying is simply "a windshield tour of someplace the average American would never dare go." This particular windshield is splattered with bugs.
The writer, a former US Treasury intelligence analyst, is deputy executive director for the Jewish Policy Center and author of the new book Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan).
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