THE DEVIL WE KNOW
Dealing with the new Iranian superpower
By Robert Baer,
Scribe Publications, 277pp
Reviewed: 4 April 2009
Barack Obama has declared that the USA is ready to talk to the regime in Iran, after 30 years of suspended formal relations. This signals a shift in stance that Robert Baer considers vital to American interests, and indeed to global stability. Baer is an ex-CIA operative with extensive Middle East experience. Since leaving the agency he has built a substantial career as a journalist and commentator, campaigning against what he sees as a history of fatally misguided American policy and action toward the Middle East.
The Devil We Know seems written to shock the American public into reviewing assumptions that have guided its policy for decades. “Nearly everything the average American has been told about Iran is wrong”, he says. The view of Iran as a terrorist state ruled by mad mullahs has been out of date for many years. Behind the posturing of President Ahmedinajad, who Baer says does not wield decisive power within Iran, the Iranian regime is a rational actor with clear aims based on a substantial culture and history, and pragmatic tactical flexibility.
Comparing Shia Islam to Sunni Islam, Baer draws parallels between the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity. Shiism is hierarchical, scholarly and disciplined, whereas Sunnism is individualistic and infinitely schismatic. Hence Shiite tactics, including terrorist actions, are purposeful and disciplined toward a political objective, whereas Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda are more often motivated by irrational desire for revenge or “cleansing” destruction. Talking to the Shia is useful.
Sunni regimes such as Pakistan or most Arab states are endemically corrupt and incompetent, he asserts. The Shia regime in Iran, and its proxies including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraq, are far less corrupt and demonstrably more capable of maintaining effective and popular administration. Hezbollah has also demonstrated, in Southern :Lebanon, that the Israeli military is not invincible. Baer calculates that Western support for Sunni regimes is money down the drain, since they are bound to lose out, perhaps rapidly, to Iran and its Shiite proxies. He presents a compelling analysis of the extension of Iranian influence over most of the Middle East, including non-Shia territories such as Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria.
In Baer’s view Iraq is already “lost” and might as well be partitioned, with the small Sunni rump of Anbar province invited to “federate” with Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shia zones of the country affiliating with Iran, and Kurdistan having autonomy under the balancing influences of Iran, Turkey and Syria. The Gulf States exist solely as Western protectorates and are vulnerable to any concerted Iranian assault, which would be far more difficult to resist than Saddam Hussein’s ill-fated invasion of Kuwait. The Western attempt to determine the fate of Afghanistan is also a lost cause so long as Iran is outside the tent. Pakistan is a synthetic state not worth preserving and should be allowed to split into its ethnic constituents, including the Shia Baluch component. Baer contends that Shiite Iran is winning a war for the soul of Islam. He reasons that pan-Arab nationalism has failed, the Sunni Wahabist revival (that spawned Al Qaeda) has failed, and secular nationalism, as in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, has failed. The secret to Shia success may seem paradoxical to its hierarchical structure. In Sunni society, any half-educated, self-appointed mullah may promote a personal readingof the Koran as literal uncontestable truth. We may see parallels with modern Protestant fundamentalism generating extreme literal interpretations of the Bible. By contrast, the Shia emphasize the practice of ijtihad (independent judgment) by which qualified theologians may make non-literal interpretations according to reason and precedent – something like the traditions of Catholic Christianity. Shia Islam can adapt pragmatically to changing conditions, while remaining coherent.
Baer is no moralist. His assessment is based on what he has observed to work and not to work in the contemporary Middle East. He spent years in the CIA cultivating proxy actors in the Middle East who would serve the interests of the USA. Now he proposes that the only way to halt the profligate waste of American resources in a losing battle with Iran is to come to reasonable terms with Iran. This would be in the interests of all parties and he believes Iran would be willing to respond.
His prescription would be difficult for the American body politic to swallow. It would mean abandoning several shibboleths of US policy in the region. Israel would lose its apparently divine immunity and be required to conform to UN Resolution 242, returning to its pre 1967-borders. Patronage and protection of the Arab oil states would have to be shared with Iran, not monopolized by Western oil interests. Terrorism punishment objectives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan would have to be abandoned and those states allowed to fail on their own terms. There would be violent objections from the many vested interests benefiting from current policy, replete with spurious appeals to honour, paranoia or both.
The book largely ignores the politics of Islam outside the Middle East. Asian Islam east of Pakistan is not mentioned at all andAfrica, even Egypt, gets little attention.
Australian policy on the Middle East seems invariably to echo that of the USA, so Baer’s informed perspective should be essential reading for Australian foreign policy wonks and anyone else interested in the geopolitics of our generation.