Our friend Kevin Sullivan over at RealClear World sent us an interview he conducted with best selling author ("See No Evil") and former intelligence agent Robert Baer. What he had to say about Iran was fascinating - and not a little frightening when you consider who might be sitting in the Oval Office next January:
RCW: Many of the recent books on Iran focus primarily on the nuclear question. You take a different approach in The Devil We Know. Why?
BAER: What you have in Iran is a country that is very good at projecting power throughout the Middle East. What they are attempting to do, whether they succeed or not, is essentially build an empire in the Middle East. They justify this imperialistic expansion through an anti-colonial message--for instance, the liberation of Lebanon, of Palestine, etc.--and they have been extraordinarily effective at doing this. I don’t know of any other instance in history where anybody has tried it this way. Past Persian empires have always done this through invasion and occupation. It’s more like an empire by proxy, which is something that’s hard for the average person to understand.
RCW: You referred to Iran’s ambitions as an empire by proxy. One of the more common arguments against confronting Iran is that they are a small country with an economy the size of Switzerland’s. How can such a country desire empire, much less attain it?
BAER: Well, they would again prefer proxies and blackmail. The fact that Iran can take control of the Gulf’s oil resources ostensibly puts them in charge of the world’s economy. You might argue that the American military will be there to prevent this, but that’s provided we stay. But you need the military to do this. Do we want to put a million troops in the region to contain Iran and police the Middle East? And engaging the Iranians would be difficult, because any action we undertake could result in a form of proxy retaliation. One of these measures could be shutting down the world’s oil supply. We’re up against a regime with advanced capabilities in guerilla warfare, an extensive network of blackmail and an unassailable message: “We are being colonized!”
RCW: You argue that Basra fell to the Iranians without a single shot being fired. U.S. General Raymond Odierno recently took some heat for accusing Iran of bribing government officials in Baghdad. Has Baghdad already been compromised by the Iranians?
BAER: Yes. (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq) Ryan Crocker said it was the Iranians blocking a basing agreement. It was the Iranians buying elections and buying up the parliament. That tells me that Iran has de facto control over the country. Crocker didn’t say it was just a question of bringing a few parliamentarians around; he said Iran. That was his official statement. Crocker was the ambassador to Lebanon at the time I was there, and he calls this Iraq’s “Lebanonization.” Observers use Serbia as an example for Iraq and say we accomplished a victory there with just American troops. But they did it there with the Sunnis and Shi'a together. They were complicit in lowering the level of violence. Iran could make life hell if they unleash the Shi’a on us, as they’ve already done in the south of Iraq. The Iranians could fight us forever in Iraq, but that doesn’t actually serve their immediate interests. They know to just remain patient because eventually the Americans will leave. I don’t care if we even reach a basing agreement. Iran will undermine it. Unless we’re committed to placing a million troops in the region to contain this empire--as we did the Soviet empire--the basing agreement simply won’t have an effect.
Frankly, I'm not sure Iran's influence in Baghdad is as overwhelming as Baer seems to be saying. There are certainly factions that are pro-Iranian and both Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the nearly fully integrated Badr Brigades were trained by Iran and received support from them in the past.
And the fact that Iraq is very weak right now means the Iranians will seek to exploit divisions among the Shias and attempt to dominate any future government once we draw down our forces.
But there are forces in Iraq that would strenuously resist Iranian dominance including the Sunnis, the secular political parties, and even some nationalistic Shias who remember the Iran-Iraq War and the horrendous casualties that caused.
This has been a subject much discussed in the military and foreign affairs press. And while there seems to be differences of opinion regarding the extent of current Iranian meddling, there is little disagreement that Iran will indeed seek to make Iraq a puppet state at some point and that what is needed is a more secular, more prosperous Iraq that would allow independent factions to resist.
But Baer's analysis of Iranian intentions otherwise is spot on. Read the whole thing.