Robert Baer’s official title is former CIA operative, but he’s known best in public circles as the man who begat the George Clooney movie “Syriana.” The 2005 film, which won Clooney an Oscar, was loosely based on Baer’s memoir, “See No Evil,” which details Baer’s bloody (and not-so-bloody) doings in Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Baer’s latest book, “The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower,” is a timely and insightful look at a country that (according to Baer) continues to outsmart the United States in Iraq and across the Middle East.
One example: Basra, Iraq’s oil-producing-and-exporting capital, is essentially in Iranian hands, Baer says. Tehran controls Basra through proxies and other loyalists, who are already sending Iran countless barrels of oil that would otherwise be shipped to the West. Without sending a single soldier, the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has managed to wrest control of Iraq from Washington even as some pundits mistakenly describe Iraq as a democracy in the tradition of Jefferson and Lincoln. When will Americans come to terms with this? Baer is spreading the word as best he can, as he did the other day at the Commonwealth Club of California, where I interviewed him in front of a large audience.
In Baer’s analysis, the Obama administration should reconcile the fact that Tehran is as powerful as the United States when it comes to the Middle East. The urgent headlines describing the possible meetings of U.S. and Iranian diplomats miss the bigger picture: In the long-term, it’s in America’s interests to partner with Tehran the way it partners with, say, Israel. Baer even imagines the day when Israel and Iran reestablish their ties – an occurrence that may seem far-fetched given news accounts that Israel bombed weapons smugglers directed by Iran. But as Baer points out, stranger things have happened in recent years, including the détente between the United States and China.
Baer discusses all these subjects in his appearances, but he seems to get his biggest rise from people when he discusses “Syriana” and his connection to Clooney. Because of this one-degree-of-separation, and the cachet it brings, more people are interested in seeing Baer in person. During Baer’s recent sojourn to Syria, where he helped make a documentary, Syrian officials treated him like a celebrity, clearing the way to arrange interviews with high-level ministers. In Iran, where Baer has also visited in his capacity as a ex-CIA-spook-turned-author-pundit, higher-ups also treat Baer with reverence. Of course, this belies the Hollywood image of Baer, who in “Syriana” is tortured by Iranian agents. This, Baer says, is the old Iran. The new one sets out a welcome mat for him – and for any American who wants to travel there. Well, almost any American. Current CIA agents aren’t really welcome.
The last time I was in Iran, Iranians were more than gracious. I spent two weeks in Tehran to write about Iran’s annual film festival – its version of the Oscars and Cannes – and after attending the televised awards ceremony, several people recognized me as I walked through the capital’s central market. I’d learned some Farsi, including the phrase Jasus nistam (“I’m not a spy”), which – said tongue-in-cheek – elicits laughter in Tehran. Iranians I met with wanted to chat about the United States and (as happened to Baer) how to get a U.S. visa. Iranians are as familiar with American films as Americans are. They know George Clooney. He’s appeared on billboards in Iran, advertising watches. Iranians would love if he showed up in person. Until that happens, they have people like me and Robert Baer. For now, that’s fine. As Baer writes in “The Devil We Know” – generalizing for effect – “The Iranians are patient.” They can wait a few more years for improved relations under Barack Obama, just as Americans can.