Here are the key points Baer makes in the interview. (Below I include the passages from which these were distilled):
Robert Baer: Iran is a very peculiar entity right now, and when I refer to its "empire", I am talking about proxies.
Hezbollah in Lebanon is a proxy of Iran. It follows, to the letter, Iranian orders. It's a very disciplined organization; it's a way for Iran to project power, in a way that I really can't compare [with] anything in history.
In Iraq as well, you have the Iranians pulling the strings among the Shi'a. Last week, our ambassador in Baghdad Ryan Crocker said very explicitly that it's Iran that's stopping an agreement between the United States and Iraq. I found this astounding; it was only reported in the L.A. Times that Iran has that degree of power in Baghdad.
So what the Iranians are doing is looking for a very conventional projection of power through the Gulf and through the Levant. It's on the verge of becoming, I guess you could call it a "virtual empire".
Terry Gross: Let's start with Iraq. You want people to think that Iran won the Iraq War. What has Iran gained from the way the war in Iraq has turned out?
Robert Baer: Well, I think first of all, that we instituted -- and, I should add, in principle very rightly -- a Jeffersonian democracy of sorts there -- one man, one vote -- which put the Shi'a in power. They're approximately 65% percent of the population of Iraq. All of the Shi'a leaders elected in 2005 have very strong ties to Tehran. Their families live in Iran; they take refuge there, especially during the violence in 2006. The Iranians are planning and starting to build a pipeline that will go from Basra, Iraq's main export route, to Abadan. Their economic ties are strengthening by the day.
Not only that, but you have the Iranians are able to put down Shi'a insurgents like Muqtada al-Sadr.
Terry Gross: You think Iran was behind that?
Robert Baer: Oh absolutely. I think because when Muqtada al-Sadr was in trouble he fled to Tehran. He's in a religious school now. Again, I like to go back to current reporting, and the L.A. Times reports that it was Iran that put Muqtada al-Sadr under control. And in fact, the L.A. Times went on to say that Iran is taking over his militia directly.
And incidentally, it's to the benefit of the United States: there has been little or no Shi'a violence in the last year. Iran has been a key player in the surge.
Terry Gross: Well you say Iran has virtually annexed part of Iraq and its oil.
Robert Baer: It's annexed it in the sense that a lot of oil has still gone missing. It's being shipped to Fujaira in the United Arab Emirates. It's being refined and sent to Iran. You have Rafsanjani, former president of Iran, is a key player in oil.
I have numerous former colleagues with the CIA in Iraq and buying Iraqi oil. They're telling me they have to go through what in effect are Iranian agents. Iran has unseen hand -- well, it's not completely unseen -- it's not an obvious annexation. It's annexation by proxy.
Terry Gross: So what do you think Ambassador Crocker meant when he said that Iran was standing in the way of an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq?
Robert Baer: It's very simple: the Iranian plan -- or the Shi'a plan, if you like -- is to thank the United States for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and then very politely asking it to leave by 2011. At that point, Iraq will regain much of its independence but will have an alliance with Iran. I liken it to our alliance with Canada. Basically Iraq cannot move in issues of national security without a green light from Tehran or at least some sort of accord between the two capitals.
Terry Gross: So why wouldn't Iran want an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq?
Robert Baer: Well, what they don't want is an open-ended agreement between the United States and Iraq which would leave U.S. bases or U.S. troops or a security arrangement. Iran would like to pry us out of Iraq very peacefully without any chaos behind or any sort of civil war, of course.
Terry Gross: So Iran wants the U.S. out completely: no bases, no remaining soldiers...
Robert Baer: They want us gone. They want us out of the Gulf. If they could arrange it, they'd want us out of the Gulf. The way they look at it, the Persian Gulf is called that for a reason. It's an Iranian body of water. Ninety percent of the rim of the Gulf is Shi'a. All those Shi'a either look to Qom, the holy city in Iran, or they look to Najaf, the holy city in Iraq, which is very heavily influenced by Iran.
Terry Gross: Well, since you're saying Iran wants, basically, to be an empire and to have proxies, including Iraq, would that make it even more dangerous for the United States to do what Iran wants and withdraw completely from Iraq without soldiers or bases?
Robert Baer: No, I take this as good news. In my book, I take a look at Sunni fundamentalism, and I took a look at Shi'a fundamentalism. And when I started this book I had no idea where I was going to go. I spent a lot of time with Hezbollah groups that set off car bombs, that fought this 18-year war in Lebanon. I spent a lot of time in Israeli jails talking to Sunni extremists, suicide bombers. And what I found -- I walked away from all this, I did this over the course of three years -- was the Shi'a, because of the nature of their sect, is much more disciplined, and we are capable of making a deal with them which will hold. We are not capable of making the same deal with the Sunni, who are anarchists. You know, it's a stretch using that word, but they are anachists.
So I think my story is a good news story. People may look at this and say, "Look, we have to do something about Iran, we may have to attack Iran to stop them from getting an empire, stop its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon." But I look at it as a reliable, Iran: somebody that could help us manage the Gulf, or manage Iraq. I think that thanks to Iran, we could could walk away from Iraq, having gotten rid of Saddam, and leave behind a fairly stable country. But only if we start talking to the Iranians and reach some sort of security accord.
Terry Gross: It's a hard sell to convince Americans that President Ahmadinejad of Iran is a good negotiating partner and someone who we can really, kind of you know, trust in organizing peace in that part of the world.
Robert Baer: Well, it's very, especially in the election, because, I mean, even McCain, look in the debate: aside from not being able to pronounce the man's name. But more important than that, he is a spokesman for a hard core of Revolutionary Guards. He is not the de facto executive authority in Iran. That's held by Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and a group of officers. There is a politburo, an informal politburo in Iran, which runs the country. Ahmadinejad is not even in that politburo.
So looking at Ahmadinejad today is sort of like looking at McCarthy during the fifties: he's an irrelevant voice.
Terry Gross: But when you say "irrelevant", I mean McCarthy really changed the United States for a long time, but he wasn't the executive power.
Robert Baer: No, he couldn't call a nuclear strike on Moscow, just as Ahmadinejad cannot call a nuclear strike on Tel Aviv. Nor can Ahmadinejad call for war against the United States in the Gulf. So what he says is irrelevant.
What Khamenei and Rafsanjani and this informal politburo say is much more relevant. And if you look at their comments very closely, their public comments, they are actually fairly rational. You can identify a core Iranian national interest. Yes, it's expansive, but it's not insane. They do not want World War III. They think they have won in Iraq. They sense Iraq is no longer a hostile country, and Saddam is gone. They've won in a sense in Afghanistan because the Taliban, their mortal enemy, is gone as well. They look at the United States, its interest in the Middle East is waning. I mean, even if you look at Olmert's statement this week when he said we have to give up the West Bank, we have to give up East Jerusalem. And then you finally look at Lebanon where Hezbollah is the de facto government, has a veto over the cabinet, the Israelis lost the 2006 war, and the Iranian star is rising.
Any time you have a country that is doing this well, it's not that they want the status quo, but they cannot afford a war with the United States. And that's why I think we can negotiate with them.
Terry Gross: There's a lot of concern in Israel and in the United States that Iran is building a nuclear weapon and, if it succeeds, that will be an existential threat to Israel. You say in your book that the Iranians are really more likely to go after the Saudis than Israel. What do they want with the Saudis?
Robert Baer: The Saudis represent for them the worst form of Islam, an uncompromising Islam, an Islam that invented Bin Laden, if you like. And it's also Saudi Arabia they accuse of being behind sectarian violence inside Iran. And it's little reported in the American press, but it disturbs the Iranians that their Sunni are following this Saudi, Wahhabi form of Islam, which is in fact uncompromising: they have a reasonable complaint against Saudi Arabia. They do not like it that Saudi Arabia administers Mecca to the exclusion of the Shi'a. Iran does not like it that Saudi Arabia is repressing -- and there's no other way to put it -- the Shi'a who live in Saudi Arabia, in the eastern province. They do not like it that Saudi Arabia has so much influence in Washington.
What ultimately the Iranians would like is to become an equal partner of the United States. I know this is a tall order, and we're going to wait decades for anything like this to come about. But in their hearts, this is what they'd like.
Terry Gross: An equal partner in what?
Robert Baer: In the Middle East. They would like to sit down with the United States and Israel and actually come to a solution for the Palestinians. They would like to support and give power in Lebanon to the Shi'a because the Shi'a are approaching a majority in Lebanon. They would like to co-administer Mecca with the Saudis. They feel their sect has been repressed since 680 A.D., since the murder of the Prophet's grandson.
They believe this is the Shi'a millenium.
Terry Gross: Well, you know, if Iran becomes the key player with the United States in negotiating a settlement for the Middle East, I mean we know what President Ahmadinejad of Iran wants. He wants all Palestinians to participate in elections: Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and I think also Palestinians in the Palestinean diaspora. That would effectively eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.
Robert Baer: This is what Ahmadinejad says: During the last year I sat down, for what it's worth, with Hezbollah for more than a few meetings. And they've told me over and over again that the real policy in Iran and Hezbollah's real policy is come to a solution that the Palestinians accept, the vast majority of them. And I asked them, Would that be on Resolution 242, which gives the West Bank to the Palestinians and East Jerusalem? They said, "If the Palestinians accept that, we accept it. We do not want to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians." The Iranians have officially stated this.
Now there's a lot of people who are going to say, "Well look at Ahmadinejad, and look at his statements: we can't trust him." Well, I think we have to sit down with Khamenei and the real leadership and find out if in fact there serious. By not talking to your enemy, you're going to miss signals, you're going to miss opportunities.
Terry Gross: Do you think if Iran does successfully complete development of a nuclear weapon, then that weapon would pose and existential threat to Israel?
Robert Baer: I don't think -- The Israelis have nuclear weapons, and they would obliterate Iran if attacked. And they are capable of doing it. The Iranians understand this.
I think what we don't want is the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon simply because it would start an arms race in the Gulf. The Saudis would immediately build one. You know, what's to stop the Kuwaitis, the Emiratis, and so forth. What concerns me is an arms race.
But my solution -- which people can describe as over-simplistic, but I have been watching for thirty years -- is give the Iranians an alternative to a nuclear weapon, and that would be recognition of their new found power. It would be a deciding voice in Iraq, and so forth. And avoid this arms race.
But again, if you don't talk to them, you'll never know whether this is possible.
Terry Gross: Of course, some people would say: "They'll end up with both. They'll end up with the power, and they'll covertly keep on with their weapons program."
Robert Baer: The alternative of attacking Iran is unacceptable. The fact is that they have Silkworm missiles, buried on their side of the Persian Gulf, and they will fire them on the oil tankers. They will take out 17 million barrels of oil, traded oil, out of the Gulf. They will hit Saudi facilities at Abqaiq, Ras Tanura, and the rest of them. It would send us into a depression, a war with Iran. A war with Iran is impossible. We are facing an Iran that, if we don't do something about it, a crisis -- not just a political crisis, but an economic one -- that will make the subprime meltdown look like a walk in the park.
Terry Gross: So who do you think in the United States now is pushing for a war with Iran, for like a military strike against the nuclear program?
Robert Baer: Well, I think that anybody their focus on Israel is -- they know Israel has to do something. Israel more than any country understands the power of Iran. We tend to ignore it. The Saudis understand it as well. They're terrified. The Emiratis, last week, have proposed building a canal around the Strait of Hormuz to get their oil out. Can you imagine what a canal would look like cutting through the Arabian Peninsula? It would be just an enormous project. But the point is, that's how scared they are.
The neocons in this country say we have to hit the Iranians, we have to knock them down a peg. But it's not that easy, because they will retaliate. And it's not like hitting Saddam, where you can win in a couple of weeks. They will light the Gulf on fire, if threatened. And I think they will.
You can call it blackmail if you like, but we're between a rock and a hard place. And the way out is negotiating. But first you have to accept the premise that the Iranians are a rational power. And this is what I do in my book. I show how in 1979 they were completely irrational: they killed two bosses of mine, they blew up our embassy, they blew up the marines, they took hostages, they attacked the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, and they attacked Khobar barracks. But since 1996, this terrorism that the Iranians supported has subsided.
Terry Gross: You hear rumors every so often that they're might be an attack against Iran before the Bush administration leaves. Or that Israel might attack Iran before the Bush administration's clock runs out. What do you hear about that?
Robert Baer: Well, if you hear people are pushing this conspiracy -- and it's always possible -- it's an October surprise. McCain's down in the polls; this economy is going to destroy his chances for election -- my reading of it. What he needs is an attack on Iran. And the way the conspiracy goes -- and what the Israelis would like to do -- is get permission for overflight, hit Iran's nuclear facilities, and if there were a Machiavellian figure in the White House, that needed McCain to follow Bush, now would be the time to do it.
The Israelis tell me, well, they don't want to get involved in American elections, not to this degree, and after 4 November, right after the elections, they are going to consider in this window with Bush in office, a weakened Bush, of hitting Iran between now and January.
Terry Gross: Why would they want a weakened Bush when they hit Iran?
Robert Baer: A weakened Bush, the thinking goes, that he might be looking at his legacy, you know, take care of the last problem in the Middle East, it would be a hail Mary, to see what he could salvage from his presidency.
I think it's all sort of fanciful because the Israelis don't really want a full-fledged war with Iran either, because of Lebanon, because of Syria. There's no stopping a full-fledged war.
Terry Gross: You mean, once you attack Iran --
Robert Baer: It could go anywhere. You would see bombs going off in Cairo, Hezbollah would blanket Israel with rockets, possibly chemical weapons (they may have them.) And then Iran would hit the oil facilities. And we would see enormous increase in casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan from Iranian agents.
Terry Gross: So -- let me just go back a second -- you're saying you think, based on your sources, that Israel is unlikely to attack Iran's nuclear facility now, because they know it would be trouble.
Robert Baer: People in the Knesset on the Defense Committee who are pushing for an attack on Iran tell me, you know, that they're not going to get this done. They can't get it done. They'd like to. They think they have no choice. They're unlikely to convince the political leadership in Israel to do it.
Terry Gross: So you think that one of the things standing in the way of the U.S. negotiating with Iran is the Saudis because they know they would be on the losing end of an American-Iranian deal.
Robert Baer: Let's be realistic: Do we really care who pumps the oil, who ships it to this country or to the world? We don't get a whole lot of oil from Saudi Arabia. What I'm trying to say is, it's a fungible product. You know, we get more from Venezuela. But the point is, do we really care (1) who's in charge of Mecca, and (2) who's pumping the oil? What we really want is stability and avoiding a war between Israel and Iran.
By shifting this to a real military power, which Iran is -- and there is no military power anywhere in the Gulf that's equivalent of Iran: I mean, Iran can put a million people in uniform almost immediately. Saudi Arabia, what 250,000, it's an ineffective army. The Saudis still have not fully explained how fifteen hijackers ended up on those airplanes.
It's simply, you know, going into all these prisons and talking to the suicide bombers in Israel, that I walk away -- let me just put this bluntly: they're crazy. Yet, I go in and talk to the families of suicide bombers that acted on the orders of Iran, and they were very specific, they were very defined military goals, which may not make the victims feel any better, but what it does tell me is that we can deal with these people. And I think we can deal with them much easier, once everything's laid out on the table, than we can with the Saudis or the Emiratis. But it would cost, again, a huge shift of balance in the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East.