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Iran Has Changed, Says Former Middle East CIA Agent

The dominant image of Iran in most Western minds is one of an unpredictable theocratic state run by a cadre of Islamic clerics who support terrorism. But as VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, a former CIA officer with wide Middle East experience argues that at least some of the old Western preconceptions of Iran are no longer valid.

Bob Baer's memoir of his time as a CIA officer in the Middle East was turned into a hit movie, Syriana, a thriller with a fictionalized version of him as the main character.

His new book, The Devil We Know, might not bring Hollywood agents knocking at his door for movie rights. But it is, in its own way kind of a thriller, weaving intrigue and policy prescriptions into a new look at the most demonized nation in the Middle East. And with its subtitle, Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, it is likely to stir controversy.

Baer's basic premise is Iran has greatly changed from a theocracy of true believers into a kind of military state bent on expanding power in the region and dominated by veterans of the bloody eight-year war with Iraq. That, Baer argues, makes Iran more dangerous in some ways, but also makes them more rational.

"They were virtually at war with the United States, killing Americans. But that is as far as the dialogue goes in this country," said Baer. "What we are not watching is that they have backed away from terrorism, have become much more of a conventional power, as threatening, probably more threatening. But they are someone that we can deal with.

Baer argues that the 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, which is an Iranian surrogate, was a turning point for Iranian strategists.

"It came during the 34-day war in Lebanon in 2006 when everybody expected, the insiders did, that the Iranians and Hezbollah would start taking Western hostages again simply to pressure the United States. And it did not happen. Hezbollah and Iran went to their cadres and said, 'Do not touch an American.' And during that 34-day war not an American was touched, period. That was a huge enlightening moment for me. I said, 'Aha, they are out of the terrorism business, so what business are they in?' And that is conventional power," said Baer.

Baer also believes that Iran is not bent on getting a nuclear weapon. He says the Iranian leadership's nuclear ambitions are really a bargaining chip for other things, like influence in Iraq, control of the Persian Gulf, and, above all, a desire to control of the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

"Oh, I think their nuclear weapons is a red herring on so many levels. I think they are going through the motions of building a bomb, and they may build a bomb one day simply to get our attention," he added. "They want us to acknowledge their newfound power, while their real power is more conventional."

Former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick, a leading U.S. academic expert on Iran, agrees that Iran is really looking to bargain from a position of strength.

"I personally think that the bargaining chip of a nuclear program, where they can turn it on and turn it off, rather than actually having a bomb that could become a target, is probably what they are after," said Sick.

Bob Baer points out that the Western focus on Iran's controversial president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his sometimes outrageous statements misses the point that he lacks real executive authority. Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad's threats, Baer is skeptical that Iran would attack Israel since such an operation would be the ultimate suicide bombing.

"I think that they are too rational. I think the Israelis would retaliate," he said. "They would destroy Tehran, they would flatten Tehran, and the Iranians know that. And they are not suicidal. And this goes against conventional thinking. They are not suicidal. They do not think that if they attacked Israel, when Israel attacked them they would all go to heaven. That is just not the way they think. That is the way that many Sunni extremists think. But not the Iranians."

But Baer says the next U.S. administration should worry about Israel's impatience over the nuclear issue - enough to send a special envoy to begin talking to the Iranians.

"They better have someone in Tehran on the 21st of January because the Israelis are saying, 'Listen, if you do not do something to contain Iranian power or at least bring them to the negotiating table, we are going to hit Iran.' And I think the Israelis are serious, or they are serious enough that we should worry about it," said Baer.

There is apparently intense interest in Iran about who the next U.S. president will be. News accounts say Iranians are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential campaign with considerable coverage in the Iranian media. Iran has its own presidential election in June.