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The Devil We Know - Book Review

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The Devil We Know – Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower. Robert Baer. Crown Publishers (Random House), New York, 2008.

Iran is obviously a key player in the Middle East. The many references within other texts dealing with other aspects of the Middle East and the several texts dealing specifically with Iran highlight its significance. Part of that significance is that Iran - whether discussing the topics of nuclear weapons, terrorism, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hamas, empire, or the now broadening 'AfPak' war – is a rational player, flexible, able and willing to negotiate.

This viewpoint is strongly reinforced by Robert Baer's work The Devil We Know, an ironic title in that one of his central themes is that we – the United States – do not know them at all correctly but as caricatures of evil reinforced by our – the United States – ignorance of their long history and characteristics of pragmatism and flexibility. When compared to the failures of all the other governments in the region which are "bound to collapse," Baer's conclusion reads, "Iran is the only stable, enduring state in the Gulf." One of his summative paragraphs deserves full reiteration:

If we ignore their words and focus on their actions, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are rational actors. They're willing to talk to the West. They're willing to set bounds. They have fixed reasonable demands.

That could be compared to U.S. words and actions, also often in conflict with each other, but going the other way – fine words, colonialist mentality actions – in which "there's a persistent, mistaken belief that the Iranians are irrational and dogmatic."

War and Nuclear Weapons

The relationship between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Israel runs through the writing. For all the hot air rhetoric that continues to rise from the Obama administration and from the Israeli right wing about nuclear weapons, Baer recognizes that "Iran definitely knows that a nuclear confrontation with Israel isn't winnable. The Iranians know that Israel would massively retaliate...and everything Iran has worked so hard to win would be lost." Later he adds, "Iran's real leaders [not Ahmadinejad] know that a nuclear bomb is very much a secondary interest."

Conversely, the U.S. perspective is described as focussing "obsessively on whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons....blinded by worst-case scenarios, which happens not to be Tehran's preferred scenario." Baer indicates that the U.S. is "miscalculating the nature of the Iranian threat," but the reader needs to consider the U.S. tried and true use and abuse of the fear factor to promote its often illogical intentions. Another aspect touched upon is the U.S. attachment to Israel that "possesses no oil" and "is demographically insignificant." A former Khomeini aide, Amin, is cited as saying, "Israel's greatest conquest wasn't the West Bank and Gaza...It was the American imagination."

From yet another angle Baer shows that any form of limited warfare or even an all out conventional war would have serious global consequences. This obviously would contain nothing good for Iran but would also contain the very strong prospect of global repercussions for oil distribution, for the expansion of the war, and its increase in intensity throughout the Middle East, all of which would rapidly drain the U.S. of resources, human and otherwise.

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The problem of Israel/Palestine is not fully central to Baer's presentation, but it does play a significant role. Baer reinforces other writer's determinations that Iran is not about to go to war with Israel over the Palestinians, especially at the risk of a nuclear confrontation....they're not particularly concerned about the fate of the Palestinians or the existence of Israel.  Iran will accept whatever settlement the Palestinians accept.

Lebanon's Hezbollah told me that Hezbollah would be "no more Palestinian than the Palestinians." In other words, if the Palestinians agreed to settle with Israel, so would Hezbollah.

Part of the significance of Iran's inroads into Palestine center on the split between Sunni and Shia. The theme centers on the differences in viewpoint between Sunni takfirs and Shia ijtihad that affect future actions: the Sunnis end up acting with a random unfocussed violence, whereas the Shia violence, its terrorism, its suicide bombers, its wars, are generally all constrained and targeted towards targets of military importance. The importance of Hezbollah and the targeted suicide attacks based on Shia/Hamas militancy are defined as having their own military value apart from the more random violence of civilian bombings undertaken by the Sunni militants.

This – and other arguments – leads to Baer promoting a Palestinian settlement based on UN Resolution 242 (rather vague but referring to a military withdrawal of occupying forces to the 1967 boundaries). This covers two directions: first that "a Palestinian settlement based on international law will stand a lot better chance of succeeding with the Palestinians. At the same time, this would convince Iran that the international system was impartial." Part of this is to separate Iran from the festering confrontation that continues to poison all negotiations and perspectives in the Middle East.

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Different perspective

The Devil We Know is not an academic read with lots of references and archived quotes. It comes from an experiential viewpoint and is strong on anecdotal descriptions and interviews with many actors throughout the Middle East. Any anecdotal work could pose some questions on authenticity and value as it is easy to choose anecdotes and tales, however much they may be true, to satisfy one's point of view. Baer's writing, however, comes across as solidly centred, and the few 'Americanisms' that do creep in can be ignored in favour of the general flavour of the work, with one of his first solutions, an unnumbered one, being that "We [the U.S.] just have to overcome our prejudices rooted in the past."

For the United States "It's time not to surrender, but rather to deal. America can accommodate many parts of Iran's quest for empire without ceding any of its core vital national interests." Previously stated in the text and implicit throughout is that the U.S. must deal if it is to avoid consequences that can only be negative into a long drawn out unprosperous future. Its vital interests are oil and containment of Russia and China as re-emerging powers, competitors within the global rush for resources and markets of all kinds.

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Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles. His interest in this topic stems originally from an (more...)

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Your book reviews are always so cogent.  This... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Jun 5, 2009 at 10:05:55 PM