The New Iranian Superpower

By Robert Baer, 2008
Excerpts selected by Andy Ross, September 2009

The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower
By Robert Baer
Crown, 2008

The numbers are page references

There's a growing confidence in Iran today that the United States will finally have to come around to recognizing Iran's true stature in the world as the only important player in the Middle East. 31

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was born in blood. Founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 to solidify control over Iran, the Revolutionary Guards started as a brutal vigilante outfit, torturing or assassinating anyone suspected of opposing the revolution. 34

President Ahmadinejad is a former Revolutionary Guard, as is a majority of the Iranian cabinet. Former Revolutionary Guard officers form a plurality of the 290 seats in parliament. 35

Iraq gives Iran a platform to recruit new legions of believers in its quest for empire. But just as important, with Najaf and Sistani under Iranian control, the world's Shia will now have only Iran and its shrine city of Qum to look to for spiritual guidance. The rivalry between Iraq's Najaf and Iran's Qum had been the guarantor of an independent Shia clergy. But now the spiritual counterweight to the authoritarian clerics who run Iran is gone, along with the Iraqi army. 48

Iran intends to use Iraq as a platform for dominating the Persian Gulf. Given the world's addiction to hydrocarbons, the Gulf is a body of water as strategic as the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Iraq is the first piece in Iran's quest for hegemony. 50

The Lebanon war is Iran's blueprint for the new empire, fought for and held by proxies: the first Middle Eastern empire since the Ottomans. 54

Iran has been at war with the United States for the last thirty years. It was never a classical military confrontation; the Iranians knew they could never win. Still, it was a war. The Iranians understand how vulnerable we are thanks to our addiction to oil. 56

President Ahmadinejad is supposedly the executive power in Iran. ... But little real power resides with Ahmadinejad. Instead, it lies with Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's security apparatus, the Revolutionary Guards, the army, and other influential ayatollahs. ... None of this is new, as Persia has been governed in a secretive way forever, from the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) until today. 66

Khomeini intended to fire Arab anger as he had that of the Iranians. His message was simple: If Iran could beat the United States — David slay Goliath — then the Arabs could beat Israel. 69

Unlike any other power in the Middle East, Iran learned how to harness the millions upon millions of oppressed. The angry, proud, dispossessed Shia; the frustrated Sunni — anyone with a grudge and a readiness to fight. Iran stole the Promethean Islamic fire when the Sunni couldn't, organizing the faithful into a disciplined military force, unlike anything the world has seen since the Ottomans. 71

Americans should definitely be scared about Iran and the Middle East ... Iran's foot soldiers are no longer terrorists. They're a formidable army, which makes Iran something much more dangerous. 76

Americans have missed Iran's critical transition, its metamorphosis from a Shia rebellion and a terrorist state to a classic military power. 78

Iran will one day have de facto control of Iraq's oil, giving it considerably more weight in OPEC. If the Majnoun oil field and other untapped Iraqi fields were to be developed, Iran's and Iraq's total production would begin to rival that of Saudi Arabia. And if Iran were able to fulfill its ambition of producing 8 million barrels a day by 2015, its combined total would surpass Saudi Arabia's. 88

Removing Saddam in March 2003, destroying Iraq's military, exposing the moderate Shia clerics as powerless, and creating another vacuum for Iran to fill was a colossal blunder. The United effectively offered up another Arab country to Iran — another jewel in Iran's imperial crown. 92

Over the last three decades in Lebanon, the Iranians constantly adapted, innovated, and tested new weapons and tactics. ... There's a good argument that Iran's modernization of guerilla warfare is a military development as important as the introduction of the machine gun was to World War I, or the tank to World War II. 96

Right now, at least, the Iranians don't need a nuclear bomb. If a war is to be fought in the Gulf, Iraq, or Lebanon, Iran will almost certainly fall back on its asymmetrical tactics and weapons. 110

Iran may not yet have nukes, but it has three things that are vastly more important: highly developed asymmetrical fighting skills and weapons; a growing army of hungry, disaffected, street-smart fighters; and an invincible anticolonial message. With that, Iran has set the stage for its push toward empire. 111

The word takfiri generally refers to a Sunni Muslim who looks at the world in black-and-white ... A takfiri's mission is to re-create the Caliphate according to a literal interpretation of the Koran. 123

Unlike Hezbollah and Iran, the takfiris care less about occupying ground and more about overthrowing "apostate regimes" in the Middle East, from Mubarak's Egypt to the Al Saud in Saudi Arabia — a world Islamic revolution. ... Sunnis, in supporting takfiri movements, suffer a morbid, existential angst. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are relatively new nations — Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932, Pakistan in 1947. Both bank on Islam, if for no other reason than to hold their countries together. 124

When we invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, we went to war against the Taliban and al Qaeda not understanding that they are religious convictions, not countries. 126

Iran doesn't need to invade northern Iraq or Turkey to exert its influence. Iran's gas and oil, and the energy corridors it sits on, are more effective. Iran's bet in Kurdistan paid off, convincing the Iranians more than ever that controlling the world's energy bloodstream is the way to become a superpower. 131

NATO's invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, destroying the Taliban, was a godsend ... NATO left a vacuum in western Afghanistan, allowing Iran to annex it economically. 131

Iran dominates a third of Iraq and the bulk of its oil. It is tightening its control over three vital energy corridors: Afghanistan, the Strait of Hormuz, and Kurdistan. ... The Gulf Arab sheikhdoms, and the oil that sloshes just under their sands, are vulnerable to military takeover. Iran is the overwhelmingly dominant military force in the Gulf, capable of quickly putting a million men in uniform. The next largest military, Saudi Arabia's, is just a quarter of its size. 137

If Iran succeeds in taking control of the Persian Gulf, it would not only mark the first time that the waterway hasn't been under Western dominance since the British Navy first sailed into the Gulf in 1763, it would be a massive geopolitical shift, akin to Japan's invading China in 1931 or Russia seizing Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. 140

Aside from possessing no oil, Israel is demographically insignificant. Muslims look at Israel as an American colonial fort, one not worth the upkeep. 146

Iran has taken over from the Communists in the war of conviction, and with the bond of belief, salvation, and the hereafter, it's the greatest threat to the Middle East since the Ottomans. 152

Over the past twenty years, since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Iran has quietly but steadily hijacked the Palestinian cause. 155

Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia poured money into the Muslim Brotherhood ... The fact that three decades later Iran had started to co-opt Palestinian members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in spite of all the Saudi money, was a marked defeat for Saudi Arabia. 170

Hamas is allied with Iran, taking Iranian money and guidance. ... After Hamas, the Iranians tell the faithful, will be Jordan and Egypt, two countries that currently recognize Israel. If Iran succeeds, Israel will find itself completely besieged. 173-4

Iran abandoned terrorism for a more classic military struggle ... It coalesced its sympathizers from rigid, exclusionary sectarian factions into a united Islamic front, unlike anything that has been achieved in Islam's history since the Crusades. 177

The Sunni order is failing. ... The Sunni fundamentalists have no real plan other than purifying Islam and imposing strict adherence to Sharia law. ... The Shia, on the other hand, have ... ijtihad, the "exercise of independent judgment." ... The practice has allowed the Shia to adapt much better to the twenty-first century. 196

Iran has already absorbed more land, influence, and control of trade routes than anyone else since the Ottomans. ... America's two traditional allies in the Middle East are failing states. Pakistan is held together by an army that gives every sign of cracking. Saudi Arabia is led by a flamboyantly corrupt, greedy royal family, taken seriously by almost no one save the United States. 198

For two thousand years before Islam, Iran's religion was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that has left indelible traces on Iran, at times causing other Muslims to wonder if Iran ever fully accepted Islam. 234

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ... said Iran's clerical and secular leadership intended to regain "Iran's past greatness." He spoke of the "imperial outlook" that prevailed among Iran's religious leaders, an impulse to promote militant Islam. They wanted to turn Iran into a "citadel of Islam" to help oppressed Muslims worldwide. They wanted to control Mecca and Medina, Islam's two holy cities. 242

Shia Islam [is] a progressive political movement, an ongoing struggle between justice and injustice. It is tied to action ... Again we see in Iran a hybrid — a hegemon seeking justice. Iran has a divine obligation to render justice, to overthrow the grotesquely corrupt regimes on the Arab side of the Gulf. 247

America could take its medicine and sit down at the negotiating table with Iran, treat it like the power it has become, ... acknowledging Iran's predominance in the Middle East. 251

AR I find this a persuasive analysis. The time spent reading this book was well spent. Iran will surely redefine Islam. Now I must learn more about Zoroastrianism — my acquaintance with Zoroaster/Zarathustra is limited to Nietzsche — with his Übermensch/superman gloss!