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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Remember the movie "Syriana," which starred George Clooney as a disillusioned CIA agent? It was loosely based on a memoir by my guest, Robert Baer. Baer was a CIA case officer from 1976 to 1997. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that Baer was considered perhaps the best on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East. He received the Career Intelligence Medal in 1998. Now, Baer has written a new book about Iran called "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower." He says Iran is the most powerful and stable country in the Middle East, a country the United States must either fight in a new 30-year war or come to terms with. Baer prefers coming to terms with Iran.

Bob Baer, welcome to Fresh Air. Most of what we're hearing about Iran now is focused on how we have to stop them from completing development of a nuclear bomb. That's not the focus of your book. You're writing about Iran's newfound taste for empire. What do you mean by empire? What do you think Iran is after?

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Former CIA Officer; Author, "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower"): Iran is a very peculiar entity right now. And when I refer to its empire, I'm talking about proxies. Hezbollah in Lebanon is a proxy of Iran. It follows to the letter Iranian orders. It is a very disciplined organization. It's a way for Iran to project power in a way that I really can't compare to anything in history.

In Iraq, as well, you have the Iranians pulling the strings among the Shia. 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 mean, I find this astounding, and it was only reported in the L.A. Times that Iran has that degree of power in Baghdad. So what the Iranians are doing are 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.

GROSS: Let's start with Iraq. You're one of the people who think that Iran won the Iraq war. What has Iran gained from the way the war in Iraq has turned out?

Mr. 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 Shia in power. They're approximately 65 percent of the population of Iraq.

All of the Shia leaders elected in 2005 have very strong ties to Tehran. Their families live in Iran. They take refuge there, especially during the violence of 2006. The Iranians are starting - they're planning, and they're starting to build a pipeline that will go from Basra, Iraq's main export route, to Abadan. The economic ties are strengthening by the day. Not only that, but you have the Iranians are able to put down Shia insurgencies, like Muqtada al-Sadr.

GROSS: You think Iran was behind that?

Mr. 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. Incidentally, it's to the benefit of the United States. There has been little or no Shia violence in the last year. Iran has been a key player in the surge.

GROSS: Well, you say Iran is richly annexed to part of Iraq and its oil.

Mr. BAER: It's annexed it in the sense that a lot of oil is still gone missing. It's being shipped to Fujairah 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 the oil. I have numerous former colleagues with the CIA in Iraq and buying Iraqi oil, and they're telling me they have to go through what in effect are Iranian agents. Iran has an unseen hand. It's not completely unseen, but it's not an obvious annexation. It's annexation by a proxy.

GROSS: So what do you think Ambassador Crocker meant when he said Iran was standing in the way of an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq?

Mr. BAER: It's very simple. The Iranian plan or the Shia 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 know, I likened it to our alliance with Canada. But basically, Iraq cannot move in issues on national security without a green light with Tehran or at least some sort of accord between the two capitals.

GROSS: So why wouldn't Iran want an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq?

Mr. 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 Iraq very peacefully without leaving chaos behind or any sort of civil war, of course.

GROSS: So Iran wants the U.S. out completely, no bases, no remaining soldiers?

Mr. BAER: They want us gone. They want us out of the Gulf. If they could arrange it, they 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. 90 percent of the rim of the Gulf is Shia. All those Shia 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.

GROSS: Well, since you're saying that 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?

Mr. BAER: No. I take this as good news. In my book, I take a look at Sunni fundamentalism, and I took a look at Shia fundamentalism, and when I started this book, I had no idea where I was going to go. I spent a lot of time with a Hezbollah group 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 of this - I did this over a course of three years - was that the Shia, because of the nature of their sect, it 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 anarchists.

So I think we're - 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 it from getting an empire or stop its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. But I look at it as a reliable ally, Iran, somebody that could help us manage the Gulf or manage Iraq. I think that, thanks to Iran, we can 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 a security accord.

GROSS: It's a hard sell to convince Americans that President Ahmadinejad of Iran is a good negotiating partner and somebody you can really kind of, you know, trust in organizing peace in that part of the world.

Mr. BAER: Well, it's a very - especially in the election because, I mean, even McCain, you 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 hardcore 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 '50s. He's an irrelevant voice.

GROSS: When you say irrelevant, I mean, McCarthy really changed the United States for a long time. He might - but he wasn't the executive power, so you say.

Mr. 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, you know, call for a war against the United States in the Gulf. So what he says is irrelevant. What Khamenei and Rafsanjani, in this informal politburo, say is much more relevant. And if you look at their comments very closely, their public comments, they were actually fairly rational. You can identify a core Iranian national interest. Yes, it's expansive, but it's not insane. And they do not want World War Three.

They think that they have won in Iraq in the sense that 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, as waning. I mean, even when 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. And in 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.

GROSS: Oh, if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Baer. He was a CIA agent for 21 years. He resigned in 1997. He worked largely in Middle East. His new book is called "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower." My guest is Robert Baer and he was a CIA agent for 21 years, from 1976 to 1997. He worked largely in the Middle East and the Gulf. The movie "Syriana" starring George Clooney was very loosely based on a memoir that Baer had written. His new book is called "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower."

Now, there's a lot of concern in Israel and in the United States that, you know, 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?

Mr. 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 that's little reported in the American press, but it disturbs the Iranians that their Sunni are following the 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 Shia. Iran does not like it that Saudi Arabia is repressing, and there's no other way to put it, the Shia that 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.

GROSS: An equal partner on what?

Mr. 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 Shia because the Shia are approaching a majority on Lebanon. They would like to co-administer Mecca with the Saudis. They feel that their sect has been repressed since 680 A.D., since the murder of the prophet's grandson. They believe that this is the Shia millennium.

GROSS: 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 Palestinian diaspora, and that would effectively eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

Mr. BAER: This is what Ahmadinejad says. During the last year I've 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 to 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 Palestinian and East Jerusalem? They said, if the Palestinian accept it, 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 going to say, well, look at Ahmadinejad. 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, they're serious. By not talking to your enemy, you're going to miss signals. You're going to miss opportunities.

GROSS: Do you think, if Iran does successfully complete development of a nuclear weapon, that that weapon would pose an existential threat to Israel?

Mr. 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 or the Emirates and so forth?

What concerns me is an arms race, but my solution, which, you know, people are going to describe as oversimplistic, but I have been watching Iran for 30 years, is give the Iranians an alternative to a nuclear weapon, and that would be recognition of their newfound 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 what it is possible.

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.

Mr. 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 at the oil tankers. They will take out 17 million barrels of oil, of 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 in 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.

GROSS: So who do you think in the United States now is pushing for war with Iran, for like a military strike against nuclear - the nuclear program?

Mr. BAER: Well, I think that, you know, anybody that is - their focus on Israel is they know Israel has to do something, that Israel cannot let the drift occur. Israel more than any country understands the power of Iran. We tend to ignore it. The Saudis understand it, as well. I mean, they are terrified. The Emirates 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 going to be 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 call it blackmail if you like, but we're between Iraq and the 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 what I do in my book. I show how that 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.

GROSS: You hear rumors every so often that there 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?

Mr. BAER: Well, if your - the people are pushing this conspiracy, and it's always possible, as an October surprise. McCain is down in the polls. This economy is going to destroy his chances for election, in my reading of it. What he needs is a foreign crisis, and that would be 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 four November or 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.

GROSS: Why would they want a weakened Bush in office when they hit Iran?

Mr. BAER: Weakened Bush, the thinking goes that, you know, he would - might be looking as 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.

GROSS: You mean, once you attack Iran.

Mr. BAER: It could go anywhere. I mean, you would see bombs going off in Cairo. Hezbollah would blanket Israel with rockets, possibly chemical weapons. They may have them. And then Iran will hit the oil facilities. And we would see enormous increase in casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan from Iranian agents.

GROSS: So let me just go back a second. So 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?

Mr. BAER: People in the Knesset on the defense committee who were pushing for an attack on Iran tell me that they're not going to, you know, get this done. They can't get it done. They would like to. They think they have no choice. They're unlikely to convince the political leadership in Israel to do it.

GROSS: Let me ask you, you have a lot of sources. You were in the CIA for 21 years. You worked that region, so how come you're so certain that if Israel or the US attack Iran's nuclear program, that would end up in catastrophe, and yet there are people in Israel and people in the United States who are still seriously considering it. Do they have different sources then you do? I mean, what a counsel that kind of huge discrepancy between, this would be a huge catastrophe and, oh, this would be a really helpful thing and stop Iran's power.

BAER: Well, I mean, one thing is, I spent 30 years almost, and even after I left the CIA, and then I went to Iran recently. And that doesn't really do you much good, running to Iran, because you're completely isolated there. You were watched all the time. You have a keeper or minder. But what I did was, I had what you can call inside information on Iranian leadership, which was actually very good in the last 30 years. And, at least in my mind, of course, I don't have the evidence on paper because it's illegal to take this out, I see a - I can chart this Iranian maturity.

At the same time, I know by name all the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that command the missiles along the Gulf, and I've met some people from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who fully would justify a retaliation after an attack. These are bloody minded people, if you want. They are very serious people. They've been fighting in wars for a long time, and they would not hesitate to bring the house down.

GROSS: You said that Iran has a bottomless pool of potential recruits. By that do you mean they just had a very large population, or do you think that they could get recruits from around the Islamic world?

Mr. BAER: Well, that's the interesting thing is what is that the conventional wisdom, especially before we went in to Iraq, and this was the wisdom of the neocons, is that Arab and Persian don't get along. Persian are Indo-European people, the Arabs are a Semitic people, and fine, they make a life for a short period, but that's - it will not endure. What we found in Lebanon is that over the course of this 18-year war, they used Arabs. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, doesn't have a drop of Persian blood in him. And yet, he is an Iranian, let me put - he's equivalent of an Iranian general, a very popular one, a very powerful one, but he follows Tehran's orders.

So what we've seen is that the Persians indeed have crossed this ethnic barrier. They've also crossed the sectarian barrier because they become a key determining factor in an Israeli settlement with Hamas, which is a Sunni organization and in the West Bank, where Hamas is expanding. Iran's guidance is crucial for the Palestinians, so they've really broken the mold in history.

GROSS: So you're making the argument that the United States needs to negotiate with Iran, that the last thing we should be doing is attack Iran. If we - if the United States negotiated with Iran, and it gave Iran some of the things that it wanted and some of the things it wants, it wants to be in a solution to the Middle East crisis. It wants control or at least more control of Mecca. Say we do that. Say we negotiated with Iran, and we were able to give them some of the things that they wanted. How would the shape of the Middle East and the shape of the world change a result of that?

BAER: There would be an enormous shift toward the Shia Islam. It would, let me put it nicely, break the heart of the Saudis. It would break the heart of the Sunnis in the Gulf. It would be a historic shift in power, and at least among Muslims, I mean, this would be historic. It's never - the Shia have always been downtrodden and repressed, whatever you want to call them. And what we're saying now is, thanks to Iran's empire through proxy, we would have to acknowledge this. And the other choice is to fight it in what would be an equivalent of a 30 years' war. And I'm not sure if we could afford that today.

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 that they would be on the losing end of an American-Iranian deal.

GROSS: Well, 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. Maybe that's a - what I'm trying to say is it's a fungible product that we, you know, we get more from Venezuela. But the point is, do we really care, one, who's in charge of Mecca and two, 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. There is no military power anywhere in the Gulf that's the equivalent of Iran's. I mean, Iran can put a million people in uniform almost immediately. Saudi Arabia, with 250,000, it's an ineffective army. Saudis still have not fully explained how 15 hijackers ended up on those airplanes.

It is simply, you know, from going into all these prisons and talking to the suicide bombers in Israel that I walk away, and let me just put it very 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, and they were very defined military goals, which may not, you know, 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 is laid out on the table, then we can with the Saudis or the Emirates, but it would cause, again, a huge shift in the balance in the Gulf and the rest of Middle East.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Baer. He was a CIA agent for 21 years. He resigned in 1997. The movie "Syriana" that starred George Clooney was loosely based on a memoir by Baer. Baer's new book is called "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower." You joined the CIA in 1976. Why did you want to join?

Mr. BAER: You know, frankly, I joined as a prank. I was living in Berkeley. I was intending to go to graduate school in Chinese studies and was completely out of money, and my roommates said, why don't you get a job? So we started joking about the CIA. I remember it was the Pike and Church Committees going on. So I called them up, and I got an interview, and before I knew it, I was jumping out of an airplane in one of their camps with a machine gun around my neck.

And it was - I had always intended to stay in a very short time, and what happened once I got into the CIA was I became fascinated with things foreign. I mean, I'm not talking about foreign cultures, what made a country tick because we always - that was our mission, to figure out what made Syria tick, what made Iran tick. And what it taught me, the CIA, and what - well, I became very fascinated, is to evaluate information. I hope I'm good at it, is to weigh public statements, to weigh open source, and to weigh technical information, which is really a treasure. And then, all three of them, and you can include satellites, and you can get approximation of the truth, which is not available to most people.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of an American policy that was built around public statements and public facts when you knew things that were happening behind the scenes that contradicted those public statements and public policies, and you knew that the policy - you suspected that the policy was going to lead us in another direction because the underlying truth, the covert truth wasn't being acknowledged.

Mr. BAER: Beirut in 1982, the CIA sat down with the Reagan administration, the chief substation from the region, and said that, if you send the Marines into Beirut, and you force Lebanon to recognize Israel at this juncture, we will get a guerrilla warfare. There will be enormous losses. We were talking to all of the groups, to the Palestinians. We were talking to the Shia. We were talking indirectly to the Iranians, and more than that, we knew what was going on in Damascus, and the CIA was completely ignored, and as you know, this led to the October bombing of the Marines.

GROSS: What would you say about how the Reagan administration handled it? Do you think that they weren't paying attention to the CIA? Did they have information that contradicted your information?

Mr. BAER: No, they didn't have - we provided all the information to the Reagan administration. I mean, for instance, well, they handled it horribly because they went arms for hostages during Iran contra. We knew, and I used to brief Oliver North, and I told them this, that he would meet with the Iranians in Germany. The Iranian that was in charge of the hostages would fly back to Beirut to see the hostages, be sure they were in good health because they knew what they were worth, and I said, we're not dealing with intermediaries here. You were dealing with the terrorist. I mean, we're calling - I hate that word. You are dealing with the people holding the hostages. You are encouraging a radical extremist faction in Iran by going along with this arms for hostages. But the case is that, inside the White House, they will ignore fact for political motivations. It's they, you know, Iran contra was done for reasons other than, you know, what we know to be truth or based on the truth.

GROSS: Why did you want to write this book about Iran?

Mr. BAER: Well, I didn't want to write the book about Iran that I wrote. What I wanted to write was the best and the brightest, how we missed Iran, how we lost it, and my editor called me up and said, you're not David Halberstam, you know. I like you very much, but - and I said you're right. I'm not David Halberstam. And he said, well, take your - you know Iran. You lived on the periphery for all these years. What do you do with it? And I don't want the conventional wisdom. I want to know what an insider looks at when he sees Iran, and this is how the book came about.

It's amazing I spent 30 years researching it, and it took me four months to write it. I mean, it became so obvious as I sat down to write it the way this went. It didn't take a whole lot of thinking once I started, you know, putting the chapters down, and yes, well, this is rather obvious. And this is the kind of reality that I lived in for 30 years, which I would like to convey to people that are actually making policy or sitting in Washington, who perforce, you know, live off soundbites and the rest of it. I mean, that's the way the politics are in Washington. It's no one's fault. It's the way they are.

GROSS: We're recording this interview during an incredible financial meltdown in the United States. Is that a security threat to you, do you think?

Mr. BAER: Well, I think it's a security threat because what you're seeing is the waning of American power. I mean, our financial markets are at risk of not becoming the center of the world. I mean, Iran looks at us as vulnerable. I, myself, am saying how long can we afford the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? I, as an American, would prefer that this money was being spent here. I'd like to get out of both wars very quickly, you know, capture bin - I, frankly, think bin Laden is dead, but capture bin Laden, turn that country over or whatever government there is, and get out. And what we need to do is come home.

Now, the rest of the world is coming to the same conclusion. We have made a mess in Iraq. There's no other way to look at it. You know, if the surge works for the next 20 years, come on, was it worth it going into the country like that spending trillions of dollars? So you're seeing a rift in history. I think the United States will come home, and it better leave the house in the Middle East in order. And we also need to get off Middle Eastern oil, or we cannot spread democracy in the Middle East. It's undoable. They're either going to do it, or they're not going to do it, and we need to come back and find a way, a Manhattan project for alternative energy.

GROSS: Let me just back up a little bit. You slipped in there that you think bin Laden is dead.

Mr. BAER: Of course he's dead.

GROSS: What do you mean, of course?

Mr. BAER: Where is he?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Hiding some place in that no man's land between Afghanistan and Pakistan now.

Mr. BAER: Where are the DVDs? Bin Laden wouldn't dye his hair. I mean, all these things can be manipulated. As you know, voices can be manipulated. We can take this recording, and you could change everything to completely the opposite of what I said. Your technicians can do this. He hasn't shown up. I have taken in the last month a poll of CIA officers who had been on his trail, and what astounded me was not a single one was sure if he was alive or dead. In other words, have no idea. I mean, this man disappeared off the side of the earth. That has never happened before in my years in the CIA, and as long as we're at it, when in history has a country fought a war against another country or another entity where the leader may be dead? Which leads us to the third question, are we fighting the wrong war in Afghanistan and soon in Pakistan? And I've come to the conclusion, we are.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. BAER: There's no definition of victory. We could move in to the tribal areas in Pakistan and take hill by hill and turn over every village and still not find bin Laden, and someone's going to say, which he's moved to Eastern China or Tajikistan or some other neighboring country, and we're not going to know. This could be an eternal war if the goal is to capture this man dead or alive.

GROSS: I regret that we're out of time. Before I let you go, I'm going to ask you to cheer me up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: After all of the kind of bad news you've been delivering.

Mr. BAER: The cheering up is that there is a solution to the Middle East. Olmert gave it this week we can give the West Bank back. We can give East Jerusalem. We can rope in Iran into the state of nations. We just have to open our eyes and see what these people want. Olmert did, so let's do the same thing. And it is - the Middle East is solvable in that sense that we can come home from Afghanistan, and we can come home from Iraq. So I mean, actually, you know, dealing with the facts doesn't sound too pleasant, but at the end of the day, it is the message of hope.

GROSS: Bob Baer, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. BAER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Robert Baer is the author of the new book, "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower." He was a CIA operative from 1976 to 1997.

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