Meeting The Growing Threat of Iran

With all the straws in the wind about a new U.S. approach toward Iran, a former spy's experiences in that country may be just what our new administration needs to hear. Our Cover Story is reported by Kimberly Dozier:
Where do old spies go to retire? Robert Baer came to Berkeley, California.

For 21 years Baer was one of the CIA's top undercover agents. In fact, so was his wife, Dayna.

"This is a really nice suburban setting," Dozier told them. "I'm having trouble picturing you both [as] spies."

"Yeah, we were," Bob Baer said. "We met in Sarajevo. We were in counter-terrorism."

While Bob did the spying, Dayna was his "shooter," watching over him with a loaded gun in case of trouble.

"I supported some of the things that he was doing," Dayne told Dozier.

"Now what does that mean? He said you were a 'shooter."

"I probably can't say," she laughed.

They left the CIA more than a decade ago, trading the car chases and shootouts for domestic bliss, California-style. Last year, they adopted a little girl from their old stomping grounds in Pakistan. They've named her Khyber.

Should be enough, right? Not quite yet. Bob Baer is still a man on a mission.

He spent much of his time as a spy in a deadly cat and mouse game with Iran, and he decided to put lessons learned into a new book, "The Devil We Know" (Random House) - lessons he hopes the new American president will heed.

"Iran is the third rail of international relations," said Baer (left). "You know, it helped Carter lose his presidency, and almost took Reagan down. It took me 15 years to begin to decode the Middle East, and that's living there, constantly. And only then, did I start to figure things out."

What he's figured out is that the time has come for a radical shift in policy. Iran is too smart and dangerous an adversary, he says, to remain our enemy.

"Iran took American hostages, Iran has backed terrorist attacks on American targets - you're saying, 'See them as a constructive force'?" Dozier asked.

"I liken this paradigm shift to China," Baer said. "In the end of the '60s, China was going through the Cultural Revolution. Mao Tse-Tung was one of our worst enemies. Yet, Kissinger and Nixon saw the opportunity to change this power around. We sat down, and we talked with them … and it worked."

Baer believes Iran is not what it seems on TV - an unpredictable, extremist country driven by religious frenzy.

He sees a smart, calculating leadership that presents one face to the world, while working through powerful proxies behind the scenes.

He should know - he was trained to do the same thing, living two different lives (or more) for two decades.

"I mean, you got to the point where you just lied all the time," he explained.

"How did you keep the stories straight?" Dozier asked.

"Oh, you get very good at it," he said. "If you lie from the time you get up in the morning until the time you go to bed, you'll get very good at it. And especially if you're doing it for your country."

While attending U.C. Berkeley in 1976, Baer applied to the CIA on a lark. Before he knew it, he was learning to build bombs.

"We can go to the hardware store now, and by noon we can blow up a BART train," he said. "I can show you how to do that."

"We could make a bomb before lunchtime and blow up the commuter train?" Dozier asked.

"Yeah. Oh, absolutely, I guarantee you we could. I could make sure it would go off, too. No battery failure."

Baer was stationed in India, Sarajevo, Lebanon … and Iraq. "I spent time in Iraq in the middle '90s as the chief of station in the north."

"You recommended to President Clinton that he should take out Saddam."

"Oh, absolutely. I mean, I thought the problem in Iraq was Saddam and his sons. They were pathological murderers."

He left the CIA with distinction in 1997, but only after being investigated … for murder.

"What happened was, because of Iraq, because of trying to kill Saddam, I was investigated, and my entire team, by the FBI," he said. "It was miscommunication in Washington because the CIA forgot to tell the White House."

"Did you try to kill Saddam?" Dozier asked.

"Within the parameters I was allowed, that's as far as I can say."

"So you were accused of murder for trying to kill Saddam Hussein when
you were under orders."

"Yes. I was under orders. No laws were violated."

Back in the States, he found coming in from the cold wasn't going to be easy.

"When you come back from a trip, you like to sit down with your friends, your slide shows, and say, 'This is what we did.' You can't very well sit down with your neighbors and say, 'Oh yeah, you know, my partner got ambushed, shot with a machine gun.'"

So he put his stories down in print, and his autobiography became the basis for the 2005 Oscar-winning film "Syriana." Baer's role was played by George Clooney. Baer even had a small part in the film.

"George Clooney's in the wheelchair and he's obviously been tortured," Baer said. "And I'm the guy that's looking very serious, and say, 'I don't really care about, you know, losing your nails. You're in trouble.'"

"Did that ever happen to you?"


"Did you ever have to do that to anyone else?" Dozier asked.

"Pull nails out?"


"No, no, no, no."

His next project was a series of documentaries, tracing the history of the suicide bomber (what Baer calls the most significant weapon of our generation).

Much of it was filmed inside Iran, the country Baer says started it all.

He blames Iran for the deadly 1983 bombings in Lebanon, of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks.

"When I was last here more than 25 years ago, Iran was one of the United States' greatest allies in the region," Baer says in the film. "Now it is one of our greatest enemies."

It was while filming the documentary that Baer realized something big was happening.

"My social contacts are all in the Middle East. And they told me they're terrified of Iran - not the Iran we see, but the Iran they see. They see a new Iranian empire."

Baer believes that while removing Saddam Hussein from power was necessary, the Iraq War was bungled.

"You're saying the way the U.S. invaded Iraq has been a gift to Iran," Dozier said.

"It's been totally a gift to Iran, because Saddam and his regime were a dam against Iranian influence, and it was a very effective dam. They fought a war for eight years, and they stopped the Iranians. And the Iranians were terrified of setting foot in Iraq under the old system."

"And now?"

"We destroyed that old system, and we've opened it up to Iranian influence. And they're going to infiltrate."

And Iran is poised, and eager, Baer says, to spread that influence from Iraq throughout the Middle East.

"Iran uses proxies," Baer said. "This is empire by proxy. It's like communism: You get people to go along with you, in your vision of the world. And they're saying, you know, 'We can finally drive the United States out of the Middle East.'"

Unless, Baer says, we give President Ahmadinejad and his religious backers what they want.

"First of all, they want to be recognized as a major power in the Gulf," Baer said, "by the United States, by the Europeans. They want be deferred to on big issues, like Iraq and Afghanistan, issues that directly affect them."

"But in a sense, wouldn't the U.S., wouldn't Europe be rewarding them for bad behavior?" Dozier asked.

"We would be. But does it matter? We have to be pragmatic about this."

As he revealed in his press conference last Monday, President Obama seems to be considering his options:

"My national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them," he said.

If we don't negotiate, Baer worries, the United States may find itself in yet another war we can't afford to fight.

"Do we really want to take down the most powerful country in the Middle East?" Baer asked. "I mean, we've just taken down Iraq, the second most powerful country, and it hasn't done a bit of good for anybody in the region. It's a mess and it's going to remain a mess.

"Let's talk 'em back into the game of nations."

It's a provocative idea from a man who's led a provocative life … one who knows how dangerous the world can be, from the inside-out, and is still trying to change it.

For more info:

  • "The Devil We Know" (Random House), with an excerpt
  • "See No Evil" (Random House), with an excerpt