Saturday, 21 February 2009

Book Review: The Devil We Know: Dealing With The New Iranian Superpower, by Robert Baer (2008)

Former CIA agent Robert Baer's third book shines the spotlight on the emergence of Iran as a regional power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. It is one of the most insightful recent examinations of geopolitics in the world's most volatile region.

Baer sharply analyzes the evolution of Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, tracking the transformation of the country from a terrorist-sponsoring exporter of radical Islam to a much more rational nation seeking power through influence.

Baer demonstrates how Iran abandoned terrorist-oriented violence in favour of cause-oriented warfare in order to gain favour and far-reaching influence in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most importantly, among the Palestinian people. By re-focusing the cause of Palestinians as a well-financed strategically winnable war with defined objectives rather than violence for the sake of chaos, Iran has assumed a leadership role in the long-running Palestinian - Israeli conflict, replacing the ineffectual Gulf states in the process.

Baer similarly demonstrates how Iran has gained long-lasting religious, economic and political influence in Iraq, among both the Shi'ites and the Kurds; in Lebanon, where Iranian-backed Hezbollah rose from a single plane-load of individuals to a dramatic political force and regional influence within 20 years; in Afghanistan; and in Syria. The book reveals Iran's willingness to work with groups of various ethnicities and religious beliefs to achieve its regional strategic objectives.

The Devil We Know tracks the rise of Shi'a Islam under Iran's leadership, and the corresponding decline in Sunni Islam. Baer is impressive as he teases out the practical differences between the two main branches of Islam, down to the subtle but critical differences in communication habits and how human sacrifice is viewed.

The book makes it clear that Iran's nuclear ambitions are a side-show, as is the inflammatory rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad, who is the political face of the country but far from the true power-broker.

The book is not without its faults: Baer is guilty of endless repetition of some key concepts and statements; his attempts at drawing metaphors to emphasize some points are often extremely clumsy; and his Epilogue presenting a possible sequential engagement and negotiation strategy between the United States and Iran comes across as rushed and overly simplistic.

But The Devil We Know is otherwise an essential read that makes a compelling case for an almost total reversal of United States policy in the region, from a total shunning of Iran to actively engaging it in order to gain a valuable and savvy ally.

Published in hardcover by Crown Publishers.
262 pages, plus Glossary and Index.

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