Book Review: The Devil We Know by Robert Baer

I listened to the audiobook of The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower (2008) by Robert Baer and I can tell you right now that this isn’t going to be a good review because this book presents such a different understanding of Iran than any other perspective I’ve ever encountered.  Here are the highlights as I understand them:

  • Americans and the West in general have a distorted view of Iran and especially of what Iran wants.
  • Iran is a country that is trying to modernize, participates widely in the internet, and even watches a lot of American television.  They are not like some other Islamic states trying to return to pre-modern times.
  • Iranians desire empire and wish to be recognized as a major player in Middle East politics, perhaps even a superpower.
  • We should not be scared that Iran will build and use nuclear weapons nor that they desire some nihilistic destruction of the west. What Iran actually really does do and what they’re capable of is actually more unsettling if unnoticed by the West.  Iran succeeds through asymetrical tactics and weapons
  • Through proxy wars, Iran has carried out their quest for imperialism throughout the Mid East.  Baer asserts that through Hezbollah, Iran won the first military conflict against Israel in 2000.  Through cunning and strategy Iran has achieved many military goals and won over the support many Muslims even Sunnis & Arabs who traditionally are at odds with the Shiite & Persian Iran.
  • Nations the US currently allies with are weak (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE) or not really states at all just strong armies (Pakistan).  Plus the oil fields in Saudi Arabia are emptying out and Iran’s hegemony has them in position to control the oil supply for the future.
  • In general, Shiite Iran is hierarchical, commands come only from leaders with extensive religious trading, and they carry out their campaigns with specific goals and targets in mind.  Sunni Arabs are not hierarchical, leaders with no religious training give out commands (such as Osama bin Laden), and carry out attacks for slaughter’s sake alone.  Western governments have successfully negotiated peace with Iran because they can not only find someone to negotiate with but because they are open to negotiation.
  • Continuing on the present course will require a huge outlay of money and military force to either contain Iran in a 30+ year Cold War or to actually engage them in battle.  In addition to losing many lives and bankrupting the country, Iran would shut off our supply of oil. Baer does not believe the US populace would stand for any of this.
  • In the end Baer gives several reccomendations for the US to bury it’s pride and recognize Iran as a major power, grant them a role in restoring order to Iraq, and allow nations artificially created after WWI (such as Iraq and Pakistan) to be disolved into smaller states.  Baer believes this realpolitik approach to Iran’s de facto superpower status is are only sensible option.

I obviously know only a little about Iran and the Mid East in general, and Baer seems to be stacking the deck to support his thesis and has certain obvious prejudices (especially against Sunnis/Arabs.  Yet its a compelling argument, and a very nuanced understanding of today’s Iran.  It’s not likely that American politicians will follow any of these suggestions, and perhaps with good reason.  Still it’s an eye-opening account that challenges the accepted wisdom.

Some professional reviews:

Author Baer, Robert.
Title The devil we know [sound recording] : [dealing with the new Iranian superpower] / Robert Baer.
Publication Info. Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2008.
Edition Unabridged.
Description 8 sound discs (ca. 74 min. each) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.