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I listened (and kinda watched) Robert Baer’s presentation in front of the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, found below. Baer, a former CIA agent and author of ‘The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower‘, is an astute and seasoned veteran of US-Iran relations. He is a strong believer that the US must look past President Ahmadinejad’s erratic behavior and focus on the real center of Iran’s power, Ayatollah Khamenei, who he sees as a rational political being. Baer extends his argument by asserting that the Shia of the Middle East are overall more predictable and rational than their Sunni brethren. In any case, the main point from Baer is that the US can and should negotiate the Iranian state.

The debate over whether the Islamic Republic of Iran is a rational state like all others in the international system is an important one with obvious implications. I have covered the issue at least twice in my academic career, writing a paper that argued Iran should be considered a normal state (Iran: Welcome to the Nuclear Family), and one that argues the opposite (Iran’s Continuous Revolution). In the first paper, I argued that a nuclear armed Iran would act rationally like other states armed with such a destructive weapon, cautiously. The second paper argued that ever since the 1979 Islamic-controlled revolution the state has been led by leaders who have in many ways gone against international norms and followed irrational foreign policies.

I think Bush looked at the Iranian regime the way my second paper did, as a state that would not follow the rules and couldn’t be dealt with directly. Judging by Obama’s early rhetoric and call for direct negotiations, one has to think he believes the country’s leaders are rational and in turn can be diplomatic partners. Though contrary to most accounts, the Bush administration did at times ‘talk’ with Iranian counterparts, but usually only on low levels. The past administration also joined the Europeans in making the Iranian state several decent offers to stop enriching uranium, but without success or really even any signs of progress. Obama has led one to believe he will take a more forward approach to the Iranian regime, but exactly how still remains to be seen. I doubt Obama himself will head to Tehran any time soon, but one can see him sending Sec of State Clinton to meet with Iran’s equally prominent Foreign Minister at a neutral site in Europe some where.

The Obama administration’s progress in terms of US-Iran negotiations (besides the nuclear issue, Iran is an important player in Afghanistan and Iraq’s present and future) will largely depend on reciprocal diplomatic advancements from the Ayatollah, and that is where the previous argument comes back into play. What drives Ayatollah Khamenei and his partners? Do they seek to spread their version of Shia Islam across the Middle East, destroy Israel, and battle the ‘Great Satan’ United States as long it exists? Or is the state just following pragmatic policies that strengthen it at home and abroad?

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3 comments so far


I seem to remember a CIA report disabusing the world of the notion that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons. Indeed, they have done more than is required by their signing of the nuclear nonproliferation agreement.
der Spiegel was the first to contest accounts of Ahmadinejad’s statments. Regardless of the fact I agree he is of minor importance,it is interesting disinformation was applied strenuously – and sanctions also – to achieve fictitious ends.
We know that tune.Here’s some alternative translation work, my Persian being nonexistant

Neighbouring countries support Iranian efforts to secure fuel for power geenration. Russia has warned an attack on Iran will be treated like an attack on Russia itself.
Nice. The ‘threat’ of a country which might develop nukes in ten years against that of one armed with lots of nukes MIRVed on ICBMs.
Boy, that’s a tough comparative threat assessment.

February 2nd, 2009 at 4:10 pm

I think, Professor Frost, that your analysis of Obama’s willingness to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran is correct. From my perspective, talking is a good thing. I’m not sure how much Obama actually expects from these efforts but he seems willing to at least try. If something good comes of it, wonderful, if not, then there are other actions that he has at his disposal to further U.S. security needs. Hopefully some type of reciprocity will emerge.

February 3rd, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Opit, I agree that neighboring countries probably do support Iran’s nuclear power generation rights, but they definitely do not support an Iran nuclear weapon. Yes, the latest released CIA report stated that Iran stopped building a nuclear weapon plan a couple years back, but one would have to be naive to not think they are still moving closer and closer to becoming a nuclear state. They already possess intermediate long range missiles, which could hit Israel and parts of Europe, and though I’m not a missile/nuke expert, I believe it is not difficult for them to marry their uranium enrichment program to these weapons. The Japanese have a strong and advanced nuclear program and it is widely known that they could transform this into a weapons program very quickly. In a year or two, Iran may have a similar capability. Regarding, Russia protecting Iran if attacked by the US, that’s complete nonsense. Russia doesn’t want Iran to have nukes just as much as the US doesn’t. Though Moscow is also loath to have the US destabilize the region further by an attack. Thanks for the link, very useful.

Micraig, my astute student, I to hope for diplomatic progress to be made between Obama and Iran regarding the nuclear program, but time is short. Even more importantly, it is on Iran’s side. Iran has had some nice offers on the table and rejected all of them. Maybe Obama offers full diplomatic recognition and promises no military action and this moves things along, but even then I would question whether it would be enough. An important aspect of this is whether Obama really views an Iran with nukes as untenable. That is he views them as a major destabilizing force that will strongly challenge the US with the weapon. I tend to think that Obama thinks of Iran’s regime as a rational actor and therefore does not fear a nuke-armed Iran with as much fear as the previous administration. If Obama does in fact view Khamenei this way, than it will obviously affect his policy towards to the state in the coming months and years.

February 3rd, 2009 at 2:26 pm