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?