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Ex-CIA agent discusses Iranian superpower -

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Ex-CIA agent discusses Iranian superpower

Broadcast: 18/06/2009

Reporter: Leigh Sales

Former CIA agent Robert Baer is the author of The Devil We Know, dealing with the new Iranian
superpower, joins Lateline.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Robert Bear is a former CIA agent and expert on the Middle East.

He's also the author of 'The devil we know: dealing with the new Iranian superpower' and
incidentally, he was the inspiration for the character played by George Clooney in the film
'Syriana'.

I spoke to Robert Bear earlier today.

Mr Bear, you've written that in Iran "nothing is ever as it seems." What do you mean by that?

ROBERT BEAR, FORMER CIA AGENT: Well, I mean, look - look at the opposition leader is now Mir
Hossein Mousavi. He was involved in blowing up the marines in Beirut in October 1983, and he's
still followed this arc. He's an architect and he's taken this arc and he's gone from essentially a
firebrand radical terrorist if you like into a democrat, moderate leading a revolution.

And this is a revolution that's important from the inside. This is not a revolution like Khomeini's
revolution; this is from the inside. And I'm certain that he is simply the spokesman for a group
inside the regime that is taking on Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.

Mousavi would never have done this with without some sort of backing, otherwise he would have ended
up in jail. Now we've seen the former President Rafsanjani supporting him, we've seen once
Khomeini's success, one time successor, Montazeri, Ayatollah Montazeri, supporting him as well.

So what we're seeing is truly a movement from inside the regime and it has little to do with
Ahmadinejad and Mousavi - they are simply the faces of a serious power struggle in Iran.

LEIGH SALES: You mentioned the world "revolution" in your answer. Do you see this as a revolution?

ROBERT BEAR: More as a rebellion, an internal rebellion against misrule, against Ayatollah
Khamenei. Khamenei's legitimacy has been called into question and it could very much if this
continues over the next couple of weeks look like a revolution. And I'll be frank with you, I did
not predict this, and no one did. You know, this is Iran, it is very unpredictable. And the true
experts on Iran didn't predict this at all either.

LEIGH SALES: How do we know, though, that the protests are broadly representative?

ROBERT BEAR: We don't. A lot of the demonstrators supporting Mousavi are coming from North Tehran.
They're well educated, Westernised, they're wealthier than most Iranians. In fact we don't know
until today - and the CIA doesn't know nor does the US Government - who actually won the elections
by count of vote. Maybe they were rigged, maybe they weren't. It's almost impossible to tell
because Iran is such an opaque country.

LEIGH SALES: How much of an element then of wishful thinking is there in the way that the West is
reading what's going on?

ROBERT BEAR: I think it's wishful thinking. I don't - we don't know who Mousavi is. He's got blood
on his hands, if you like. Has he truly made this arc from revolutionary-slash-terrorist to
moderate democrat? We don't know. We don't know who's truly backing him. Perhaps he's just brought
these people into the street only to turn against them at some point. We simply do not know. Even
Iranian exiles are astounded by events in Iran. They didn't predict this. We really don't know what
we're going to get at the end of this rebellion or revolution, whatever you call it.

LEIGH SALES: Many people are saying that these are the biggest demonstrations since 1979 when the
Shah was overthrown. How do you read the comparisons to 1979?

ROBERT BEAR: I think this is an extraordinary movement. I mean, I've watched this revolution since
1979. I was in Iran in '78/79. I saw the demonstrations and the force of what people can do when
they rebel against their government. I think we are facing a similar situation at this point. But
again I emphasise it's the regime that's cracking and is breaking up into pieces, one opposing the
other. It's not just the people. I think it's this election is more of a spark for the division of
this regime.

LEIGH SALES: So I take it then that you would agree with some of the comments by the former US
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger this week, that Iran is at a turning point?

ROBERT BEAR: I think Kissinger's absolutely right, this is a turning point for Iran. I don't think
Iran's ever going to be the same. It could become much worse, it could become an open military
dictatorship or it could be something closer to a former democracy, which we would recognise. This,
Iran will never be the same, this is a historic event.

ROBERT BEAR: The head of Mossad, Israel's intelligent agency, believes he believes the
demonstrations will simply peter out in a week or so. What's your assessment of where things might
go from here?

ROBERT BEAR: If it's simply university students and a couple of people joining them, and it's
Mousavi's constituency, they will be defeated. But I suspect the fact that Rafsanjani is involved
in this, as well as other clerics, that this is more, this is going to last longer; I don't think
it's going to peter out. The fact that there's a partial recount, the regime lost face in this. And
it could continue. I mean, we see today there's more demonstrations. I mean, it should have petered
out a couple of days ago. We are talking about a police state after all, and the fact they've
defied a police state and defied the Supreme Leader tells me that this could last a lot longer than
most people suspect.

LEIGH SALES: How long do you think the Supreme Leader or the Revolutionary Guard will tolerate this
defiance?

ROBERT BEAR: The problem for the regime now is to really suppress these demonstrations. They would
need to bring out armour in the streets, they would really need to open fire on the crowds and kill
tens of thousands. They are quite aware this is what brought the Shah down, it could make things a
lot worse. But the fact that the Basij which belongs to the Revolutionary Guard was unable to
control this in the first couple of days tells me the Iranians have lost control of this. By all
rights this is a humiliation for Ayatollah Khamenei the Supreme Leader, he should have stopped this
almost immediately and the fact he can't tells me he doesn't know what's going to happen today.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think it was a case of can't, that he couldn't stop it? Or do you think it was
initially that he wouldn't stop, that they chose to allow them to go on for a while?

ROBERT BEAR: Look, they were fairly strict right from the beginning. I mean, they had the riot
police out with all their gear. It started out as fairly small and just grew. And it's the fact
there's crowds in Iran and it's a very rare event, it can get out of control. This happened in '99,
2003, but they very quickly went into the streets, killed some people, and they put an end to this.

But I think the Iranian people are becoming more and more defiant. You know, who knows what they...
Nobody knows where this is going to go, including the regime. I just talked to the State Department
today following this, and they're absolutely bewildered what's happening in Iran, and the Obama
administration does not want this to become a domestic issue, but nobody in the State Department as
of today can predict what's happening.

LEIGH SALES: President Obama has chosen to make only very measured comments on Iran. Why is that?

ROBERT BEAR: I mean, I think the Americans would like to see these democratic forces win at the end
of the day. They would like to see this regime cornered and forced to change, but Barack Obama
knows that if we pick sides in this, that side will be seriously weakened. The Iranians, even the
Democratic ones, even the Liberal ones remember the Mosaddeq coup in 1953 when we changed the Prime
Minister.

They do not want American interference, nobody does, even including Mousavi and he's just denied
there's any American... So Barack Obama, no matter who he's siding with, does not want to look like
we're taking sides, because it's going to hurt that side.

LEIGH SALES: You've said is few times that Iranian expats and analysts didn't see this coming. Why
did it catch people by surprise?

ROBERT BEAR: It's one of those rare - it's one of those rare events, a black swan if you like, that
rarely just comes along. It's spontaneous, nobody planned these demonstrations and the size. It was
anger, just blew up, and it, you know, it's almost like every 30 years this happens in Iran.

But, you know, people have been predicting there's this movement, that it's prerevolutionary in
Iran, but they couldn't offer any real evidence. Now it's happened, it turns out to be right. It's
like a broken clock, is wrong, you know, it's right twice a day.

LEIGH SALES: What do you read into the ejection of the foreign media in the past 24 to 48 hours or
so? It would seem ominous?

ROBERT BEAR: Oh, I think the administration is on its last, you know, it's desperate to stop this,
and certainly does not want this message - look, the Iranians are trying to project - I mean, I
wrote about this - a unified country which is a hegemon in the Gulf, and now it's this weakness in
the regime which is so unexpected.

This is going to affect Iranian influence through Central Asia, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Gulf. This
is a huge embarrassment for the Iranian regime. This is going to set them back years. Any chance of
Iran capitalising on Iraq has been undercut.

LEIGH SALES: Much of the focus has been on what this means for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's leadership.
But tell me more about how the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fits into the picture.

ROBERT BEAR: Well, let's just say that Ahmadinejad rigged the elections, or the ministry of
interior did. He could not have done this without the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei. So ultimately
we see in challenging Ahmadinejad, we see a challenge to Khamenei. Ahmadinejad has been described,
and I think this is accurate, as a spokesman for a group of hardliners, including Khamenei, the
Revolutionary Guard, the secret police.

By bringing down Ahmadinejad, they're bringing down Ayatollah Khamenei. I don't think that Khamenei
could survive a re-election. I think the assembly of experts can remove him. We've seen Rafsanjani
who's on the assembly of experts, leads it, will go after Khamenei. This sign of weakness in Iran
is a loss of face, and a loss of legitimacy.

And we have to remember Khamenei is not truly an Ayatollah. He's in fact an impostor. He does not
have the credentials to be really an Ayatollah. He's an insecure man, he has sat in this position
insecurely all these years, and people have called his bluff. And that's what's really scary for
him, and someone's going to.... You know, you could have another Ayatollah come along saying, "I
should be sitting there." Montazeri, for instance, still wants that job. He was the chosen
successor to Khomeini and he says, "I want it now because Khamenei has failed and he's not a real
Ayatollah." This is the kind of power politics that are going on. Or you may just, the whole
Constitution may fall apart. Again we just cannot predict what's going to happen in this country.

LEIGH SALES: The former US president George Bush very famously described Iran as part of the axis
of evil. How do you perceive the threat posed by Iran?

ROBERT BEAR: Iran stopped being a terrorist state in the '90s, the mid '90s. It's fairly stable.
You just look at this release of Saberi, the American journalist that was - the regime let her out
of jail. It wasn't the court, it was Ahmadinejad. You see a fairer, much more reasonable country
since the mid '90s. It certainly wasn't the axis of evil. I mean, the Bush administration called it
that because of Hezbollah, because of this neo-con philosophy that Hezbollah shouldn't exist,
shouldn't be armed, should be removed from any sort of power in Lebanon.

So it was in the context of the Arab/Israeli context that Bush called it the axis of evil.
Certainly Iran has implicitly helped the United States in Iraq. I mean, it's helped - I mean the
State Department has said quietly enough that it's Iran who has lessened the violence in Iraq. We
thanked Iran essentially. And remember, it was Iran who helped us invade Afghanistan in 2001. It
released its allies to the United States in October 2001, and in 2003 it didn't interfere in the
invasion of Iraq, so we were sort of along the same track. But I mean Bush was simply reflecting
the neo-con influence in Washington.

LEIGH SALES: And it's obviously too early to tell how these developments might affect the strategic
threat that Iran poses?

ROBERT BEAR: If this results in a civil war, if it results in a militant Iran or whatever's going
to come out of it, it's going to be bad news. We need in the Middle East a stable Iran. It is
currently, until today, still is the most stable country in the Middle East in terms of a large
military power that you can talk to, that we can get to the capital. Obviously much more than
Pakistan. The last thing we need is an unstable Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. That would just....
It could ignite the whole area in violence that we could not control.

LEIGH SALES: Robert Bear, many thanks for joining us tonight.

ROBERT BEAR: OK. Bye.