Author and former CIA operative Robert Baer
RB: At its core Iran is a rational state. Every action it takes is well calculated, and rarely does emotion figure in. If, for instance, Iran were to induce Israel or the United States to strike its nuclear facilities, the decision would be made on a pure calculation of power—Iran wants the support of the Muslim world, and there’s no better way to get that support than being attacked by the West.
I think they may end up going through the full course—a trial, conviction, and ultimately clemency by the Supreme Leader or president. Iran is still a country at war, and has been since 1979. The regime is paranoid. Show trials are part of the fabric of life there. But I suspect they will be released when there is a thaw between Iran and the United States. Who knows when that will come?
Oh sure, I miss knowing what’s going on behind the curtain. But I’ve found that good journalists and people like anthropologists, who spend a lot of time in the field, often know as much or even more than most CIA officers. Adrenaline excitement? There’s always ice climbing and taking up surfing at 55.
I think anyone who paid taxes for the invasion of Iraq should be questioning exactly where they stand on the moral continuum. But to answer your question, stealing documents from the Kremlin to find out if the Russians were about to invade Europe never occurred to me as much of a moral dilemma. But then again they may have brain-washed me.
I studied Mandarin Chinese here, part time. Oddly, or maybe not, many of my fellow students were also at Boalt. I was amazed how broadly educated they were and how smart. More to the point, I loved Berkeley and moved back here with my wife and adopted daughter. She’s a Berkeley grad, ex-CIA, who spent her best years in the worst parts of the world, and she too wanted to come back to Berkeley. That must say something.
You wrote in your most recent book, The Devil We Know, that “Iran is complex enough that even the Iranians themselves have trouble understanding their own country.” What do you think is the most critical thing for Americans to grasp about Iran?
As you know, three Berkeley graduates recently stumbled into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan and are now being held by authorities there. What do you think it will take to secure their release?
The movie Syriana was loosely based on your experiences in the CIA, and it painted a pretty vivid picture of a day at the office for George Clooney’s character, Bob Barnes. Do you miss the excitement of your former profession?
You’ve said that case officers are in fact “thieves who steal other countries’ secrets.” What do you say to people who insist that what the CIA does is morally repugnant?
You had a brief stint as a student at Berkeley. Did your time at Cal leave much of an impression on you?