Geoff Elliott, Washington correspondent | August 25, 2007
BOB Baer, the former Middle East CIA operative whose first book about his life inspired the oil-and-espionage thriller Syriana, is working on a new book on Iran, but says he was told by senior intelligence officials that he had better get it published in the next couple of months because things could be about to change.
Baer, in an interview with The Weekend Australian, says his contacts in the administration suggest a strategic airstrike on Iran is a real possibility in the months ahead.
"What I'm getting is a sense that their sentiment is they are going to hit the Iranians and not just because of Israel, but due to the fact that Iran is the predominant power in the Gulf and it is hostile and its power is creeping into the Gulf at every level," Baer says.
He says his contacts have told him of his book: "You better hurry up because the thesis is going to change. I told them submission is in January but they said, 'You're probably going to be too late'."
Washington's intelligence community is abuzz about possible military action against Iran, which is being weighed at the highest levels of the Bush administration. While the guessing game has become "will they or won't they?", at least some experienced and trusted intelligence sources have told The Weekend Australian that the possibility of a strike in the next 12 months remains remote.
"The success of a strike is limited and the downside could be enormous," said one source, noting the possibility of a regional conflagration involving the entire Gulf because Iran would look to hit back at the US's strategic interests.
For his part, Baer is not an advocate of a demonstration strike on Tehran and he is scathing of the Bush administration's handling of Middle East policy, as he is of previous administrations, marking 1979, under the Carter administration, as the point in which US policy on Iran went awry.
He agrees with many in the intelligence community in Washington that a strike on Iran could be a disaster and counterproductive to US interests, but he says that the rising level of impatience in the Bush administration over Iran's belligerence on its nuclear program and its destabilising role in Iraq could mean that something snaps.
"In the CIA, they are calling what the Iranians are doing to us in Iraq as the slow cook -- where we get cooked there for the next 10 years and then we give up completely and leave."
But Baer says an emboldened Iran in the event of mass US withdrawal from Iraq "scares the shit out of Saudis, the Bahrainis and all the Arab gulf states". "They are saying: 'What are you going to do now that you've created a mess in Iraq and what are you going to do about Iran?'."
Intelligence sources say military contingency planning on Iran under the Bush administration has been under way since 2003 but the latest speculation has been a surgical strike on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
A case for a strike became more prominent last week when The New York Times reported the Bush administration was preparing to declare the Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organisation.
"If imposed, the declaration would signal a more confrontational turn in the administration's approach to Iran and would be the first time that the United States has added the armed forces of any sovereign government to its list of terrorist organisations," the Times reported.
The Revolutionary Guard is said to be the largest branch of Iran's military.
"While the United States has long labelled Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, a decision to single out the guard would amount to an aggressive new challenge from an American administration that has recently seemed conflicted over whether to take a harder line against Tehran over its nuclear program and what American officials have called its destabilising role in Iraq," the newspaper said.
The Bush administration continues to try to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, pressing the US's allies to apply sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. The State Department and Treasury officials are pushing for sanctions that include an extensive travel ban on senior Iranian officials and further moves to restrict the ability of Iran's financial institutions to do business abroad.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has consistently denied US allegations that Iran was furnishing weapons to both the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq. Two months ago, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the volume of weapons reaching the Taliban from Iran made it "difficult to believe" that the shipments were "taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian Government".
Baer says the Iranians are "masters at using surrogates" and disguising their role in conflicts.
"They are not stupid, they are the least stupid people in the Middle East," he says. "If they are providing the EFPs (explosively formed penetrators), they are not leaving serial numbers, return addresses; it's not the way the world works out there."