Interview with Former CIA Case Officer Robert Baer

— -- Q: President Bush said today that the ball is now in Iran's court, how do you think the Iranian government will react?

A: The Iranians believe they are winning in Iraq. They now see themselves as an equal with the Unites States in the region. They now have no reason to agree to preconditions imposed by the United States. Iran's Ahmedinajad sees this as a unique opportunity for Shia domination in the Gulf. He does not intend to give up this chance. It's also a classic situation where he thinks that he can use an external enemy to solve problems he faces within Iran, like problems with Sunni Iranians and disenchanted students, and a divided leadership.

Q. Were you surprised by Secretary Rice's announcement yesterday to change US policy and do you think it will work?

A. My new book "Blow The House" down is loosely based on Ahmedinajad. Those of us who have followed his career know he is a person who has in the past and will again take on the US. He's a formidable opponent. In order to employ military force against him we definitely will need the assent of the international community, especially Russia and China, who right now do not want war. In fact, the Bush Administration would prefer economic sanctions doing the job.

Q. Will sanctions work?

A. Probably not. If we understand Ahmedinajad, he welcomes a confrontation. He is feeling supremely confident he could win it. He wants to right Shiite grievances that go back hundreds of years.

Q. What do you think will happen next?

A. Look, the Israelis are coming to us and saying that they are vulnerable. Iran can hit Israel with a Shahab missile -- one day armed with a nuclear warhead -- and destroy Tel Aviv. The Israelis are saying that they will take care of Iran if the US does not. This would be worse than an international coalition taking care of the problem. I don't know for sure what Bush will do. But there are many smart people in DC who say that armed conflict is inevitable. As for the Arab states, they are saying the current Iranian regime has to be decapitated. An Arab head of state told me last week that Ahmedinajad has directly threatened to destroy Arab governments' oil supply and facilities in retaliation for a U.S. strike.

Q. This all sounds too bad to be true… you agree with Sy Hersh then that an attack on Iran is quite possible?

A. If we destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities in the Elburz mountains, Iran will disrupt oil supply in the Gulf. The US will then be face with oil as high as $300 a barrel, will need to send a lot more troops in the region, including into Iraq. This is a nightmare scenario yes, but it's not that far fetched. Again, Ahmedinajad would prefer to get what he wants without a conflict but if he can't he's ready for one. Some think he would even prefer war to peace. The same goes for Bush. In spite of the certain blowback, he does not intend to appease Iran. It's a situation almost like 1914 -- no one will come out of this undamaged. Yes I do think Sy Hersh is right.

Q. It sounds like you are saying the US wants peace and Iran wants war.

A. Look at it this way: Iran wants to be recognized as a pre eminent power, and wants the US out of the way -- out of the Middle East. It wants the destruction of Israel. These are demands of course the U.S will never accept. There's this logic of war that worries me. I worry about Ahmedinejad's sanity. When Ahmedinajad denies the holocaust its more than propaganda. He is an apocalyptic Shiite who believes in a final bloody, struggle the way some evangelical Christians do.

Q. Where is the hope then?

A. The only hope is in that the Iranian clerics will make Ahmedinajad stand down, maybe some saner political forces will take over.

Q. Can the US help facilitate regime change in Iran?

A. I cannot put a percentage on it. I'm not sure what's happening in the street in that country. And I am skeptical about how much any of the experts on Iran know what is really going on there. Ahmedinajad came out of nowhere, at least for most experts. Also, neither the experts nor the US government know precisely how much control Ahmedinajad really has over Iran. They do know that his power base in the south of the country is very strong. Through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps he can rely on an almost parallel government.

In effect, we are as blind in Iran as we were in Iraq.

Q. This all sounds very bad for the U.S.

A. It is. Very few foresaw we'd end up in this situation after invading Iraq. Although we should have seen that by putting the Shiites in charge of the Iraqi government we would rekindle Shiite chauvinism. Anyhow, the Shiites have never been as dominant in the region as they are now.

Q. Do you think the US would alienate itself even more from the so-called Muslim world if it attacked Iran?

A. Sunni look at the attack on Iraq as an attack on Sunni Islam. The Shiites would look at an attack on Iran as an attack on all Shiites -- in effect we would be at war with all Muslims. The skeptics say Ahmedinajad is blufffing, he cannot influence the Arab street But what if Ahmedinajad is right?

Q. If the US removed Ahmedinajad do you think there would be a power vacuum of the sort we saw in Iraq after Saddam?

A. There could be civil war in Iran, but it's the same problems as with Iraq, we just don't know. In Iraq the Neocons said that they could push Iraq down a democratic path but they didn't. They gave us a civil war instead. America does not have anybody in Iran to tell us the situation on the ground, besides a few journalists going on and out. It's a black hole.