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... Maybe you could paint me a political picture of Lebanon in the 1980s, when you first got there. What was happening?

When I first went to Lebanon, it was in December 1982. A seminal event had occurred about six months before I got there, and that was the kidnapping of three Iranian diplomats, the charge d'affaires, and a Lebanese translator. They were murdered and they were buried in a Lebanese forces parking lot -- that's the Christian Lebanese forces -- in a part of Beirut. What we didn't realize as Americans, because we didn't understand Iran, is we were going to get blamed for that kidnapping.

The way it went down is the Iranians assumed, since the Lebanese Christian forces were our allies and the allies of Israel, that we had to be responsible for those kidnappings and the murders later. ... Even though we knew nothing about it -- the CIA didn't know about it, American government didn't know about it, we ourselves were asking what happened to these people -- for the Iranians, it was a key event which for them broke the contract.

So they started kidnapping, and shortly after that they kidnapped David Dodge, the acting president of the American University of Beirut and took him to Tehran. They got caught. We found out about it. We went to the Syrians; the Syrians forced his release. After [Dodge] was released, the Iranians then arranged to use surrogates in order to have plausible denial. ... They used the Hezbollah, a group in Hezbollah, to kidnap hostages.

Why do you think the Iranians were taken and killed?

Maybe it was for robbery. We don't know. We're not sure. ...

Robert Baer was a CIA case officer in the Directorate of Operations from 1976 to 1997, where he served in Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Lebanon. He is the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (Crown Publishers, 2002). Here, Baer says that there is evidence linking Iran to attacks on American interests, including the Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 U.S. soldiers in 1996. He says that Iran has been mishandled by U.S. diplomats since the 1980s and that American foreign policy regarding the Islamic Republic is based on myths and misinformation. Baer was interviewed by FRONTLINE producer Neil Docherty on March 22, 2002.

How, at that time, are the Iranians looking at the world?

First of all, you've got to look at the 6 June invasion of Lebanon. The Israelis came across the border because of an Abu Nidal assassination attempt in London. For the Iranians, it looked as a pretext for Israel to attack an Islamic country, and they looked at Lebanon as an Islamic country, or a country that should be an Islamic country. So they looked at this as Israeli aggression, but backed by the United States. They simply do not believe that Israel invaded Lebanon without a green light from Washington. I don't know about a green light. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn't. But the point is, the Iranians held us responsible.

... [Then the kidnapping of] these three Iranian diplomats. Not only did they kidnap three Iranian diplomats, but the charge d'affaires ... is very close to [then-President] Rafsanjani. They're almost related. ... He takes it personally. The Iranian government holds the Lebanese forces and the United States responsible.

So you have these two events. And Iran says, "All right, we're at war. Undeclared war, but nonetheless we're at war." Their objective at that point is to drive the Americans out of Lebanon.

The first embassy bombing [in April 1983] I think they were involved in; the Marine [barracks] bombing in October 1983; September 1984, the second embassy bombing. And you know what? The Americans [then] leave. This is a successful policy for them [the bombers]. And what comes in place [after that]? Hezbollah is found in 1985. It's an alternative to the Lebanese government; it's an Islamic party. It mirrors the government in Tehran. ... And then you add on to this that Hezbollah drives Israel out of Lebanon, the first victory against the Israelis ever.

So what we have today, if you want to expand this analysis, [is] Hamas, the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Gaza carrying out war successfully against Sharon. And the Iranians back in Tehran say, "We're winning. This is the way you fight a war. This is how you defeat F-16s, this is how you defeat aircraft carriers. We beat the United States, we beat the Israelis in Lebanon, and we're going to beat 'em in Palestine."

This is a strong message. I don't care how secular Iran becomes. They still look at the United States, Britain, and France as colonizing powers, and this is the final war ending colonization in the Middle East, using Islam. So for the Iranians, it's very, very logical. We as Americans say, "Well, it's not. We were peacekeepers in Lebanon." They don't look at it that way. Or as Americans, we say, "You can't kidnap innocent people, journalists, priests, people like that. It's wrong." They look at it differently. It's a war of civilizations for them. And it was very successful, frankly, and cheap.

Right. And what about Iranian fingerprints on Hezbollah? What is the evidence that Iran influenced Hezbollah?

Well, we know they influenced Hezbollah because they accept Khomeini and Khamenei as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, [not Sheik] Fadlallah. Fadlallah is the senior cleric in Lebanon, but he was not the main impetus of Hezbollah. It was Iran. I mean, it's acknowledged; it's public that the religious authority is found in Qom in Iran, and the Iranian clerics. It's a very hierarchical religion.

The fingerprints on Iran in terrorism? There are a few of them. The Marines [bombing of the Marine barracks in October 1983], kidnapping of Charlie Glass, the American journalist, the death of Bill Buckley [the CIA station chief who was kidnapped in March 1984] , the fact that Dodge, the American University of Beirut acting president, was held in Iran in a prison, kidnapped by the Pasdaran [Iran's Revolutionary Guards].

The evidence is there. The fact that Father [Martin] Jenco saw Iranians deliver food to the place he was held in the Bekaa Valley, that was in 1984, I think. The evidence is just there. I mean, it's incontrovertible when you have a hostage seeing the people, you're watching this stuff by satellite, and you've got this intelligence information. And I think the only people that would deny this are people who haven't really followed the issue, or just made up their minds otherwise.

Or Iran itself -- it certainly claims it doesn't [and] won't sponsor terrorism.

The fact is, in 1984 and 1985, they were in control of the Sheik Abdullah Barracks in Baalbek. I saw with my own eyes, journalists saw with their own eyes, that the Pasdaran was guarding the places where the hostages were held. When [Jerry] Levin escaped, he escaped out of one of the buildings at the Sheik Abdullah barracks. They saw the Iranians deliver the food. It's just denying reality. The Iranians can't say, "We didn't know anything about it." It's crazy.

Fast-forwarding to today, what's your impression or your knowledge about their support for Islamic Jihad?

Early in the 1990s, they supported it. They provided training, weapons in the Bekaa Valley, supported morally. They've stated publicly they support these guys, the Qods force, which is part of the Pasdaran.

What they're doing today, I don't know. The Israelis claim that an agreement was made between Arafat and the Pasdaran in Moscow six months ago. I don't know. ... I don't trust the Israelis. They're in the middle of this fight. I no longer do intelligence. I have no way to measure the facts from propaganda. I think the Israelis would know. But are they going to tell us the truth? Who knows?

What about Buckley? Can you expand a little on what happened -- why he was taken, and what happened to him?

Buckley, the Iranians knew who he was. When he would go to the airport at Beirut International Airport and send visitors to the United States with intelligence connections, it was very clear. He lived in one apartment, always wore a suit, always meticulously dressed, always left at the same time. For the Iranians or their surrogates, the token surrogates who took him, he was a very attractive target.

You could get the ambassador; it would be great for the Iranians, but he was too hard to get. He had protection and an armored car. Buckley didn't. He was held for a while in Beirut and taken to the Sheik Abdullah Barracks where he was held. The winter of, I believe it was 1984-1985, he caught pneumonia. He'd been really roughed up, beaten up, tortured during interrogation. Combination of pneumonia and torture; his whole system collapsed, and he died in captivity.

Doesn't do much for Iran-American relations, does it?

No. Well, I mean, the Iranians have their case of the shah, the overthrow of [nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad] Mossadeq, the corruption of American companies and bribing people in Iran, our feting the shah, overlooking human rights violations. It was during the Cold War. And the Iranians say, "Well, so what if it was during the Cold War? You supported the dictator, you kept him in power." Washington's argument's going to be, "Well, we didn't keep him power. He was the Shah of Iran. He was there before we ever got involved. Iranians kept him in power because they tolerated his behavior."

Iran - if it feels it's backed into the corner, it's at war again with the United States - will resort to terrorism, because the people who were involved [in terrorism before] are still in Iran. They're free. There are cases for both sides. I have my own feelings, you know. I just don't think that you should attack innocents, like the World Trade Center. It's not the Western way. But my opinions are irrelevant in this. We have to look at it from the Iranian standpoint, why they did [the things they did] ... and what they want. ...

In the Middle East, it's about a people, the Arabs and the Iranians, who feel humiliated from the 19th century. It's got nothing to do with the United States. But all of a sudden in 1948, the United States inherited all these colonial problems. It inherited the Gulf from Britain in 1970. But we weren't capable of managing an empire in the Middle East. It's just not the American way. So we tweaked something here, send money, send troops.

And now we're dealing it militarily, which you can't solve this problem [militarily]. ... Afghanistan's been a failure so far. ... [W]e are gradually moving into a war unconsciously against Islam -- which you don't want to do. There's just too many people, there's too many countries. They own the oil, most of the world's oil resources, and hope we sidestep this.

But it's not because of the ill will of the White House, the State Department, or the CIA. It's a basic misunderstanding of what's happening in the Middle East, and it doesn't have to do with Democrats or Republicans. And one side is support for Israel -- that's the way [others] perceive it. ...

And how important is Israel in American foreign policy?

It's extremely important. But it's because we look at Israel as a democracy, one. ... And the Holocaust is very important in the American conscience, political conscience. It's a gut reaction. We support Israel for those two reasons, the Holocaust and democracy.

And Americans say, "Why can't the Arabs see this?" The Arabs, on the other hand, are saying, "We're not responsible for the Holocaust. We protected the Jews during the Second World War. They fled there. We didn't bother them. They are the ones that set up a country."

And then the more radicalized [the] Muslims become, the more they look at [Israel] as a colonial appendage of the United States that is meant to oppress them. The terms of their dialogue are being degraded by the day, too. And so [you get] these people that ran the airplanes into the World Trade Center, saying, "The West is hostile to us, and we've got to fight it."

But at the moment, we're talking war on terror.

Well, that's a mistake, because yes, it is war on terror. But we are going to need the Muslims to fight this war on terror. We need Saudi Arabia; we need to make Saudi Arabia feel comfortable. We need Saudi Arabia to go back to its schools and reform them and stop preaching jihad. We need Saudi Arabia to join the 21st century, give jobs to these people equally, and cut back on the corruption ... start giving these people in the south, Asir province, where the suicide bombers came from, a stake in life. But we can't do it with bombs. ...

And how important [is] Hezbollah? ...

It's extremely important. Hezbollah's divided into many parties. There's the Islamic Resistance in the south, which beat the Israelis. They attacked the Israeli army. They defeated the Israeli army on Lebanese soil. I do not know how we can describe that other than a national liberation movement.

I don't agree that Hezbollah itself is a terrorist organization. It delivers powdered milk; it takes care of people. It's a social organization; it's a political organization. It fights corruption.

Then there's the Islamic Resistance, which is an army, which is a guerrilla force, fighting for control of its own country. And then, under the Hezbollah umbrella, was the Islamic Jihad, which I call their special security, which was controlled by Iran, which carried out terrorism against the West. And you can paint Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. You can do that for political reasons, but strictly speaking, it is many things. Just as [with] the IRA, you got Sinn Fein and you've got the real IRA, which is conducting terrorism.

And is the distinction important?

It's very important.


Well, I mean if you're going to retaliate against terrorism -- what we call terrorism, [which is] the attacking of innocent people for political motives, not liberating your own country -- we have to distinguish the two groups. Fadlallah is not a terrorist. ... He was a spiritual leader in his organization. ... We can't label him a terrorist and fight Hezbollah as an organization in its entirety. We have to isolate the murderers and fight them.

But when [Hezbollah] was taking American hostages...

It wasn't Hezbollah; it was the Islamic Jihad organization which was taking [hostages]. It was a very distinct organization, which was separate from Hezbollah because you had the consultative council which only had a vague idea of what the hostage-takers were doing. The hostage-takers were taking orders from Iran. Hezbollah itself does not care about American citizens running around Lebanon, as it doesn't care today. I mean, as an ex-CIA officer, I can go see Hezbollah, I can talk to them. They don't care. ...

But explain that there is actually a different management structure here [that] we're talking [about]?

Absolutely. And it's very clear that special security in Hezbollah took its orders for all the important years from the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [in Iran]. Hezbollah itself accepted money and spiritual leadership from Iran, but it had nothing to do with terrorism. Ninety-nine percent of Hezbollah, people in Hezbollah, know nothing about it. They don't have the slightest idea how it works, who's behind it -- the Iranian role. And that nuance, I think, is missed in Washington today.

I think it's a mistake in U.S. foreign policy, first of all, to paint Islam as an enemy, because you get dragged into a cultural war which we can't win. You have to isolate the people who really do sponsor mass murder or kidnappings or individual murders of people, that are killing Americans in Kuwait today, that flew the airplanes in. Those are isolated individuals which don't have anything to do with Islam in general. Same way in Hezbollah. It's a small group of people kidnapping, murdering. But Hezbollah itself is not a terrorist organization.

And what about Iran? In that context, how worried should we be about Iran?

Well, if you drive Iran into the corner, Iran has the means to retaliate all it wants. ... Iran -- if it feels it's backed into the corner, it's at war again with the United States -- will resort to terrorism, because the people who were involved are still in Iran. They're free. They don't agree with the policies, [with] the way Iran's going now. They think there should be more attacks against Americans. Where they're going to be depends on how we treat them.

In that context, how did you respond to the State of the Union address and the "axis of evil" speech?

Well, that's American politics. I think the United States has no intention of attacking Iran or provoking Iran. ...

But was it a wise selection of words?

I think Iran has been mishandled by the United States since the 1980s, since 1979. We should have determined responsibility for taking over that embassy. It was an act of war, and we should have responded accordingly. By not responding to taking over that embassy in a graduated fashion, by that dumb hostage rescue thing, by not responding to that, we only encouraged people who advocated terrorism in Iran. And it wasn't the whole country that did [advocated terrorism].

We should have dealt with that, nation to nation, state to state. They violated sovereign law of the United States. So it's a series of mistakes. But now, to paint Iran as this evil country, we don't know what's going to happen, because we don't know what's happening in Iran. Will this encourage the moderates to change Iranian policy? I don't know. ...

Do you feel America doesn't know Iran?

No, it doesn't know anything about it. Doesn't know anything about it. I have seen no dialogue in this country, in the press, or in academia to suggest to me that we really know what's going on in Iran. We are dealing with myths, misinformation, a press that has no idea. It boils down to women's rights or wishful thinking about Khatami or misperceptions.

As a professional intelligence person, how would you rate American intelligence in Iran?

It's lousy ... because we don't have any people in Iran. You really need people on the ground in a country to give you ground truth. You complement that with other intelligence from other countries, from technical intelligence, and you can get a good picture. But once you don't have people on the ground, you really lose track of what's happening in a country.

I mean, North Korea has always been a black hole for us, because we don't have people there. We don't have people talking to the North Koreans. You have to hear people complain about the price of milk, you have to hear people. How do they view the United States? It's very important to get a feel for a country. I mean, I lost track of the United States because I was gone for so many years, and I'm an American. ...

Tell me about [Imad Mughniyah] and his importance.

He's very important but there's certain myths about him -- that he's running the whole thing, he's the master. There are no master terrorists. They're just a whole group of people. He's very effective, very efficient. He runs commando-style operations. He's got incredible security. He can tap people, go where he wants, change IDs. He was involved in many kidnappings. I'm not sure he was involved in the first embassy bombing; he probably was, but I know that from inference. It's very hard to pin these people down, because it takes patience. But anyhow, Mughniyah is very important. He's an important player, is involved in all sorts of terrorism operations.

What's his relationship to Iran?

He was paid by Iran. He had direct connection with a couple of Iranians. ... He was recruited in the Islamic Jihad movement in 1982-1983, like that, and agreed to carry out operations against United States. He's a believer, undoubtedly. But most of all, he's very effective. He can compartment[alize] operations, he's got people that are loyal. He's ruthless and he's ready to lose people. He's ready for himself to die, too, which makes him a formidable opponent. ...

Mughniyah is a professional terrorist. I've never heard an explanation [of] what really makes the guy tick. But it was very clear to us in the 1980s that he took his orders directly from [Iran's] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. ... He was paid by them, he took orders, he put out communiqués. Occasionally he would do things on his own, when he'd get angry about something. He was an independent player. He was probably a nightmare to run for the Iranians, but he carried out their orders. And I don't think there's anybody in the American intelligence community [who] would disagree with that. ...

What do you do with Iran when you're posturing against Iraq, when it's likely you may be taking some action against Iraq? If you're a CIA intelligence expert in the region, you must be getting a little worried about how we handle all this.

... What you have to do is put yourself in the position of the Iranians. ... An invasion of Iraq is going to cause resentment in the Islamic world, which is going to help the radicals in Tehran, who are going to say, "Listen, we told you all along. It's the United States against Islam. Stop this reformist stuff and let's liberate Jerusalem." ...

What about the Iran-Iraq war and America's position on that? How important is that?

It's very important. Iraq was under threat. The Reagan administration knew that if Iraq was overrun by Iran, there'd be total chaos in the Gulf. We provided help to Iraq during the war -- material help and information help -- which was extremely helpful to the Iraqis. The problem is, it built up resentment in Iran because the radicals said, "Look, they've always been against us. We've got to stop this." ...

What are the current links, do you think, between Iran and terrorism? How would you characterize or summarize it currently?

... Last thing I saw before I left the CIA was this intention to set up a relationship with bin Laden. There was a meeting which occurred in July 1996 in Afghanistan, where the Iranians went in to propose a strategic comprehensive alliance against the United States. And what that involved, whether it came to fruition or not, I don't know. In 1996, that was their intention. And that after that, anything I have to say is pure speculation. ...

Iran and the Taliban were not friends, right?

In the Middle East, my enemy's enemy is my friend. Just don't ever forget that rule. ...

[But] other than what you've said, we haven't really heard of any direct links with Al Qaeda. I guess the last one was they were letting some [Al Qaeda fugitives] escape into Iran. But we're not suggesting that Iran's fingerprints were on Sept. 11.

No. How would we ever know, though? Again, put yourself in the position of the Iranians, or an Iranian. Maybe not Iran as a state, maybe it's an individual Iranian that's carrying on this war. Would you convey these by telephone, by Internet, a decision to participate in Sept. 11? It's done orally, face to face, probably outside, so there's no room audio.

So we'll never know. It's just one of those questions we'll never know because the people involved will never talk. They don't keep a record of it. They don't need to submit receipts on their tax forms at the end of the year. We'll just never know. ...

And take me back to Khobar Towers. What do we know about Khobar Towers and Iran?

We know Iran was involved. We know Iran trained, gave alias passports, helped provide surveillance of American facilities in Saudi Arabia, and that Khomeini gave a fatwa to blow up Khobar. This has been acknowledged in the indictment, it's been acknowledged by Louis Freeh in The New Yorker.

Saudi Arabia didn't want to look too closely into it, because at that point, there was a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and they certainly didn't want to indict Iran. It was another terrorism attack that was passed over. It was overlooked because we didn't want to do anything against Iran.

Iran is the third rail of American foreign policy in the world. Brought down Jimmy Carter, Iranian crisis, and almost brought down Reagan, almost, close, with Iran-Contra. So every president since then says, "Iran is bad, but we're not going to do anything about it. It's a sleeping dog, don't wake it up."

And along comes the latest president, George W. [Bush], and he strongly intimates we are going to do something about it, this evil empire.

What can we do about it? We can only cope with these problems inasmuch as we solve the problem of Israel and Palestine. If we can implement U.N. Resolution 242, we can internationalize Jerusalem, do something about the right of return of Palestinians to Palestine. And then go to the Middle East and say, "All right, now it's time to implement other U.N. resolutions." ... But it really does boil down to Israel, in a lot of ways. ...

And when you were in the CIA, was there an awareness of this? ...

No, but it's not CIA's business. These are the politics we saw, but we were never involved in this. We never had to worry about resolutions, U.N. 242. I mean, [we] read about it and cared about it. And I know when it was passed and I know this dialogue's always been going on between Syria and United States, Lebanon.

Our objective was to find out who was taking hostages in Lebanon, who blew up our embassy, who blew up the Marines -- and predict future attacks. At the same time, we were listening to our agents, people on the ground. That's how we spent our entire life.

... When we began, you mentioned the misunderstanding about the Iranians being killed in Lebanon. ... It struck me when you were saying that, that the relationship between America and Iran seems to be one completely fostered on misunderstandings of this sort. ...

... Yes, the misunderstandings go back to Mossadeq. [Editor's note: Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who wanted to nationalize Iran's oil industry and limit foreign involvement in Iran's internal affairs, was removed from office in a CIA-supported coup in 1953, which allowed the shah -- who was friendly to Western powers -- to return to Tehran. See the timeline for more background on Iran's history.]

The Iranians are generally, as people, pro-American. A lot of Iranians live here. The Iranian music industry is based in Los Angeles. There's a lot of travel back and forth. The Iranians have been normally in history pro-Israel as a balance to the Arabs.

But along came Mossadeq. And then you had the corruption in Tehran, all the American companies, this supplying of arms to Iran to fight the Cold War, all the military bases. The Iranians looked at this as if we were participating in the corruption of their society, American companies and American government. And then you had the revolution and then you had the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, which split off from the revolution, and a lot of them set up in the United States.

Then you had the Iran-Iraq war, and then our continued support to Israel. And the Iranians look at us as a hostile country, just as we look at the Soviet Union as a hostile country. ... There was a lot of misperceptions. And there's no dialogue.

So faced with that situation, what does one do? ... The hawks would argue, "Well, we've tried dialogue; we've tried blandishments. We've reduced sanctions on pistachios and other things. We've tried to talk to them, and these mullahs keep slapping us in the face. What are we to do?"

Well, I think that you set some clarity for standards of behavior vis-a-vis Iran. I think by not holding the Iranians accountable for taking over [the U.S.] embassy, by not holding them accountable for what happened in Lebanon, only encouraged the radicals. At the same time, we should have had a carrot, opened up some back channel with the mullahs, talk[ed] to them. Once you stop talking to people, you're lost. And I think the American tendency is, as is the Iranians', once this level of hostility arises, [to] stop talking.

The Iranians have desperately wanted a secret channel to the United States for years -- all the Iranians have -- to work out the problem, work out the problems in Jerusalem, work out the problems of oil, work out the problems of Iraq. We've always said, "No, here's our conditions for dialogue: Stop terrorism." ... There used to be three [criteria], I used to remember them.

Well, a big one is weapons of mass destruction and Iran building them. ... That fear has been around. ...

Well, look at the dialogue today, where we're talking about using tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea and the rest. Once this stuff leaks out, the Iranians say, "Well, look, they're going to use nuclear weapons against us. We need missiles."

And how credible is it in your experience that the Iranians are up to building weapons of mass destruction?

I have no idea. ... It's a big issue. They were getting a lot of stuff, but how advanced they are, I really don't know. Whether they're one year away from a nuclear bomb or 20 years away, I have no idea.

But presumably that seems to be one of the biggest issues for people in Washington: "How much time do we have before these guys end up with a weapon? What are we going to do?"

What about Pakistan? What about India? I don't trust either one of them, too. It's a catastrophe if Iran and Iraq get nuclear weapons. [They] will use them against each other one day. ...

I think what we're all talking about is, we all regret the end of the Cold War. In the Cold War, things were predictable, and you could have worked these things out. ...

This is such a slippery subject, terrorism, and if you start painting the whole Islamic world as terrorists, or there's the Russians as supporting terrorism, where does it all end? I don't know. ... There are terrorists, there are mass murderers, but we don't know who they are and who supports them and we don't know how to stop it. ...

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