Jorge Dezcallar: "Neither Turkey, Iran nor Russia can fill the space left by the United States in the Middle East"

The Spanish diplomat presents his novel 'Espía Accidental' (Accidental Spy) and analyses the current geopolitical situation for Atalayar from his extensive experience
Jorge Dezcallar

PHOTO/GUILLERMO LÓPEZ-ATALAYAR  -   Jorge Dezcallar

Jorge Dezcallar, who was the first civilian director of the National Intelligence Centre, as well as Spanish ambassador to New York, the Vatican and Morocco, talks to Atalayar on the occasion of the presentation of his novel 'Espía Accidental' (Accidental Spy), with which he debuts in the world of fiction.

'Espía Accidental' presents an interesting and exciting story about the world of espionage within the framework of the Syrian war with the protagonism of espionage and intelligence agencies such as the CNI or the Mossad. A story about an exciting and complicated world that grips the reader until the final page.

Your novel focuses on the world of espionage in the context of the Syrian war and the confrontation in the Middle East between nations such as Iran and Israel.

The story begins with a real event, a relationship I had with an antique dealer in Tehran who asked me to take a necklace out of Iran for his daughter who was getting married in Los Angeles, as he had no possibility of sending it to her because there is no postal service with the United States; I did it, the girl got married and sent me a photo with the necklace on the day of her wedding. When I returned to Iran I went to his shop and it was closed, he had disappeared, and nobody would or could tell me where he was. On the basis of that beginning and real fact, I invent a fictional story that has as its background the drama of Syria and the confrontation between Iran and Israel on Syrian soil that is still going on.

The issue is extremely topical because it is still going on today. Against this real beginning and against this real background, I am inventing a fictitious story based on a CNI operation in Syria. 

'Espía accidental' Jorge DezcallarA CNI that you know well, how does a person with other previous non-fiction works and a diplomatic career like yours make a foray into the world of fiction?

It makes you dizzy because fiction is complicated and difficult, it commands respect. Creating non-comical characters in flesh and blood is not easy, it commands respect. In this case, something came from inside me, I wanted to put it in black and white and that's what I did with this first novel.

The main scenario is the war in Syria, very topical as you say, you know a lot about it and have met many personalities and leaders, how would you explain this conflict with the presence of a regime like that of Bashar al-Assad supported by Iran and Russia?

As Ortega says, one is one and one's circumstances. I could not write this novel without the knowledge I have of the Syrian war, with eight years of experience as director general for the Middle East in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I have been to the Syrian presidential palace, I have been escorted by mujabarats (Syrian intelligence service), I have been to Palestinian refugee camps, I have met Jewish communities on the ground, it is a country I know well. 

The Syrian crisis, which is part of what happened after the Arab Spring, is a revolt against the dictatorial regime. This authoritarian government would have been consumed had it not been for a lot of people 'sticking their spoon in'. The regime survives because it is supported by Iran and Russia; meanwhile, Turkey has soldiers in Afrin, the Israelis bomb the Iranians, the Iranians have bases there and there are Gulf countries financing Islamist groups. Too many people 'sticking their spoons in' and the ones who suffer are the poor Syrians. 

This is replicated in other countries such as Libya, we can talk about oil as an attractive point in that North African country, what interest is there in Syria?

History repeats itself, as in Libya or Yemen. In Syria there is oil only in the Kurdish area. What there is an attempt by Turkey to extend its influence and avoid having Kurds on the border who could act as a focus of irredentism for the Kurdish community inside Turkey. Meanwhile, the Russians want to curb Islamism because 20% of their community is Muslim, and they want to return to the Middle East after the USSR and its demise. On the occasion of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, Pravda reported that the USSR had danced its last tango in the Middle East. 

The American flight has led to a struggle to fill the gap left and, curiously, it is the three old traditional empires that dominated the region that want to do so again: the Persian empire represented in Iran, the Ottoman empire represented in Turkey, and the Tsarist empire represented in Russia. They are seeking hegemony; it is a struggle for influence to see who will prevail.

For Jorge Dezcallar, who is in the lead? 

The stakes are high at the moment. Iran's influence is growing because Iraq, the country that has historically held it back, has disappeared, and its influence is going to expand with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. And it faces Israel and Saudi Arabia; no one wants its nuclearisation or destabilising actions.

I don't think Turkey has the capacity to fill that space and Russia punches above its weight. Neither has the capacity to fill the gap left by the US and there will have to be a division of spheres of influence.

'Espía accidental' Jorge Dezcallar

Perhaps there is a sense that everyone is fighting above their weight, we have an Iran hit by the economic crisis and sanctions.

Everyone is punching above their weight and there will be a compromise because no one will be able to prevail over the others.

How does the international community let that happen?

The United States fulfilled all four of its objectives in the Middle East. It wanted to secure oil in sufficient quantity and at an affordable price; it has the oil because now with shale gas it is self-sufficient in oil. Secondly, he wanted to prevent the USSR from dominating and Russia now does not have the destabilising capacity that the Soviet Union could have had. Thirdly, he wanted to guarantee Israel's security and Israel, with the money given by Obama and the support of Bush and the Abraham-Israel Accords, is already defending itself. And fourthly, he wanted to prevent Islamist-rooted terrorism, which has radically diminished since 14. The current attacks in the US are carried out by white supremacists and right-wing extremists, there are no Islamist attacks. The US wanted to get out of there, Biden has done badly because, although he has interpreted well the will of the American people to leave Afghanistan, the execution has been disastrous, and the US no longer has any interest in the area. 

Europe does not have the capacity. Unfortunately, Europe remains a political dwarf. The withdrawal from Afghanistan has shown that we could not stay a day longer than the Americans. We do not have the capacity. 

Who else can be? China? China is coming, but it has other, more immediate problems. It is coming, it has just signed a 25-year oil supply deal with Iran, which is very important. It is now trying to get into Afghanistan. 

There is no one who has the capacity to fill the shoes of the Americans, and that creates a vacuum that produces a period of imbalance, which is what we are experiencing there. That balance is manifested in the fact that there used to be a conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians and now there are many more, between Sunnis and Shiites, between Israelis and Palestinians, between seculars and radicals, between Daesh and Al-Qaeda, it's a world in pure tension.

'Espía accidental' Jorge DezcallarThe United States has turned to the Indo-Pacific with the AUKUS proposal.

And it has done so very quickly, I think to make people forget about Afghanistan. In the space of a week there have been three very important initiatives by Biden in the Pacific. The first is to invite South Korea to join the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering and intelligence-sharing spy group, which is made up of the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK, with South Korea now joining.

The second initiative has been AUKUS, which has left the French very wounded, but which integrates the US, the UK and Australia, with the relevance of nuclear submarines. 

And the third initiative is to resurrect a Japanese proposal from a few years ago, initially put forward by Shinzo Abe and now resuscitated. It incorporates Australia, the US, Japan and, for the first time, India, which is taking a stand against China for the first time, something that has not happened before. 

These three initiatives show that the shift towards Asia has already begun in earnest. This poses a challenge for us Europeans to try to situate ourselves and where we situate ourselves, because we are a bit in no man's land. Either we integrate or we seek to have a common foreign policy, a common defence policy that is capable of making us speak with a single voice in international forums and even project ourselves militarily, albeit in a limited way in defence of our economic and political interests, or else we will be like Venice when Bartolomé Díaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Vasco de Gama reached India. Spices came through India to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as far as Venice. Venice grew rich, it was the great power in the 14th and 15th century in the Mediterranean. Until the Portuguese arrived in India, when spices started to arrive in Lisbon at much cheaper prices. On top of that, Christopher Columbus discovered America. The centre of gravity shifted to the Atlantic and Venice collapsed. That can happen to Europe, the centre of gravity goes to the Pacific and Europe can be left totally out of touch with what is happening in the world and unable to make itself heard, which is a very bad thing. 

Europe has 6% of the world's population and 50% of the world's social spending, and no one can maintain that unless we are a great power. Our standard of living is at stake.

Returning to the novel, it is a story of people who have nothing to do with the world of espionage, but who end up immersed in it, and of agencies at the service of various states, how is it that world?  

It is common in the world of espionage for agencies to ask favours of each other, and it is common for those favours to be done and collected, and that is what happens in this novel. What's here is a game related to that. It's pure fiction and I couldn't have written it if I hadn't worked at the National Intelligence Centre, directed it and if I hadn't spent 40 years as a diplomat and ambassador in various places like the United States. 

Each person is a person and their circumstances, and in my case, my circumstances mean that I know how a spy is recruited, how they are covered, how they are sent on a mission, these kinds of things that I make up here, but which in reality are like that and happen like that. 

Various organisations have always attracted my attention, such as the Mossad, whose fame precedes it. If you know it, is it really that big a deal?

The Mossad is very effective, it is an intelligence service with a lot of resources, within a country that is very small, but it has, for example, more Nobel Prizes per capita than anyone else and with cutting-edge technology in the world in terms of information gathering. We are now seeing a scandal in Morocco because Israeli technology was used to spy on the French, the Algerians and us. The Mossad is considered a service of a state at war. The Iranians say it must be destroyed, that the Zionist entity must be eliminated, they don't even call it the State of Israel. So, it is at war and does things that we European services don't do. 

The book talks about the collaboration between different agencies, in this case the CNI comes into play.

The CNI is asked for a favour and goes to look for a person, it recruits an individual who is part of the Spanish picaresque culture, a rogue who has stumbled around the world and suddenly finds a meaning to his life. He is offered to return to Syria to do a job that at first, he doesn't quite know what it is, but he signs up and finds himself immersed in a very complicated plot.

'Espía accidental' Jorge Dezcallar

There are scenes, to appeal to anyone who might be interested in the novel, that are very interesting and describe certain situations, which are really raw and harsh. A lot of times people see spy movies and so on, but reality can often outweigh fiction and after reading the book there are scenes that are very shocking. In a very hard life. 

It's just that these things happen. Prisons are very hard, or the persecution of opponents of the regime. I've been in prisons in that area, and I've seen tremendous things, although they try not to let you see them and only show you the beautiful things. But I've even been in a prison where it was all rose bushes and women singing and behind them were the gallows, in a courtyard at the back. These things unfortunately happen. One of the things that is demonstrated by reading this book is how lucky we are to live in a country like Spain, to be able to walk down the street without anything happening to you.

And the responsibility that comes with working for these types of agencies or being in their service because there are characters, as reflected in the book, who are tormented.

Two things come into conflict, Western-style intelligence services that come into contact with what are in reality political police in the service of a particular regime. The services that the Iranians or the Syrians may have been of a different kind. That exists, I'm not making it up, unfortunately. People tend to think that spies are James Bond, I wish they all had an Aston Martin and Ursula Andress coming out of the water, but they don't. It's very hard. It's very hard, it's a world of shadows, of discretion. Now in Kabul there have been diplomats, military and police officers who have done very well, and it is true that they have done a great job, but nobody talks about the CNI agents who were there and who have also done a great job. But their work remains in the shadows, they never get any medals, they never arrest anyone, when they have information, they give information to those who can arrest, which is the Police or the Guardia Civil. They don't arrest, they never show up and it's a difficult profession, you have to carry it inside, you can't talk about what you do, you can't talk at home, not even with your friends. They talk to each other. 

It is mentioned in the book that there are many times in the world of spies that it is better not to know many things for the sake of your own life. 

There is a basic principle which is the need to know, everyone should know what they need to know, but nothing more. That means that in this case you deal with the people who direct or manipulate you, but you don't know what other collaborators there are. If you fall, you fall alone and eventually the one who manipulates you, no one else falls. It's a need to know and the less you know, the better, the safer you are.

'Espía accidental' Jorge Dezcallar

How does a person like you with a diplomatic career end up becoming the first civilian director of the CNI?

You would have to ask President José María Aznar. I was ambassador to Morocco, he called me one day and said he wanted to talk to me. I went to the Moncloa and there, without anaesthesia, he told me if I wanted to take charge of the CNI, with the rank of Secretary of State, to change the CESID and turn it into the CNI, that is, to "civilise" it. We made a series of laws, a very attractive project. I said yes, although I interpreted it as a State service with loyalty to the Government, without getting involved in internal party politics; keeping out of party politics was the only condition I set, and we moved forward. I am very satisfied to have been the first civilian to head the CNI, to have modernised the institution, to have given the CNI a law and everything we did there during those years. I describe the work in the book 'Valió la pena' (It was worth it), I say that I ran out of time at the end, but yes, the work was good. My time at the Centre has left a big mark on me, I have a very high opinion of the people who work there. The professionals there and their sense of State. This book is also a tribute to the silent, quiet, discreet work of the Spanish spies that nobody knows about. We have a very worthy service that is on a par with the best in Europe, and people need to know it too. 

Returning to the Syrian war; on the one hand, Iran's interference because of its connotation as a Shiite standard-bearer supporting Al-Asad, on the other hand, Turkey harassing the Kurds, which it accuses of terrorism as an excuse to persecute them. How do you explain the departure of the United States abandoning the Kurds who helped them defeat Islamist terrorism?

The Kurds have been abandoned to their fate. They were the spearhead of the fight against Daesh and when the goal of formally dismantling it in the Middle East was achieved, the Americans had to choose between the Kurds and the Turks and they chose the Turks, even though they have problems with them, such as the purchase of Russian technology of the S-400 anti-aircraft system, which is the most modern there is and is incompatible with the American Patriots; and they can also reveal NATO secrets to the Russians, which is why the Americans are very angry with the Turks. But when they had to choose, they chose the Turks because the Americans could not be with the Turks and the Kurds at the same time. That is explained by 'Realpolitik', which is very hard sometimes.