Jorge Dezcallar, the first civilian director of the National Intelligence Centre, who has also been Spain's ambassador to the United States, the Holy See and Morocco, talks to Atalayar on the occasion of the presentation of his second novel: Operation False Flag.
Can we speak of a sequel to Accidental Spy in Rescuing Asís, or is it a totally independent novel that simply sees this protagonist as a vehicle?
It is a novel that is totally independent, but, well, I liked rescuing the image of Asís and Amal because I was very fond of them. And so, although this novel is completely different, I did find a way of involving them in the new plot. And that, well, that was fun for me, but I also think that the new novel needed it. I think I wanted to from the beginning, although I didn't initially conceive of them as part of the novel. However, as the novel grew, I began to think that I had to put them in. And, in fact, they appear from almost the very beginning because it seemed to me that.... I simply grew fond of them, it's true.
And when you published Accidental Spy, when you developed that first work, were you already thinking about, not about doing one that would rescue, as you said, the character, but about a different, independent novel?
No, no. The first novel was a completely new experience. The first novel was a completely new experience. I had been writing non-fiction all my life; writing reports. And the first books I wrote were non-fiction and taking a leap into fiction was a big leap into the void. Fiction is very scary, it inspires a lot of respect. Fiction demands... it's very difficult.
But it worked out relatively well because the novel was successful, there were several editions and people encouraged me, but I wasn't thinking of doing a sequel when I wrote the first one, not at all. I thought that maybe that was a unique thing. And, in fact, after the first novel I wrote a book on geopolitics. But somehow, this started to get into my head and I said, why not try it again? And with such a topical subject as the war in Ukraine.
I also wanted to start by asking you about this situation, because you link a fictional plot with a totally real situation such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the conflict between Morocco and Algeria, and I wanted to ask you precisely because of this. What analysis do you make of the real world, the world you use to set your novel, of the dispute between Algeria and Morocco for leadership in the Maghreb?
Let's see, as you rightly say, I create a fiction from a context that is real. The real context is the war in Ukraine, which has not turned out the way the Russians thought it would. And so the plot... well, if I were the head of the Russian service and I had this problem, why not advise my boss to make a diversionary manoeuvre behind NATO's back? So I thought, well, what could there be behind NATO's back that could facilitate this kind of operation? And I found that, in the Strait of Gibraltar, which is an area of enormous strategic sensitivity, there is a struggle for supremacy in the Maghreb between Algeria and Morocco that has been getting worse lately as a result of the Abraham agreements that Trump made at the last minute. When he gives the Sahara to Morocco in exchange for establishing relations with the State of Israel. This has deeply irritated Algeria, tensions have risen, they have broken off relations and I thought: well, but there is a situation at the point of caramel! All it would take is a little push.
And in this you also mention the agreements that were important in the recognition of Western Sahara... Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara. The very title of the book says it, doesn't it? From the Kremlin to Tindouf, those camps in Tindouf where the Polisario Front is based, there is also a complicated situation among the population. What do you think of what is happening there?
Well, from what I know, I think that unfortunately there are many Saharawis who are living very badly. The Sahrawi world has suffered a drama that is not completely different from that suffered by the Palestinians; their land has been occupied and so some of them, as is also the case in Palestine, live in the territory occupied by Israel, but others are in exile; they are outside. Those who are outside, whether in one place or the other, there is a certain parallelism. Although there are differences too, but there is a certain parallel between the two situations. I believe that the Sahrawi people are living a drama; some have accepted to live in the Sahara, which is occupied by Morocco, others live outside, those who live in the desert live in terrible conditions, they live on international cooperation, and there is one thing that outrages me and that is that they live under a single party that really belongs to another era. I believe that the lack of political pluralism in Tindouf is a problem that greatly affects the image of the independence movement itself.
I was also going to talk to you about, in this respect, how does it affect Morocco's foreign policy? You who know well...
The Sahara is Morocco's number one foreign policy priority. The Sahara is a dossier that is the exclusive domain of the King, where no one has a say except the King, and where the King is in a position to handle it with the unanimity of the Moroccan people in terms of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. That is to say, here there is no difference between left and right, between progressives and conservatives, between radicals, between Islamists, between communists.... They all agree. At least in my experience, when I was there in Morocco I didn't meet a single Moroccan who didn't think that the Sahara was theirs. But, in any case, it is the big issue in Morocco's foreign policy and, at the moment, the crisis that Morocco is having with France is precisely because France has not agreed to do what Spain has done.
I was just going to ask you about this recognition, this change that was so much talked about in Spain when it was decided to recognise the Moroccan plan. What is your opinion of this recognition? Do you think it was done well?
No, it was done very badly. In my opinion, it was done very badly. I am not saying that in the end it is unrealistic to favour the option of autonomy, because realistically speaking, I do not think that, unfortunately or fortunately, there is not going to be an independent Sahara, I do not see it. Because neither Morocco wants it, nor do the great powers. But I think that what Spain did, if it thinks that this is the right thing to do, should be explained to the public. We should have worked with the Polisario Front's agents so that they would also accept this position, and this has not been done. A change has been made, which we have learned about through the leaking of fragments of a letter from the Royal Palace of Morocco; no one has explained to us what advantages Spain is gaining from leaving under the umbrella of UN protection, where we were very comfortable, and which has placed us in the middle of the confrontation between Algeria and Morocco, and Algeria is very angry. Spanish exports to Algeria have fallen by 80% in the last year. This is a situation that should be explained and the government has not done so so far, and that is what I criticise it for.
And this part of the reconfiguration that is taking place, apart from between Algeria and Morocco in the Middle East, for example, we are seeing many changes, this resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, sponsored by China... How do you analyse this change in the balance of power that may be taking place in the Middle East with Syria's return to the Arab League?
I think there are many elements here, but the first is that the exit or partial withdrawal, at least of the United States from the Middle East has produced a vacuum, and foreign policy or geopolitics is like physics; it is terrified of a vacuum. So someone wants to fill that space, but no one has the shoes, no one is able to fill the shoes of the United States, no one has the strength to take its place. So, there is a struggle essentially between Turkey... it's funny, because they are the old great empires, aren't they? Between Turkey and Iran at the moment, the Sunnis and the Shiites, where Russia, the old empire, is playing a role, and recently China has entered, taking advantage of two things: one, the relative withdrawal of the United States, and secondly, also taking advantage of the need of both Saudi Arabia and Iran to reach an understanding that puts an end, at least partially, to a confrontation that is taking place in Yemen, which is producing a humanitarian disaster and which I believe the Chinese have used skilfully.
The Chinese have not asked Iran to make concessions on nuclearisation or to make concessions on human rights, because the Chinese are less concerned about these things and, consequently, some countries are more comfortable with them. This is also part of the great emergency, of what is called the global south, countries that do not want to be automatically aligned with one of the two great powers in conflict: the United States and China, in a potential future confrontation that could be very serious.
This vacuum that you mentioned, left by the United States in the Middle East, if it is filled in a very strong way by China, Russia... by sponsoring these agreements, also achieving acceptance, which is what has happened with Saudi Arabia's return to the League with Syria, do you think that this could unbalance the balance and bring it closer to hegemony on the eastern side?
I think they want to avoid that hegemony. They want to keep all options open. Good relations with the United States, certainly, but not bad relations with China or Russia; they want to get along with everybody. And what I do see in Saudi Arabia is a great desire to play a leading role, that is, Saudi Arabia has effectively opened the door of the Arab League to Syria; readmission. It also invited Zelenski to the meeting. And it has offered to mediate in the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, it has offered to mediate in the crisis in Sudan.... In other words, in Saudi Arabia there is a desire for political protagonism that until now we have not known, because until now Bin Salman's priority has been economic development; to turn Saudi Arabia into a hub of development, especially digital, technological, cutting-edge development. And now we find that he not only has this economic ambition, but also political ambition. This is going to lead to tension, I imagine, with Turkey, which is the one that has done this in the Middle East so far.
At the beginning of the book you say that many of the words you put into the mouths of real characters would never have been said. How real is your novel? Because you are a person who knows this world well.
Ortega said that you are you and your circumstances. This novel, like the previous one, Accidental Spy, I would never have written it without having had the experience I have had both at the head of the intelligence service, in the diplomatic life that has led me to be in the Middle East; from the palace of Assad's father, or being with King Hussein, or being with the presidents or prime ministers of Israel... but also in the refugee camps I've been to, that is to say, without that I wouldn't have written this other novel. I wouldn't have written it either without having had the experience I've had in the National Intelligence Centre and as a diplomat. I have visited Russia for many, many years, I have contacts there, I know people there, I know how to... In short, there is no doubt that my record of public service in diplomacy is reflected in some way. These characters would never say the things I make them say, but the plot is perfectly plausible. It's a plot that could happen and that's what I think gives fiction its appeal too, that you say: well, it's fiction, but it's not nonsensical.