The Thirty Years’ War
From the July 30, 2012, issue of NR

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and President Jimmy Carter in 1977


Michael Rubin

As American diplomats and their international partners prepared to sit down with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad last May to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the State Department was aflutter. In conference calls and background briefs, senior diplomats and Obama-administration officials suggested Tehran was on the verge of grasping Obama’s outstretched hand and might agree to deal seriously to end years of crisis.

That the talks would go nowhere was predictable. When Iranian negotiators proposed to hold discussions on May 23, Obama’s team agreed immediately; the White House cared little why the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had picked that date or venue. Iranian history informs, however: May 23 marked the 30th anniversary of Iran’s liberation of Khorramshahr, its key victory during the Iran–Iraq War. “The pioneering Iranian nation will continue its movement towards greater progress and justice,” Khamenei promised at a victory speech, adding, “The front of tyranny, arrogance, and bullying is moving towards weakness and destruction.”

The nuclear talks were the Islamic Republic’s latest but not its last parry in its battle with the United States. While almost every U.S. administration has sought reconciliation with Tehran, first revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then Khamenei have conceived of themselves as at war with “the Great Satan.”

Against this backdrop, David Crist’s The Twilight War is valuable. Crist, a historian at the Pentagon and a Marine reserve officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, pens the history of the more-than-three-decade “secret war” between the United States and Iran.

Jimmy Carter never expected Iran to define his presidency. A foreign-policy novice, Carter hoped to make his mark on Korea, promising a withdrawal of U.S. forces just days after announcing his run for the Democratic nomination. The Iran situation threw the Carter White House into crisis and exposed factional divisions that would undermine Carter’s response and culminate in the resignation of Cyrus Vance, his secretary of state. While Crist adds little new in his examination of Carter-administration diplomacy — former CIA analyst–turned–Brookings scholar Ken Pollack covered that period well nearly ten years ago in The Persian Puzzle – he is an excellent writer whose narrative is a pleasure to read. He illustrates well how the State Department bubble failed to recognize reality until it was too late.

Without access to Persian sources, he does miss pivotal points, however. “Initially, the students had intended to hold the embassy for just a few hours,” he writes, “but the embassy takeover acquired a life of its own.” But what caused the students to change their minds is important for today: According to his Carter-administration colleagues (whom I interviewed for a book of my own), Gary Sick — the Iran director on the National Security Council — leaked to the Boston Globe that Carter had removed military options from the table. When the captors read that revelation, they transformed a 48-hour action into one that lasted 444 days.

The Twilight War’s strength is less in rehashing the policy muddle and more in recording the military and intelligence component of U.S.–Iran relations. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, Iran was a key Cold War ally and a front-line state with the Soviet Union. Before Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the Red Army into Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s nightmare was a Soviet assault on Iran. Crist details the Pentagon’s war plans to counter a Soviet invasion of Iran, and also charts preliminary plans to foment insurgency in Iran. Decades later, as the Revolutionary Guards increased harassment of American forces, General Anthony Zinni would revise these plans into a strategy for occupying Iran. American policy was schizophrenic, however. Even after the hostage crisis, many American officials saw Iran first and foremost through the Cold War prism. Crist relates how CIA director William Casey — remembered best for his role in the Iran-Contra affair — leaked the names of Soviet spies in Iran, enabling revolutionary authorities to eliminate them.

With the exception of Operation Eagle Claw — the ill-fated hostage-rescue attempt — Carter ignored the military option. Curiously, Crist omits the Navy’s proposed plans to seize Kharg Island, a move that would have stopped Iranian oil exports cold and strangled the economy until Khomeini released the hostages.

While the Islamic Republic is not as impervious to human-intelligence penetration as North Korea is, it has always — for American spies — been a desert. It was not for lack of trying. Under President Ronald Reagan, the CIA worked to build a human-intelligence network inside Iran and actually succeeded in recruiting several senior military officers. It was less successful in rallying the Iranian opposition: Getting opposition forces to cooperate with one another was like herding cats. “Every Iranian male is born with a chip in his brain that periodically broadcasts, ‘I am the leader of the Iranian people,’” CIA operative George Cave quipped.

The Iran–Iraq War was like an intensified version of World War I. Not only did conscripts face trench warfare, barbed wire, and mustard gas, but they also had to cope with late-20th-century technology, such as Scud missiles and supersonic aircraft. In the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the press lambasted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for his infamous 1983 handshake with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; Crist provides greater context, explaining how the Reagan administration feared that the Iranian advance on the southern-Iraqi city of Basra might presage a victory for Khomeini that would fundamentally alter security in the Middle East. In the wake of President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq despite Iran’s resurgence, policymakers may get a sense of what might have been had the Reagan administration not tried to check Iran in Iraq.


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