The Corner

David Crist Responds

I appreciate Michael Rubin’s kind words on the homepage about my book, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran. He is a scholar whose opinion I find informative. However, the criticisms ignore some of the key points of the book and the historical record.

Mr. Rubin, for example, wrote that I failed to mention a military plan to seize Kharg Island in 1979. I do, starting at page 30. I interviewed those who drafted the idea, including its lead developer, Admiral James Lyons.

His review completely missed one of the over-arching themes of the entire book: the importance of resolute force in confronting Iran. Rather than dismiss it, I agree with him that it is critical. When we have failed to do so — Hostage Crisis in 1979, Beirut in 1983, or Iraq in 2006–7 — that failure has just emboldened Iran and led to more nefarious actions. I praise Vice President Cheney for being one of the few in the last Bush administration to advocate using cruise missiles to target Quds Force operations that facilitated the attacks of Iranian surrogates against U.S. troops. I specifically mentioned the importance of the use of force in 1988 as a key reason for compelling Iran to end the Iran–Iraq War. But military force was just one component of a larger strategy that eventually forced Ayatollah Khomeini to drink from the poisoned chalice.

As an unbiased researcher, I’ve come to a different conclusion regarding the origin of the “grand bargain” memo transmitted via the Swiss channel. Iranian officials have admitted to it, including one of its architects, Ambassador Zarif. I interviewed Swiss participants, Iranians, and various U.S. officials who knew of its genesis. Even doubters at the time such as Richard Armitage have revised their views. As I described at some length, Iran sent this and other, similar messages, for three reasons: 1) Iran was nervous about a U.S. follow-on invasion. 2) The Swiss channel was the one official channel to pass messages to the U.S. (there have been many such exchanges over the years). 3) The U.S. made it quite clear that high-level talks led by Ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad (and concurrent CIA talks) would not be used for any such exchange, except — as the December 2002 NSC paper stated — on those issues “advantageous to the United States.” Later, when the threat of invasion no longer loomed, Iranian officials distanced themselves from these various openings to the U.S. The issue today is not the provenance of all these Iranian invitations, but whether there was real meaning in them, or the missing of an opportunity by not pursuing them. These are the open questions.

The reason it found no support in the U.S. government was not a “peak of arrogance,” as Mr. Rubin flippantly describes, but a rational policy calculus by many within the administration that talking to Iran would be a reward for bad behavior; that it would give Tehran a platform to stall and delay; and that the Iranians were unlikely to keep their agreements in any case. I cite John Bolton and others to make that point. Others disagreed, and I tried to present both sides. That is what historians are supposed to do. 

I fully understand the discussions within OSD-Policy and the Joint Staff about Iran going into Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, those discussions never translated into the 1003V plan. The Defense Department never properly war-gamed Iran’s reaction to the U.S. invasion. The failure to anticipate Iran’s counter-invasion was one of the great failings of Iraqi Freedom. It allowed Iran to position itself inside Iraq by flowing freely across the borders, even as the U.S. secretary of defense was pushing to withdraw U.S. forces as quickly as possible.

The issue of using the MEK was not drawn just from Richard Armitage. National security adviser Condi Rice wisely killed the idea, saying, in effect, during a White House meeting: If we stand for anything it is against terrorism.

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