The Corner

A Response to David Crist

I thank Mr. Crist for his response, but he is incorrect on several counts.

Regarding Iran’s alleged grand bargain: Some journalists bought the story hook, line, and sinker, but most scholars do not agree with Mr. Crist’s interpretation of the Swiss ambassador’s 2003 memo. Officials who contradict Mr. Crist include Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage, and Nicholas Burns, all of whom would have jumped at any opportunity to engage Tehran. For example, Armitage said to PBS in 2007 that “we came to have some questions about where the Iranian message ended and the Swiss message may begin”; he also noted that discussions had been ongoing among intelligence channels “and nothing that we were seeing in this fax was in consonance with what we were hearing face to face.” While Crist cites Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as confirming his account, Zarif said the opposite in a private e-mail to a sympathetic Iranian activist, relating that “the source of the proposals and motivations of the intermediaries remain a mystery for me.”

The root of Mr. Crist’s error is overemphasizing the importance of Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran. While Guldimann’s job included passing routine messages and protecting American citizens in Iran, he was never privy to the sensitive negotiations that occurred at a higher level and, as Armitage suggested, through other channels. Mr. Crist misunderstands both the Iranian leadership and diplomacy if he believes the Iranian leadership would choose junior, unreliable channels or that senior American officials would turn a deaf ear to important proposals offered directly by their Iranian colleagues. Many Democrats who, for partisan reasons, seized upon Iran’s alleged 2003 offer prior to the 2008 elections, reversed course once they entered office, when they recognized that the version put forward by some columnists was inaccurate.

I thank Mr. Crist for correcting above his statement in The Twilight War that Pentagon civilians ignored the Iranian threat in pre-war planning. Documentary evidence shows that nothing was farther from the truth. Why the military refused to war-game Iranian reactions that had been repeatedly predicted within the Pentagon’s policy shop is a question the military’s senior leadership should address.

As for the question of the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MEK), Crist agrees that any cooperation with the group would have been harmful. The need to isolate the MEK was one of the few issues on which Pentagon civilians and the State Department agreed. Both were caught by surprise when General Raymond Odierno — not a civilian — declared in May 2003 that the MEK was committed to democracy and that Washington should reconsider its terror designation (Agence France Presse, May 11, 2003). It was his statement that led to a scramble among both the State Department and Pentagon civilians to stop some generals’ freelancing on policy issues they did not understand. Indeed, while Crist may want to take cheap shots at Pentagon civilians on the MEK issue, he might note that no Pentagon civilian has become a flack for the MEK; the same cannot be said for former diplomats and retired general James Jones.

Mr. Crist is correct: He does make brief mention of Admiral Lyons’s plan to seize Kharg Island; I regret that error.

Make no mistake: Mr. Crist should be proud. The Twilight War is an important contribution to the literature, but it is at its strongest when Crist writes as a historian with a wide array of sources, rather than as a journalist, relying on the word of a limited array of interlocutors. The Twilight War deserves a second edition; when Crist revises his manuscript, he can make an excellent resource even better by challenging the inconsistencies of some of his interviewees, and checking their narrative with that of additional documentary evidence that, with time, should become available.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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