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The Thirty Years’ War

by Michael Rubin

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist (Penguin, 656 pp., $36)

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.

Much of the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran occurred in the valleys and alleys of Lebanon. Crist describes the lead-up to the Marine barracks bombing, and then Reagan-administration discussions about how to retaliate. Here, he could have gone farther: While he notes that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was reluctant to retaliate against the individual perpetrators — their location was known — Crist never explains Weinberger’s inaction. Had he explored this question, as some of Weinberger’s contemporaries did, he might have found that Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador in Washington who enjoyed near-unfettered access to Weinberger’s office, had convinced Weinberger to accept the dubious idea that retaliation would spark broader conflict and undercut oil markets.

As the Lebanese civil war wound down, the proxy war shifted to the Persian Gulf. Crist explores Iranian mining of international waters, and the tanker war, which culminated in Operation Praying Mantis and the USS Vincennes’s downing of an Iranian airliner. Crist illuminates not only well-known encounters, but also lesser-known events, such as the intelligence windfall provided by the Navy SEAL capture of the ship Iran Ajr. He also describes the Pentagon’s rejection of plans by Admiral James “Ace” Lyons to hit Iran in a limited fashion with the aim of rolling back its revolutionary regime. As in many instances in which timid officials shelved plans to retaliate more forcibly against Iran, it is easy to speculate about how Tehran’s subsequent behavior might have been different had the Iranians been given cause to take U.S. redlines more seriously.

When it comes to more recent events, Crist gets much wrong. Like many journalists, he is beholden to conventional wisdom and the agendas of sources, some of whom — including Hillary Mann Leverett and James Dobbins — have distinguished themselves with post-retirement opinions that exculpate Iran and bash Bush. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a gossip whose leaks paralyzed the Bush administration and led to the Scooter Libby investigation, misleads Crist outright when he says that Pentagon civilians favored utilizing the Mujahideen al-Khalq (some in the military did, and the Pentagon civilians scrambled with the State Department to end such discussion).

Crist repeats the mantra that the Iranian people sympathized with the United States after 9/11, but fails to note Khamenei’s gloating over that event. Like the proverbial blind man describing the elephant, he amplifies limited experience into an unrepresentative whole. He reminisces about a game of brinkmanship with Iranian small boats soon after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “What I did not know until later . . . was how little CENTCOM or the civilians in the Pentagon had bothered to consider Iran when planning to remove Saddam Hussein.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Pentagon civilians raised the Iranian challenge repeatedly — but the State Department convinced itself that Iranian promises could be taken at face value.

Crist also credulously accepts the idea that the Iranian regime offered the Bush administration a grand bargain that, in a peak of arrogance, the White House and the Pentagon rejected. This is nonsense. Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, unveiled the proposal, unaware that the Americans and Iranians were talking at a higher level. Trita Parsi, an Iranian-born activist and lobbyist in Washington, promoted the story even though his own e-mails (released through courtroom discovery process) indicate that the Iranians denied the offer was theirs.

Crist gets sloppy toward the end — confusing, for example, the amount requested and the amount granted for programs to promote democracy in Iran. As he brings his narrative into the Obama years, he lets his underlying assumptions shine through. By 2012, he relates, “seasoned, pragmatic Iran watchers called for tougher sanctions to punish Iranian intransigence. . . . But punishing Iranian intransigence also hardens Iranian leaders and justifies in their minds the need for a nuclear program, both for increased self-sufficiency and as a deterrent.” Alas, here he not only, like many who are overly reliant on American sources, downplays the ayatollahs’ ideological motivations, but also ignores the lessons of the past: When the Islamic Republic is chastened, as it was by Reagan’s 1988 ordering of the U.S. Navy into action, sometimes the regime reconsiders further provocations. Nevertheless, Crist is correct to note that, when it comes to Iran, “glimmers of optimism invariably give way to the smell of cordite.”

– Mr. Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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