No other country has vexed U.S. presidents over the last thirty years quite like Iran.
Jimmy Carter watched Iran go from stalwart ally to implacable foe when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The ensuing hostage crisis sunk his reelection bid. Ronald Reagan sold Iran a bunch of surface-to-air missiles in an ill-fated attempt to free American hostages in Lebanon. At the same time, Reagan waged a low-level war against Iran in the Persian Gulf as the U.S. Navy sought to keep shipping lanes open and oil flowing. George H.W. Bush searched fruitlessly for the “elusive Iranian moderate.” Bill Clinton entered office deciding such a search was a waste of time, but left office having found that moderate in Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, only to have efforts at rapprochement thwarted by hardliners in the office of the Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the U.S. Congress. After cooperating briefly with Iran over post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2001, George W. Bush decided Iran was an “axis of evil” and refused to negotiate directly with it on any subject. As the U.S. became bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration watched helplessly as the Iran provided Iraq’s Shia militias with powerful roadside bombs; Iran also restarted uranium enrichment. Barack Obama extended an olive branch, but when Iran burned the olive branch, he used it as leverage at the United Nations and instituted the most severe economic sanctions to date.
In The Twilight War, David Crist chronicles the ups and (mostly) downs of the troubled U.S.-Iranian relationship since 1979. During that time, the superpower and regional pretender have alternated between uneasy peace and de facto war. The relationship has always been long on emotion and short on understanding. Neither side understands the other because, as Crist said in a recent interview, “both sides are captive to history.”
To be sure, it’s a complex history, with both sides contributing to the impasse. Crist weaves together the narrative threads of the U.S.-Iran relationship in a way that illuminates why this struggle continues with no signs of resolution. Blood has been spilt by both sides: 241 sailors, soldiers, and Marines died at the hands of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Beirut, while 290 Iranian civilians died when the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down Iran Air flight 655. American troops have been killed in Iraq by Iran-funded militants. Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed on the streets of Tehran, and although U.S. involvement has not been conclusively proven, in the eyes of the Iranian regime it hardly matters. Perception is reality in this case.
Trust has always been hard to come by. After stating in his inaugural address “goodwill begets goodwill,” George H.W. Bush reneged on promises he made to Iran in return for the freedom of the last American hostages in Lebanon. Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance with UN Security Council resolutions and refuses to come clean about prior work done on weaponization.
And even in moments of relative calm and clear-headedness, negotiation offers have been refused. In 2003, Iran sent a fax to the State Department via the Swiss ambassador offering to put everything on the table, including their opposition to Israel and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. The Bush Administration refused to negotiate, believing the regime was on the brink of collapse. In 2009, Barack Obama offered to negotiate with Iran, but Iran thought the offer was meant solely to buy time for more sanctions and so refused.
This sweeping chronicle comes at a critical moment. The U.S. and Iran are (again) seemingly on the march to war. Defiant in the face of economic sanction, Iran continues to enrich uranium and fund terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. It’s also threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Meanwhile, the United States political elite is debating—for at least the umpteenth time—whether or not to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. It has 40,000 troops and an armada of aircraft carriers, guided missile destroyers, and submarines patrolling the Persian Gulf. Yet despite this build up of punditry and equipment, the elites of DC seem oddly unaware of the nuances of our history with Iran – and thus the value of Twilight War becomes clear.
Crist’s sources are top notch – recently declassified documents and personal records and interviews with all the major characters you’ve never heard of – and that’s just on the U.S. side. His sources in Iran’s political and military elite are every bit as good. He logged thousands of miles conducting over 400 interviews in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East. The senior historian for the Joint Staff and Marine Reserve officer, Crist is at his best when describing in amazing detail the almost minute-by-minute account of the Tanker War. In fact, he spends roughly one third of the book recounting it. Those looking for comprehensive analysis of the major decisions and flashpoints of the relationship may be disappointed as Crist keeps his own cards close to his chest, only revealing some of them at the end. This, however, is a real strength of the book. There’s no angle and he’s not pushing policy. It’s simply a rich history of two antagonistic countries struggling to figure each other out.
Finding a way out of permanent hostility will take a diplomatic miracle, not to mention a large dose of political courage. As Crist notes, “neither side has much desire to work to bridge their differences. Distrust permeates the relationship. Three decades of twilight have hardened both sides.” In other words, the U.S. and Iran are the Hatfields and McCoys of international politics – caught in a cycle of distrust and animosity that feeds on itself. The actions of the last thirty years have shaped the political, foreign policy, and military elite of both countries.
Iran specialist Afshon Ostovar recently commented that the majority of leaders on both sides don’t want war. He’s right, but if the last thirty years are any indication of the future, neither side really wants peace either.
Buy the book, which I highly recommend, here.