Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Review The Twilight War, The Secret History Of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran

Crist, David, The Twilight War, The Secret History Of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran, New York: Penguin Books, 2013


David Crist wrote a very thorough history of U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 revolution. The book is broken up into four main sections. The first is about the Carter administration and the revolution. The second is on the Iran-Iraq War. The third is on the Bush-Clinton era and the last is on the second Bush and Obama. Crist’s theory is that the U.S. has consistently failed at creating a realistic policy towards the Islamic Republic shifting back and forth between outreach and subversion.


The Reagan administration was a perfect example of the schizophrenic policy the U.S. took towards Iran. Crist wrote that Washington’s initial policy was to contain the Iranian Revolution and try to undermine Ayatollah Khomeini. At the same time Reagan signed off on a plan to contact Iranians that could influence Tehran and re-open relations between the two countries. As part of the first approach Washington began a program to limit arms sales to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, supported Baghdad in the war and escorted tanker ships through the Persian Gulf to stop Iran’s threat to the flow of oil. That was then undermined with the Iran-Contra scandal where the president believed weapons could win over non-existent moderates within the regime which then turned into a simple arms for the release of Americans held by Iran’s allies in Lebanon. Reagan had no problem breaking his own policy because he wanted the hostages released.


This contradiction was caused by two conflicting ideas that dominated U.S. thinking. The first was that the Iranian Revolution created a dangerous government and caused instability in the Middle East. The second was that Iran was an important country that neighbored the USSR and the Persian Gulf and therefore could not be ignored. Reagan was caught between these two extremes hence his back and forth on whether he should confront or befriend Tehran. Crist also notes that the Cold War completely clouded U.S. strategy with policy makers believing the real threat was Moscow taking advantage of Iran not Iran itself.


Crist has plenty on Iraq in his book especially during the Iran-Iraq War and the 2003 invasion. In an attempt to maintain good relations with Iran after the fall of the Shah the CIA gave the Iranian provisional government intelligence that Iraq was going to invade but it was dismissed. When the war finally came the Reagan administration quickly moved to support Saddam Hussein. It sent delegations to restore diplomatic relations, provided credit for Iraq to buy American agriculture goods so it could spend more money on weapons, helped facilitate allies like South Korea, France, Italy, Jordan and Egypt selling arms to Baghdad, and provided intelligence on Iran. In 2003 the Bush administration believed that the overthrow of Saddam would intimidate Iran but the White House actually had no policy towards the Islamic Republic who immediately took advantage of the post-war chaos and moved in thousands of agents and Iraqi allies. Iran followed a two track policy backing elections because its allies would take power while supporting militias that attacked American forces. It wasn’t until December 2006 that the president finally authorized going after Iranian agents and that was only for a short while. This all related to the book’s thesis of the irrationality of Washington’s policy. Reagan supported Iraq but then agreed to the Iran-Contra affair. Tehran asserted its influence over Iraq after 2003 and the U.S. did little about it because the Bush White House was arguing over whether to reach out to the clerics or try to overthrow them. Again, the author points out the duality of U.S. ideas about Iran undermined a sound policy during both wars.


The Twilight War is an engaging read. Crist writes in a very captivating style especially when it comes to things like the U.S. escorting ships through the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War or U.S. troops confronting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. It’s like a play by play version of events that has plenty of detail but doesn’t get bogged down in them. It’s also amazing to read about how many times the U.S. misread Iran and screwed up relations. You see the same mistakes Crist explains playing out today and he predicts they will continue into the future because America and Iran have been isolated from each other since 1979 which leads to plenty of misperceptions and paranoia.


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