Saturday, February 1, 2014

Iran: Twilight War, Nightmare or Daylight

Review by Bill Doughty
"Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-year Conflict with Iran" by David Crist ends on a pessimistic note, with both Iran and the United States in seemingly intractable hardened positions after three decades of quasi-war.

Crist predicted, "the light is dimming."  

Were we heading for a night and nightmare of war with Iran? Crist's book ends in 2012 so is understandably incomplete as history continues to unfold.

Crist walks us through the tense minefields and occasional explosions of the modern U.S.-Iran relationship.
"President Carter inherited a Persian Gulf policy forged entirely on the anvil of the Cold War," Crist writes, beginning with a face-off with Russia over Tehran in 1946. "The United States started from a distinct disadvantage in the nuclear balance in the Middle East. The Soviets arrayed a massive arsenal of strategic weapons toward the Persian Gulf, capable of devastating the area's military bases, ports and refineries and oil fields."
The roots of hostility with Iran itself can be traced to 1953 when the CIA ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and restored the monarchy under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.  The Iranian people's resentment would eventually lead to a revolution.
Hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979.

As tempers flared in the late 1960s, the U.S. couldn't show presence in the Persian Gulf because it was "bogged down" in Vietnam.

Ten years later, during the Iranian Revolution, in which the U.S. embassy was captured and 52 hostages were held for 444 days, defense options continued to be limited.  
"In the aftermath of Vietnam, the U.S. Army had committed itself intellectually and fiscally to building conventional forces poised for a massive clash of tanks and artillery in Germany ... While the admirals shared some of their army brethren's concerns about diverting ships away from the main effort against the Soviets -- in their case, in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans -- the Persian Gulf presented considerable challenges for the U.S. Navy.  Although since 1949 the United States had maintained a small show-the-flag flotilla based in Bahrain called Middle East Force, the navy had little experience operating in this remote, torrid region.  The Persian Gulf lay three thousand miles from the nearest naval base."
Carter, Brzezinski and Vance at the White House.
Crist contrasts the "perennially upbeat" and "energetic" President Reagan with the more detail-oriented President Carter but gives Carter, the former naval officer, credit  for developing "a new plan to defend Middle East oil, "staking out the American policy of freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.  Specifically, Carter authorized the Pentagon to use force to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil exports."

By the end of 1980 the U.S. was on a course to develop closer ties with pro-Western Arab nations in the region.  Military ties would fortify defenses for all concerned.

"The first military plans had been refined to combat the Soviets.  While Reagan's supporters touted the dawn of a new, firmer stance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, in fact it had been Jimmy Carter who laid the foundation for American grand strategy for the next decade," Crist writes.

The creation of CENTCOM and role of U.S. Pacific Fleet in the 80s are underscored.  Crist gives us detailed behind-the-scenes profiles of individuals, incidents and initiatives to deal with conflict.
"On April 29, 1988, President Reagan ordered U.S. forces to broaden the protection of vessels in the Gulf.  This marked a major change in the rules of engagement in the Gulf and muddled the clear distinction about belligerency.  U.S. warships were now free to take any action necessary to end an Iranian attack in progress, including using deadly force, but they could not retaliate for an attack that had previously occurred."
The Iranian frigate Sahand burns after being attacked by aircraft from USS Enterprise in 1988.
Several situations came close to sparking all-out war with Iran during the late 80s and in the years since:
  • Iran's Sabalan and Sahand provocations and Navy's response in "Praying Mantis"
  • USS Samuel B. Roberts mine strike
  • USS Vincennes shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655
  • Arms for hostages in the ill-fated Iran Contra Affair
  • Bombing of Marine Barracks in Lebanon
  • Direct harassment, threats and plots against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Quds Force actions, including bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia
  • Support to Hamas and other extremist groups
  • Threats with Sudan to "the other great maritime choke point": the Suez Canal
  • Hostility and threats to USS Paul F. Foster, USS Hopper, USS Port Royal, USS Ingraham and other U.S. warships
Vice President Bush (right) briefs President Reagan.
Crist describes President George H. W. Bush's overtures for a better relationship with Iran as the 80s ended.  Bush, also a former naval officer, extended "a major olive branch to the Iranians" in the middle of another crisis, in which Iran-influenced Hezbollah held American hostages in Lebanon.

Bush Senior said in his first inaugural address, "Assistance can be shown here, and will be long remembered.  Goodwill begets goodwill.  Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on ... Great nations like great men must keep their word.  When America says something, America means it, whether a treaty or an agreement or a vow made on marble steps."

In the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, death of Ayatollah Khomeini and ascension of Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rafsanjani, rapprochement looked possible.  However, good relations did not materialize in a climate of mistrust and "a list of four issues that divided the two nations," according to Crist: "terrorism, the Middle East peace process, weapons of mass destruction, and human rights."

The night of war seemed closer, Crist says, in 1995 as Iranians perceived provocations by President Clinton's defense department and actions by Congress.
"The new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, a plump Georgian intellect and not one to shy away from the press, openly advocated overthrowing the Iranian regime.  He argued that Clinton's dual containment lacked any stick with which to beat the intransigent mullahs.  While the Clinton administration immediately rejected the feasibility of overthrowing the Iranian government, Gingrich pushed through a very public $18 million plus-up for the CIA's covert action budget for Iran."
Ironically, instead of buying regime change the money was used for "small programs such as the 'Great Books' program, which sought to smuggle classics of Western literature into the country," such as Kafka and Alex deTocqueville's "Democracy in America."  However, "Gingrich's CIA funding enraged the Iranians," and they saw it as a declaration of covert war, something Iran excelled in, Crist says.

In the wake of he Khobar Towers and on the brink of war, the winds shifted again with the election of President Khatami.

Khatami "pushed for economic reform and political liberalization" that extended to foreign policy and even religion.  Crist writes, "He advocated that there could be more than a single interpretation of Islam, with a more contemporary reading of the Koran."  In an interview with CNN's American reporter Christiane Amanpour, Khatami strongly condemned terrorism "in all its forms and manifestations."
"The election of Mohammad Khatami changed the dynamics in the waters of the Persian Gulf too.  The harassment of U.S. warships transiting the Persian Gulf ceased.  Late on the morning of September 19, 1999, the American cruiser USS Lake Erie intercepted a Belize-flagged merchant ship suspected of smuggling Iraqi crude.  the U.S. warship stopped the ship just three miles from Iranian waters, but in an area claimed by Tehran.  It was just the sort of incident that would have threatened to escalate in the past.  But this time Tehran simply lodged a complaint with the United Nations.  The Revolutionary Guard never displayed the professional attitude of the Iranian navy, but it was clear that Khatami had reined in the bellicose excesses of the guard commanders.  The tension in the Gulf decreased precipitously."
Crist writes, "The next spring Clinton took a gamble by offering another olive branch to Iran." But, "Thus far, American overtures toward Iran had yielded nothing."

Hardliners in Iran, the author shows, conspired to undermine any hopes at rapprochement.  Harassment of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf continued.
In 2000 USS Cole was bombed in the port of Aden, Yemen, killing 17 Sailors and wounding 39 in the worst attack against a Navy warship since Iraq attacked USS Stark in 1987.  Evidence would show the Cole attack was perpetrated by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but strong suspicions turned to Iran.

President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld came into power and expedited military plans for dealing with Iran.

But Crist shows how the Bush administration, which included national security advisor Condi Rice, assistant defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, William Luti, Peter Rodman, Doug Feith and other "neocons," also shifted focus to Iraq especially following the attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

Suddenly, Iran became the "enemy of my enemy" in the complicated morass of Sunni/Shi'ite Muslim ideology.
"The perpetrators of 9/11 were harbored by a fiercely anti-Shia, anti-Iranian Afghan tribal alliance, the Taliban. Iran supported the main opposition group, the Northern Alliance, with close ties to the legendary Afghan resistance fighter who opposed both the Soviets and the Taliban, Ahmad Massoud. In 1998, Iran threatened to invade Afghanistan following the killing of eight Iranian diplomats by Taliban forces when they stormed the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan.  As a result, Iran increased its support for the Northern Alliance and the anti-Taliban forces."
Nevertheless, President George W. Bush linked Iran not only with Iraq but also with North Korea when in 2000 he called all three nations "an axis of evil."  The comments in his 2002 State of the Union speech were greeted with indignation in Iran.

Unfortunately, after the "axis of evil" characterization, Iran pulled out of "promising talks" with Secretary of State Colin Powell's emissary, Ryan Crocker.

On one point, everyone in the Bush administration and subsequent Obama administration agreed:  the need to get Iran to stop its developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Marine Gen. Mattis meets with then Secretary of Defense Gates in 2011.
That point of contention with Iran led to international sanctions. Tough-minded leaders in the military like General Abizaid, Admiral Gortney and General Mattis built coalitions and strategies and stood strong against Iran without igniting war.

Of the current Commander in Chief, Crist writes, "During the course of Barack Obama's first three years in office, his policy had morphed from one of hopeful optimism and an extended hand of friendship to harsh sanctions and preparations for war ... While critics accused him of being naive in his initial approach, Obama's policy was more sophisticated than many realized.  He knew the sticks of sanctions or military strikes were always there; what he did not know was whether Iran was seriously willing to sit down and discuss the differences that had divided the two nations for more than thirty years."

This book is a comprehensive, extremely well-researched accounting of Iran-U.S. animosity, with many fits and starts toward normal relations, but it does not end on a hopeful note:
"Distrust permeates the relationship.  Three decades of twilight war have hardened both sides. When someone within the fractured governing class in Tehran reached out to the American president, the United States was unwilling to accept anything but capitulation.  When President Obama made a heartfelt opening, a smug Iranian leadership viewed it as a ruse or a gesture of a weak leader.  Iran spurned him ..."
Iranian President Rouhani at the United Nations in September 2013.
Crist's pessimism may be simply because the author's narrative doesn't go beyond 2012.  With the democratic election of President Hassan Rouhani last summer, Iran's signing of a short-term nuclear deal in November, and partial lifting of sanctions in January 2014, there is genuine hope among analysts for a new dawn rather than a nightmare of another war in the region.  

Threatening reconciliation: hardliners in Iran and the U.S. resurfacing once again to move toward conflict and confrontation.  And so it goes.

"Twilight War's" epilogue offers a fascinating account of a thwarted Iranian assassination plot in Washington D.C. against the Saudi ambassador to the United States.  The anecdote reads like an episode of TV's "Homeland" or, with it's Mexican drug smuggler side story, an episode of "Breaking Bad."  

Crist's thorough and engrossing history of America's relationship with Iran is a key read on the CNO's reading list.  This review may be long but it only scratches the surface of what this book has to offer.

Also recommended: Time magazine's recent piece by Robin Wright with a fresh perspective of the issues -- also tied to history and the roots of the Iranian Revolution.

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