The Twilight War: the Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year War with Iran
© 2013 David Crist
In the presidential campaign of 2008, John McCain made plain what kind of aggressive foreign policy he would pursue by half-singing a chipper little ditty called “Bomb Iran”, to the tune of the Beach Boys classic, “Barbara Ann”. His malice was not even creative, for the song originated as a parody in early 1980. That parody, though, was close to being reality, for throughout the 1980s. American ships engaged in a quasi-war against Iran, ostensibly to protect the free flow of oil amid the Iraqi invasion of Iran. In The Twilight War, Kevin Crist documents the complete diplomatic and military history of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, from the Carter administration to the the frustrated diplomacy of Barack Obama. Written by the son of a CENTCOM general, it approaches being the American equivalent of Iran and the United States, written by an Iranian aide who appears here in interviews. The Twilight War goes into much more detail on military operations, however.
The essentials of the failed Iran-American relationship are known to most everyone: in 1953, the United States and Britain collaborated to oust Iran’s democratically-elected president, Mossadegh, and later militarily supported the increasingly authoritarian shah until he was thrown out in 1978. Most Americans were blissfully unaware that anyone in Iran had reason to cry foul until student revolutionaries seized the American embassy and held over a hundred American citizens, some of them civilians doing aid work, for over a year. The water was thus poisoned from both wells, leading to bumperstickers and Beach Boy bombing threats in America, and cries of “Death to America!” in Iran. Yet the power-caste in D.C cares little for principle; for them, what mattered about Iran was not that it had abused Americans, or that it had previously been manipulated by the American government: what mattered to the fellows in the Pentagon and Langley field was that Iran stood between the Soviet Union and the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf region. If Iran could be enlisted as an ally against the godless Soviets, huzzah; if not, well…no revolutionary government stays popular, and the invasion plans were already on the books.
Thus the initial approach to Iran was framed within not its Islamic status, but within the frame of the Cold War. The CIA accordingly passed in information to their newly avowed enemy, Khomeini, to help him exorcise the communists and other Soviet sympathizers from his rank. At the same time, however, the CIA and other military intelligence agencies attempted to create networks of informants and agents on the ground Iran, who would lay the groundwork for an invasion if that ever became necessary. What no one expected was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, which wasted over a million lives over an eight-year period. After Iran survived Hussein’s invasion and prepared to mount its own, the west –- organized by the United States – obliquely but purposely supported the Iraqi cause by selling war material to Saddam and interfering with Iran’s ability to purchase in European markets. More directly, the United States took on a military role in the Persian gulf, protecting oil tankers and other neutral ships from the Iranian military – and ignoring
Iraqi movements, as they did when an Iraqi fighter fired a missile at the USS Stark
. As with the USS Liberty
incident, in which Israel nearly destroyed an American ship, the blood in the water was quickly covered over in the interests of diplomacy. Such was the American commitment tin the Gulf that a separate global command, CENTCOM, was created to watch the middle east, and two mobile sea-bases were created in the Gulf itself to respond to Iran’s “guerilla war at sea”.
Later on, after the Soviet Union collapsed, there were moments that the United States and Iran might be able to build upon.The United States’ growing commitment in the middle east, prompted by the Gulf War, created no small amount of resentment and fear in Iran, however. For decades, Iran had been the plaything of the British and Russian empires, then the target of both the American and Soviet spheres of influence, and now the Americans weren’t even settling for fighting through proxies: their tanks were right there, in Saudi Arabia. Terrorism became an increasingly large factor in foreign relations, and the American commitment to both Saudi Arabia and Israel – Iran’s most unfavorite neighbors – continues to be a barrier. More recently, through the Bush and Obama administrations, the prevailing official reason for Iran’s designation as classroom pariah has been its pursuit of nuclear energy and the possibility of that pursuit also allowing Iran to manufacture nuclear arms. Frankly, I no longer trust the official reasoning of anyone coming out of D.C — coming of political age in age of Iraq’s phantom WMDs, and continuing to see the United States talk about both sides of its mouth in Syria — but the growth of the genocide in a bottle club is a serious issue. Still, as Crist’s account shows, there have been numerous instances when Iran and the United States were making headway, and then one party of the other decided not to follow through in good-faith arrangements.
Although The Twilight War’s detailed account of military operations and aborted diplomatic deals can sometimes appear overwhelming in its thoroughness, Iran is not fading in importance. To the contrary: only recently, an army of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian troops were able to surround ISIS and its allies in Aleppo. When the United States toppled Hussein’s regime in Iraq in the hopes of creating a democratic opponent of Iran, Iran’s influence in Iraq instead swelled. They’re not going away, and after sixteen years of constant war in the neighborhood, Americans aren’t particular enthusiastic about more nation-building games. This book is a good resource for understanding what has happened so far. In the light of the seemingly unpredictable Trump, however, who knows what will happen? (Given Trump’s business ties in Saudi Arabia and his avowed support of Israel, my guess is that he’s more likely to be antagonistic towards Iran than now.)