The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East
© 2016 Jay Solomon
When the young people of Iran hit the streets in protest about suspicious election returns in 2009, the United States was unexpectedly quiet. For years DC’s establishment had voiced ominous desires to effect regime change in Iran, and now an opportunity had presented itself. All that was needed was a little stoking of the fires, passing of intelligence and funds to the right people. And yet..nothing happened, and soon the leaders of the “Green Movement” were in jail. What no one realized then was that the Obama administration had already begun its efforts to move toward some kind of concordance with Iran, and that this silence was a show of good faith, an indication that the administration was serious about its efforts to establish a working relationship with the Islamic Republic. Much of DC’s foreign policy in the middle east from 2001 to 2016 was conducted with an eye towards Iran, including the American response to Syria, and The Iran Wars follows two presidents’ attempts to find a solution to the Iranian problem, through war, finance, and diplomacy.
The middle east is a complicated place, to say the least, with active ethnic, religious, and political conflicts. Iran’s role in all this is poorly understood by many Americans; in addition to Persians and Arabs being two separate ethnic groups with a competitive history, the version of Islam which is the state religion in Iran is a minority everywhere else, and viewed with contempt by Saudi-held Arabia, al-Queda and its would-be successor, ISIS. Iran’s sole ally in the Arab world, Syria, is an important support for it, and a source of continuing conflict between Iran and the west.
The events of September 11, 2001, as tragic as they were, presented an opportunity for American-Iranian relations to begin anew, with a common enemy in al-Queda and its drug trade. What opportunity there may have been, never developed by skeptical aides, was dead by the time DC chose to invade Iraq, with the intent of weakening Iran’s influence in the region by freeing its Shiite majority from Saddam’s rule and giving them the opportunity to protest against the ayatollahs. Instead, that Shiite majority aligned with Iran more closely as sectarian war erupted in the region, That conflict was promoted by both Syria and Iran to prevent American power from growing in Iraq, as Assad promoted Sunni militias in the north and Iran promoted Shiia power in the south. Their role in promoting Iraqi instability made both enemies in DC and abroad. Still worse, Iran counted itself the implacable foe of Israel and pursued nuclear capabilities, with the possibility of militarization.
Although some in DC ominously hinted that military options were fully on the table for addressing Iran, with so many resources mired in two civil wars, few actually proposed it. Bush chose instead to develop a third option: disrupting Iran’s nuclear program through cyber warfare. (See Countdown to Zero Day for a comprehensive history of that.) Solomon only barely mentions this, but moves quickly on to Obama’s two-track attempt to reach some kind of concordance with Iran. Obama moved to isolate Iran financially by working with China and the powers of Europe to effect heavy sanctions and remove Iran from the global economy, while at the same time reaching out to the Iranian people through public speeches, and Iranian leadership through an Omani intermediary who saw his vocation as being a broker of peace between DC and Iran.
Both tracks meant compromise, as DC had to give more than it would like to prove to both its international partners and Iran that it was serious about effecting a deal. It also meant that Obama felt compelled to intervene in Libya to indicate to Iran that he was serious about enforcing red lines, but had to walk back his threats against Assad so as not to drive the Syrian ruler’s allies from the negotiating table. Although the deal itself was hailed as a triumph, with one historian optimistically chronicling it in a volume called Losing an Enemy, Jay Solomon concludes this history with a warning. If DC and Iran do truly establish a lasting peace, there will be disruption to contend with. The Saudi family in particular may aggressively court other alliances, and whatever influence DC has over its codependent partner will lessen. The Iran wars are not over, writes Solomon; this deal, as promising as it sounds, is only the start of a new chapter.
Solomon was quickly proven correct, and in 2018 it is sad to read about the years of dogged labor Kerry, Obama, Mohammad Zarif, and Sultan Qaboos poured into making the deal, including the long labors with Europe and China, now squandered, and US diplomatic credibility seriously reduced. For me, this was a valuable book to read, illustrating why Obama reacted toward Syria as he did, and why Syria is such an obsessive target for the west in the first place.
- The Twilight War: The Secret of America’s Thirty Year War with Iran, David Crist
- Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon, Kim Zetter
- Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of Power, David Sanger
- Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, Seyed Hossain Mousavian