Note: This book is reviewed by my husband Jim.
The United States and Iran have been enemies since the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in 1979. Few Americas are aware of how bitter the enmity has been. David Crist’s important new book, subtitled “The Secret History of America’s Thirty –Year Conflict with Iran,” outlines the origins and background of the conflict and details the numerous military confrontations that have brought us to the brink of outright war several times. Crist is a Marine colonel whose father was a four-star Marine general in charge of the U.S. Central Command, the organization tasked with military operations in the Middle East. He has an excellent sense of military tactics and strategy, and describes battlefield and naval confrontations with an aura of authenticity.
Crist’s narrative begins in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah, and thus omits a discussion of American participation in the coup that overthrew the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed the Shah in 1953. This omission is hard to justify; it is an important element in understanding the intense hatred of the United States that motivated Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and many of the students who overran the American Embassy and precipitated the hostage crisis of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
The United States was slow to recognize how implacable an enemy the clerical regime in Iran was because the Americans were worried more about Soviet intervention than the rise of an unallied adversary. Nonetheless, the U.S. clearly sided with Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1981. The U.S. wanted to make sure oil kept flowing through the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, despite Iran’s efforts to prevent Iraq’s allies, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, from using those waters to transport petroleum. For several years, the U.S. Navy confronted the Iranian navy (such as it was) in a nasty standoff that has become known as the “tanker war.”
The actual fighting between the U.S. and Iran has almost always been asymmetric: Iranian speedboats vs. U.S. Navy destroyers, cruisers, or air craft carriers or suicide bombers vs. traditional military. But in recent years, Iranian armed and financed surrogates like Hezbollah and Shiite Iraqi insurgents have carried out successful terrorist attacks against American targets.
A few times in the past 30 years, the interests of the two adversaries coincided. The Iranians were somewhat helpful in both U.S. wars against Iraq, and they initially were helpful in the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. On the other hand, several incidents have almost resulted in outright war between the U.S. and Iran; Crist observed one such case himself in 2003.
A persistent theme of the book is that Iran is difficult to deal with because its government is so incompetent—it is never quite clear who (if anyone) is actually in charge. Crist sees this phenomenon as a potential cause of a “war of miscalculation.” Drawing upon hundreds of interviews and research into military archives, Crist reveals that there have been a number of “close calls” and he sees no prospect for better relations any time soon.
The author is especially critical of Ronald Reagan’s handling of Iran. He thought Reagan was too empathetic toward hostages held by Iranian surrogates, and found himself out-negotiated and bamboozled by the wily Persians. Crist is not especially favorable about Jimmy Carter either, although Mark Bowden, in Guests of the Ayatollah suggested that Carter was tougher than is generally known. Crist gives George W. Bush low marks for focusing on the moral iniquity of Iran, a position bound to add nothing but further alienation.
Crist ends his long and detailed account pessimistically. He suggests that Iran has become even more belligerent over time, and that the U.S. has not been sufficiently firm. He does not see much hope for avoiding an escalation of the “twilight” war with Iran unless the two sides begin to speak one another’s language, in all senses of the phrase.
Evaluation: Crist’s occasionally commits some common misuses of words. He confuses disinterest (impartiality) with lack of interest and he writes that Colin Powell is “precise in his verbiage,” which is a pretty good trick since verbiage means “an excess of words for the purpose.”
Crist emphasizes the military aspects of the confrontation somewhat more than the political aspects, which may account for his omission of a discussion of the effects of the 1953 CIA-backed overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh. Nevertheless, this book is full of insights about important aspects of the U.S.-Iran relationship, especially given the current tension over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And based on past history, it is extremely unlikely that the Iranians have told or will tell the truth about their nuclear program. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the real state of affairs in today’s Middle East.
Published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2012
Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours.