TLC Book Tour Review of “The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran” by David Crist

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 (via clandestine operations of the CIA) 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 was the clerical regime in Iran (taking over after the Shah’s overthrow) 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 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.

Americans seized in Iran on November 4, 1979; 66 hostages were taken initially; 52 were kept for 444 days.

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.

Rating: 4/5

Published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2012

Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours.

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12 Responses to TLC Book Tour Review of “The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran” by David Crist

  1. Sandy says:

    I’ve read a couple of books that have addressed the relations between the US and the Middle East, and it is overwhelming. It really makes you wonder if there is any hope for anything but hate between the two. It is too bad that the author didn’t do a better job at the details. It just undermines some of his credibility.

  2. Beth F says:

    The whole Middle East thing is so incredibly complicated, the more we read about it the better we can hope to gain a grain of understanding. The misuse of words drives me nuts. Where were the editors??

  3. Trish says:

    Fantastic review of a subject that I really only know from read bits and pieces of memoirs of Iranians who have left the country. I didn’t know about the 1953 events until your review, Jim, and am now curious to know more. Interesting how the history that is typically heard begins with the overthrow of the Shah in 79.

  4. sagustocox says:

    I like that he attempts to tackle such a complex topic, but with an emphasis on military without the political leaves me a little cold given that they inform one another….also the absence of the overthrow is a large oversight.

  5. BermudaOnion says:

    Y’all sure do some heavy reading at your house. I know I should be more interested in world events, but I keep my head in the sand.

  6. zibilee says:

    It seems that this book has a few problems, but that it is also very insightful on the problems between these two countries. I don’t know if I would read it, because based on my lack of understanding about the issues and the region, It would probably confuse the hell out of me. I did really get a lot out of your review today, Jim. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. It’s hard not to be at least a little freaked out by the tensions, disagreements and escalations in the Middle East. I sometimes wonder what is the most effective strategy because sanctions seem like a slap on the wrist sometimes, whereas war has such a huge cost in every sense yet some want to just rush into it. I wish that there were easier answers.

  8. Julie P. says:

    Thanks for reviewing this one because I would never read an entire book on this subject. I found your review to be fascinating though!

  9. Thanks for having Jim review this for the tour!

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    The state of world affairs is depressing and distressing. Before Gage I was able to keep on top of it, but these days most of my time is spent entertaining a toddler, a husband and occasionally myself. Too many worries to be worrying about the bigger things.
    Thanks to Jim for the crash course!

  11. Jenny says:

    And the jet as well? Did the book talk about that? I always worry that people don’t know about that time we accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet, but that was a pretty bad time, that time.

    This book sounds good! I am planning to do a reading project at some point where I learn all about the whole history of Iran from the beginning of time until now. I think it will be a kick-ass reading project, and this book will feature.

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