The dramatic secret history of our undeclared thirty-year conflict with Iran, revealing newsbreaking episodes of covert and deadly operations that brought the two nations to the brink of open war

For three decades, the United States and Iran have engaged in a secret war. It is a conflict that has never been acknowledged and a story that has never been told.

This surreptitious war began with the Iranian revolution and simmers today inside Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. Fights rage in the shadows, between the CIA and its network of spies and Iran’s intelligence agency. Battles are fought at sea with Iranians in small speedboats attacking Western oil tankers. This conflict has frustrated five American presidents, divided administrations, and repeatedly threatened to bring the two nations into open warfare. It is a story of shocking miscalculations, bitter debates, hidden casualties, boldness, and betrayal.

A senior historian for the federal government with unparalleled access to senior officials and key documents of several U.S. administrations, Crist has spent more than ten years researching and writing The Twilight War, and he breaks new ground on virtually every page. Crist describes the series of secret negotiations between Iran and the United States after 9/11, culminating in Iran’s proposal for a grand bargain for peace-which the Bush administration turned down. He documents the clandestine counterattack Iran launched after America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, in which thousands of soldiers disguised as reporters, tourists, pilgrims, and aid workers toiled to change the government in Baghdad and undercut American attempts to pacify the Iraqi insurgency. And he reveals in vivid detail for the first time a number of important stories of military and intelligence operations by both sides, both successes and failures, and their typically unexpected consequences.

Much has changed in the world since 1979, but Iran and America remain each other’s biggest national security nightmares. “The Iran problem” is a razor-sharp briar patch that has claimed its sixth presidential victim in Barack Obama and his administration. The Twilight War adds vital new depth to our understanding of this acute dilemma it is also a thrillingly engrossing read, animated by a healthy irony about human failings in the fog of not-quite war.

In 2012, relations between the United States and Iran had reached another nadir. The United States was now bent on more sanctions to bend Iran to the UN Security Council’s and Washington’s will. Rebuffed and wiser, President Obama ratcheted up the pressure, with the Treasury Department finding new, creative ways to close loopholes in sanctions and strangle Iranian commerce. Just before the new year, President Obama signed tough new sanctions against Iran. Imposed by a near unanimous Congress as a rider to the defense budget, for the first time, the United States targeted Iran’s central bank, the means by which the country received payment for its oil exports. The twenty-seven nations of the European Union followed suit with a pronouncement that they intended to phase out all oil imports from Iran. Europe was the second leading importer after China of Iranian crude, taking 450,000 barrels of Iran’s 2.6 million daily output.8 Iran responded with bellicosity. The chief of Iran’s regular navy, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, warned that his country could easily close the Strait of Hormuz, through which one sixth of the world’s oil flows. Sayyari, who came through the ranks of the Iranian naval special operations forces, was an aggressive combat veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and more akin to the Revolutionary Guard than his own naval service. In December 2011 and January 2012, both the regular navy and the Revolutionary Guard held large-scale and very public military exercises around the strait to demonstrate Iran’s resolve. Iranian authorities warned the U.S. Navy not to send another aircraft carrier through the gulf. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not repeat its warning,” said the head of Iran’s army, General Ataollah Salehi.

President Obama and his national security adviser Tom Donilon were in no mood to back down from this blatant threat against the world’s economy. Mattis was called back to Washington on a Sunday for two days of lengthy meetings at the White House, and the president publicly stated he would use force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. In the end, Iran’s threat proved hollow as American air craft carriers continued transiting without incident.

The crisis over Iran’s nuclear program grew evermore ominous. In February 2012, the IAEA issued a scathing report about Iranian obfuscation. Inspectors were denied access to both scientists and Iran’s secretive Parchin weapons facility. Israel continued to beat the war drums. That same month both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon led successive teams to Tel Aviv to try to talk Israel out of taking any immediate military action. They met with somber Israeli officials. Rather than spouting the usual talking points about Iran, the Americans found their counterparts far more serious and circumspect. Donilon’s team returned to Washington convinced that Israel intended to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities sooner rather than later.

On March 5, 2012, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with President Obama in the Oval Office.9 The two men already had a strained relationship, and the meeting did little to overcome their divisions, including those over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Obama stressed that there was no immediate need to attack Iran’s facilities because all the intelligence pointed to the fact that the supreme leader had not even decided to produce a nuclear weapon. The tough Israeli pushed back, saying that they could not wait until Iran entered into a “zone of immunity.” They had to strike now in order to prevent Iran from having the capability to develop nuclear bombs. Publicly, Obama tried to placate Israel’s concerns. “My policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons,” the president said before the meeting. He added, “When I say all options are on the table, I mean it.”10 Both sides agreed on tougher sanctions against Iran’s central bank, aimed at curtailing their oil exports.

This growing international isolation and economic pressure only heightened Iran’s paranoia that the real goal behind U.S. actions was the over-throw of the Islamic Republic. Anti-Americanism remained a pillar of the government’s policies, and no real change in this regard was likely to occur while the revolutionary generation remained in power. The young men who took to the streets, overthrew the shah, and fought eight years of a bloody war with an Iraqi government backed by Washington now had gray in their beards, but their attitudes remained the same. Like the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who wrote about the rise and fall of the great empires as repeated cycles in history, the supreme leader and his inner circle remained convinced that the West was declining and the next empire, Iran, was on the rise. The United States and its regional lackey, Israel, like the Soviets and communism before them, were going to collapse. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan showed that the United States was in retreat in the Middle East. While more realistic Iranian leaders like Javad Zarif understood that the reality was quite different, and Iran was never going to rival the United States in power, the fallout from the 2009 elections had marginalized many of these voices of reason.

While the 1979 revolution changed Iran’s government, the Islamic Republic maintained the age-old Iranian goal of being recognized as a regional power. “We should be the greatest power in the region and play a role accordingly,” said Hadi Nesanjani, who served in President Rafsanjani’s cabinet. While the new government was loath to put it in these terms, deeper even than the Shia religious motivations is an ingrained sense of Persian historical entitlement. As a nation, the Iranians predate all others in the region, with a lineage tracing back to the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great. A seat at the Middle East table is their natural right; it is the United States that stands in their path. Building this historical precedent, the Iranian Revolution had added a mission as the new defender of the downtrodden Shia across the Middle East and, by extension, all Muslims resisting the West and Israel. Starting in Lebanon, facilitated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and most recently in Yemen and Bahrain, Iran provided a steady stream of military and economic support to these movements. This puts Iran squarely at odds with both Israel and the Sunni governments backed by the United States.

The Iran problem is an enduring constant in American foreign policy. Over the decades, every administration has had its moments with Iran. The country has been too strategically important to ignore. Various administrations have tried to woo it back into the Western fold, or talk of replacing the Islamic Republic with one more to Washington’s liking, but the results have been uniformly miserable. In the final analysis, Iran simply rejects any vision of the Middle East as imposed by the will of the United States. A famous quote by Ayatollah Khomeini puts it succinctly: “We will resist America until our last breath.” Unfortunately, Washington has helped perpetuate the animosity. The United States has displayed a callous disregard for Iranian grievances and security concerns. Giving a medal to a ship’s captain who just inadvertently killed 290 civilians and then wondering why Iran might harbor resentment is just the most obvious example of American obtuseness. An ill-conceived intervention in the Lebanese Civil War against the Shia, while at the same time backing Iraq, threatened the new Iranian government. Tehran’s response, to level a building full of marines and to take American hostages, still colors American thinking, equally understandably. Washington invariably took the wrong course with Iran. When diplomatic openings appeared, hardliners refused to talk and advocated overthrowing the Islamic Republic. When Iran killed U.S. soldiers and marines in Lebanon and Iraq, successive administrations showed timidity when hard-liners called for retribution.

Glimmers of optimism invariably give way to the smell of cordite and talk of war. In 2012, the prospects for conflict peaked again. Seasoned, pragmatic Iran watchers called for tougher sanctions to punish Iranian intransigence regarding its nuclear program. But punishing Iran for its intransigence also hardens Iranian leaders and justifies in their minds the need for a nuclear program, both for increased self-sufficiency and as a deterrent against Western aggression. Within the U.S. administration, discussions in the White House Situation Room turned to the possibility of pressing for sanctions against Iran’s central bank. As this is the means by which Iran receives payment for its oil exports, this would be a radical act, tantamount to an embargo of Iranian oil. “Iran could see it as a de facto act of war,” said one senior Obama administration representative.

Unfortunately, now neither side has much desire to work to bridge their differences. 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 the gesture of a weak leader. Iran spurned him. Obama fell back on sanctions and CENTCOM; Iran fell back into its comfortable bed of terrorism and warmongering. Soon it may no longer be twilight; the light is dimming, and night may well be approaching at long last.


The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran

 DAVID CRIST published 2012

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