Even a cursory examination of newspapers and television programs will show that U.S.-Iran relations have once more collapsed into mutual accusations and threats of conflict. Iran’s growing nuclear appetite, its attachment to terror as an instrument of statecraft and America’s persistent sanctions policy suggest a conflict that does not yield easily to diplomatic mediation. This most complicated of relationships is the subject of David Crist’s lucid and thoughtful new book, “The Twilight War.”
Crist is entering well-traveled terrain, as U.S. policy toward Iran has been the subject of many scholarly and popular accounts. However, his attention to detail, engaging prose and extensive research should set his book above many of its counterparts.
(Penguin Press) - ‘The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran’ by David Crist
Amid the acrimony and tension, it is easy to miss the fact that every U.S. president since the inception of the Islamic republic in 1979 has reached out to the Iranian clergymen who hold power there in the hope of rekindling a lost alliance. As a close friend of the United States, the shah patrolled the Persian Gulf on behalf of his superpower patron and considered intimate relations with the United States a central pillar of his foreign policy. All this came to an end with an Islamist revolt that defamed the United States as the “great Satan.” Still, Ronald Reagan’s anti-communism and fear of Soviet encroachment led him to enter into a dialogue with Iran’s mullahs that culminated in the disastrous Iran-Contra affair. Both Bush presidencies, with their wars in the Middle East, engaged in tortuous and ultimately fruitless diplomacy with Tehran. Nor have the Democratic presidents been immune to the Iran bug, as Bill Clinton hoped to use an all-too brief reformist interlude to bring the recalcitrant theocracy back into the community of nations. And Barack Obama made engagement with adversaries an important principle of his first campaign for the presidency.
Although this ambitious book aims to cover three decades of U.S.-Iranian turmoil, nearly two-thirds of it is focused on the 1980s. Indeed, the first decade of this relationship is arguably the most important, for it was then that a template came into existence that continues to condition the choices of both sides. Crist is at his best on the Reagan years: the administration’s complicated personalities, an enveloping war between the giants of the gulf — Iran and Iraq — that threatened global oil supplies, and finally an arms-for-hostages deal that brought much discredit to the Reagan White House. Although Crist does a dutiful job of surveying subsequent presidencies, his account loses some of its verve and lapses into a more conventional narrative.
In many ways, Obama’s outreach to Iran is likely to be one of the most consequential episodes of this relationship. Crist effectively navigates the twists and turns of the past three years and the travails of an administration committed to a diplomatic settlement with one of America’s most enduring foes. For a long time, particularly during the George W. Bush administration, there was heated debate in Washington about the cause of the impasse in U.S.-Iran relations. Many in the commentariate argued that a sustained, pragmatic approach by the United States would inevitably be reciprocated by a theocratic state eager to put a debilitating conflict behind it. The breakthrough in Sino-American relations forged by Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong was often touted as a useful model, even though the differences between Iran and China rendered the analogy essentially useless.