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.
And yet Obama’s outreached hand met only the ayatollah’s clenched fist. The administration’s approach was never without a punitive element, as economic penalties were imposed to remind the mullahs of the cost of their belligerency. And ingenious virus attacks on Iran’s computer network, presumably devised by U.S. and Israeli intelligence services, disabled Tehran’s nuclear apparatus and thus delayed its nuclear surge. Although the shadow wars have garnered much public attention, the most enduring legacy of Obama’s diplomacy has been to demonstrate that the true cause of the stalemate is Iranian intransigence.
One of the few flaws of this book is its lack of Iranian sources. Crist’s account is very much an American one — written through the prism of America’s experiences and relying on American sources. The paucity of Iranian material deprives “The Twilight War” of some of the insight that could have strengthened its thesis. How does the Islamic republic arrive at its national security decisions? How does Iran view its place in an unsettled Middle East grappling with a wave of political transitions? How do Iran’s competing power centers — the clerical leadership, the Revolutionary Guards, the presidency and the parliament — relate to one another? Is Iran being transformed into a military dictatorship in which the clerical authority is subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards? Such questions largely elude Crist’s examination because he views Iran through a distinctly American lens.
To be fair, Iran today is a country that equates research with espionage and thus is largely inaccessible to scholarly investigations. Still, Crist’s account would have been richer had he attempted to shed light on some of the perplexing questions surrounding Iran’s approach to the world.
In many ways, the story of U.S.-Iran relations is one of a start-and-stop romance, as the theocratic regime has rarely been in the mood to reciprocate America’s gestures. As Crist notes: “The Iran problem is an enduring constant in American foreign policy. Over decades, every administration has had its moments with Iran. . . . In the final analysis, Iran simply rejects any vision of the Middle East imposed by the will of the United States.” At times Tehran did profess a readiness to settle its many disputes with the United States, but ultimately its complicated political maze never produced a viable platform for negotiations. For much of the past two decades, the menacing shadow of the aging supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has haunted all diplomatic efforts;Khamenei sees engagement with the West as undermining the ideological solidarity of his pristine republic. It is hard to see how America’s forays into diplomacy could succeed, given such stark realities.
Crist has written an important and timely book that should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding how the United States and Iran went from close allies to enduring adversaries. Although not the last word on this subject, “The Twilight War” will remain an important contribution to the literature on U.S.-Iran relations for some time to come.
is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs.”