David Crist's authoritative 'The Twilight War' details America's conflict with Iran

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David Crist's book is much more than a history of U.S.-Iran relations since that country's revolution in 1979 brought the Shia Muslim ayatollahs to power, although it can serve also as a reliable chronicle of that sequence of events.

The author works from premises that are useful to anyone seeking an explanation of why the U.S. has not managed to get past the Iranian revolutionaries' invasion of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 to arrive at reasonable relations with Iran. It is a country of 70 million, bordering on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and three other countries, with significant oil resources, considerable potential as a market for American products ranging from arms to other U.S. technology, and a population with strong trading instincts and a general taste for bargaining.

By David Crist
The Penguin Press ($36).

Mr. Crist. now a senior historian for the federal government, is a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, who served in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan and Iraq. His theme is that the United States has basically been at war with Iran for the past 33 years. It has been to some extent a war in the shadows. Although composed of some very violent and dangerous incidents, the conflict has managed not to break out yet into a broader, more dangerous shooting war such as the United States has been involved in with Afghanistan and Iraq.

He would argue that Iran and the United States have maintained the varying tempo of that war through some exercise of restraint on both sides. Provocation on the Iranian side has included the killing of some 500 U.S. troops in Iraq through the provision of weapons to anti-U.S. Iraqi elements. Iran, acting indirectly through the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, took and held American hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s. The main Iranian offense against the United States was the invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by demonstrators that resulted in 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days before being released under an agreement between the United States and Iran, the Algiers Accords, in 1981. (I have particular sensibilities about the hostage affair, with two of my friends and colleagues having been among those held by the Iranians in very difficult circumstances.)

Probably the worst action the United States took against Iran was the shooting down in 1988 of a civilian airliner, Iran Air 655, in which 290 died. The United States called it an accident; the Iranians weren't so sure. Earlier this year, at the instigation of American lobbyists, the U.S. government removed from its list of terrorist organizations the anti-Iranian government movement Mujahideen-e-Khalq. The United States had designated MEK as terrorists as a result of killings they had carried out, including of Americans. Israel and the United States have waged cyberwarfare against Iran, damaging its nuclear program equipment with the Stuxnet virus. There were also several assassinations of Iranian scientists.

The main item of complaint the Tehran government has against the United States, and the one that serves as the most fundamental barrier to useful dialogue between the two countries is U.S. displays of intent to bring about regime change in Iran.

The U.S. specifically renounced this policy in the 1981 Algiers Accords, but it has since stated that it considers the agreement to be "not a binding obligation." The current nervewracking piece of the regime-change issue, from the Iranian point of view, is Israeli threats to attack Iran to try to destroy its nuclear program, with or without U.S. support, dependent to some degree on American politics.

The end result is that useful dialogue between the United States and Iran has not yet been re-established from its pre-1979 state, when cooperation was close. Mr. Crist not only documents this but also explains its importance.

Iran is a country that in the 1970s the United States deemed important enough to consider using nuclear weapons to keep it out of the hands of the Soviet Union, in the process probably launching World War III.

This book is loaded with information that Americans should have if they wish to understand not only the Middle East, but also global politics as they revolve around that region. It is a long 572 pages and probably has too much military detail, but is extremely relevant to subjects of great importance.

By the way, war with Iran is to be avoided. Department of Defense analysis indicated that regime change there would take 500,000 U.S. troops at least three years to achieve.

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Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).


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