The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran

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9780143123675: The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran

The dramatic secret history of the undeclared, ongoing war between the U.S. and Iran

For the past three decades, the United States and Iran have been engaged in an unacknowledged secret war. This conflict has frustrated five American presidents, divided administrations, and repeatedly threatened to bring the two nations to the brink of open warfare. Drawing upon unparalleled access to senior officials and key documents of several U.S. administrations, David Crist, a senior historian in the federal government, breaks new ground on virtually every page of The Twilight War. From the Iranian Revolution to secret negotiations between Iran and the United States after 9/11 to Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions against it, Crist brings vital new depth to our understanding of “the Iran problem”—and what the future of this tense relationship may bring.

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About the Author:

David Crist is currently a historian for the federal government. As a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, he served in the first gulf war and made two tours with elite special operations forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. He lives in Maryland.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PENGUIN BOOKS

THE TWILIGHT WAR

David Crist is currently a historian for the federal government and a frequent adviser to senior government and military officials on the Middle East. As a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Crist served in the first Gulf War, made two tours with elite special operations forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was part of the first U.S. military forces inside Afghanistan who overthrew the Taliban. He received a BA from the University of Virginia and a master’s and doctorate in Middle Eastern history from Florida State University. He lives in Potomac, Maryland.

Praise for The Twilight War

“Crist’s painstakingly researched and elegantly written account of the United States–Iran cold war is an earnest chronicle of this shadowy history. . . . Deserves a spot on the short list of must-read books on United States–Iran relations.”

—Karim Sadjadpour, The New York Times

“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.”

The Washington Post

“A fascinating, detailed history of American-Iranian foreign relations. . . Crist is a natural-born writer, and the best parts of The Twilight War are not just engaging, but thrilling. His account of the 1988 naval mine strike on the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf reads almost like the script for an action movie, in large part because he’s careful to pay attention to the actual people behind the sailors’ uniforms. It’s that concern for humanity that also renders his narratives of the bombings of the Beirut barracks (in 1983) and the Khobar Towers (in 1996) so chilling, immediate, and heartbreaking.”

—Michael Shaub, NPR.com

“Crist deftly profiles the politicians, spies, and military leaders—both American and Iranian—who shaped the emerging ‘quasi-war’ between the superpower and the Iranian regime. . . . One need not agree with all of Mr. Crist’s political judgments to appreciate the service he has rendered.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Crist’s history is required reading.”

The Daily Beast

“Completely in command of the competing interests and personalities at the highest levels of American policy making, Crist has an equally impressive grasp of the ebb and flow of diverse viewpoints in Iranian religious, political, and military councils. The battle scenes are edge-of-the-seat gripping, and the author is keenly insightful. . . . This is likely to be the authoritative history of the origins and progress of the Iranian policy morass for years to come.”

Kirkus Reviews

“With important insights into Middle Eastern affairs and American policy making, this is highly recommended for serious readers.”

Library Journal

“In this well-researched book, historian and former marine Crist makes the case that the United States is already enmeshed in a hidden war with Iran that has raged unacknowledged for decades. . . . Crist reveals many previously unreported details of recent maneuverings.”

Publishers Weekly

“This is the foreign policy book of the year, perhaps of many years. And it could not be more timely. It is filled with facts and anecdotes that will startle even insiders, such as the CIA’s role in helping the ayatollahs destroy their opposition in 1983, and the fact that the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut the same year was first suggested by the Iranian ambassador to Syria. In many ways it is the secret history of the last three decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East.”

—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Generals

“David Crist has written an exceptional, timely, and important history of our conflict with Iran. The Twilight War is a well-written and thoroughly researched work that is a must-read for all those involved in the current decision making on Iran and for those interested in understanding the complex nature of this growing confrontation. Crist is a rare historian whose education, military experience, superb writing style, and regional knowledge clearly make this book the definitive work on this subject.”

—General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Retired)

THE
TWILIGHT WAR

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

DAVID CRIST

PREFACE

Every day one fifth of the world’s oil exports flow through the twenty-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz that links the Persian Gulf with the outside world. Since 1949 the U.S. Navy has patrolled this waterway, projecting American power and ensuring the continuous flow of the lifeblood of the world’s economy. There are few areas regarding which the United States has more firmly committed its blood and treasure to safeguard its interests. In the past twenty-five years, the United States has fought three wars in the area: two in Iraq and one, the subject of this book, a still ongoing struggle against Iran.

This strategically vital body of water can be an uninviting place. When the wind kicks up, the blowing sand and dust create a haze that blurs the horizon and the muddy waters into one seamless brown tapestry. If you add in the tangled clusters of poisonous sea snakes and temperatures in excess of 120 degrees and humidity to match, there are few places that American servicemen and -women serve that are as inhospitable as the Persian Gulf.

The morning of April 4, 2003, broke better than many. A strong sea breeze and brilliant sunrise portended well for the day’s mission. The American invasion of Iraq was two weeks old. As a major in the marines corps, I sat off the entrance to the Shatt al-Arab—a wide river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which serves as the border between Iran and Iraq. I was embarked on board one of the strangest ships in the navy’s inventory: a giant catamaran. Built as a high-speed ferry, it had a cavernous interior of car ramps and was still replete with a bar and stadium seats for passengers to relax and enjoy cocktails. Sailors replaced the booze with cases of bottled water and juice, and a sophisticated command center occupied half of the lounge, with chairs and tables removed for banks of computers and a large screen that showed in blue, red, and green military symbols the real-time locations of every U.S., Iraqi, and Iranian ship and plane in the area. I happened to be one of the few marines assigned to the navy’s elite SEALs. As a reservist, I had been recalled to active duty by Special Operations Command to deploy with this group under an energetic captain named Robert Harward. I had served under him the year before when special operations forces led the way into Afghanistan after 9/11 and hunted the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which were hiding out in caves and farms across the rugged southeastern parts of that harsh land. This time, our mission was to drop off four small, heavily armed boats to transit the Shatt al-Arab all the way up to the second-largest city in Iraq, the important port city of Basra. The point of the operation was to assert American freedom of navigation and to search for possible suicide boats that the navy worried would spring out of the inlets and repeat the disaster of the USS Cole a few years earlier.

This was not my first war in the Middle East. I spent eight months baking under the desert sun during the first war against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Then I had been assigned to a marine armor reconnaissance battalion under the command of a future general named Keith Holcomb. He had been a United Nations observer in south Lebanon, knew Arabic, and engrossed me with stories of the guerrilla war being waged by a Shia group called Hezbollah, or Party of God, against the modern Israeli army. The entire experience spurred my interest in the Middle East. After the war, I went back to graduate school for a doctorate in modern Middle East history during the decade-long lull between the two Iraqi conflicts.

I had more of an awareness than many of my military contemporaries of the tortured relations between the United States and Iran. During the 1980s, my father, a four-star marine general named George Crist, commanded U.S. Central Command—CENTCOM, as it’s commonly abbreviated—with responsibility for all the American forces in the Middle East. At the time, the Soviet Union dominated Washington’s thinking and Europe, not the Middle East, was our army’s most important theater. But my father and CENTCOM had been involved in a strange conflict with Iran, best described as a guerrilla war at sea, a struggle waged by covert naval mining from dhows and hit and run attacks against American convoys by a mosquito fleet of fast boats manned by aggressive Revolutionary Guards. The United States and Iran engaged in this quasi-war for nearly two years, culminating in the U.S. Navy’s largest surface battle since the Second World War, all while the Pentagon worried more about fending off hordes of Soviet tanks on the plains of central Europe than Iran. However, over the past thirty years, the Persians and not the Russians proved to be the more enduring threat for the United States.

When I looked for a dissertation topic, I discovered this largely unknown secret war with Iran. I spent the next five years researching and writing the story of this first war with Iran and how it fit into the larger context of President Ronald Reagan’s policy for the Middle East.

Iran, however, was not on my mind as dawn broke over the blue Gulf waters on the morning of April 4, 2003. Inside the command center of the catamaran turned warship, I watched as our four gunboats puttered north, into the Shatt al-Arab, threading carefully the divide between Iran and Iraq. Harward was worried about provoking Iran. He took pains to avoid a confrontation, placing a Farsi-speaking SEAL in the lead boat and ordering the small flotilla well within Iraqi territorial waters, so much so that they ran aground several times. We even erected a makeshift Iranian flag on one of the boats, which Harward felt would display our peaceful intentions. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responded by sending four small boats toward us at high speed, the largest being a fast Swedish-built Boghammer, which resembles a cigarette boat, outfitted with a twin-barrel machine gun on its bow. It was this same boat that had been the bane of the U.S. Navy during my father’s time fifteen years earlier. With rooster tails of white water, the boats came barreling over to the Iraqi side of the waterway, surrounded us, and took the tarp off at least one multiple rocket launcher and pointed it directly at our lead boat. A major shootout with Iraq’s powerful Persian neighbor appeared imminent. Suddenly, my research on Iran no longer seemed so academic.

What I did not know until later, while researching this book, was how little CENTCOM or the civilians in the Pentagon had bothered to consider Iran when planning to remove Saddam Hussein. The incident with the Iranians off the Iraqi coast should have come as no surprise. This would not be the only oversight in what was one of the worst planned campaigns ever executed by the U.S. military. When the last U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011, nearly five hundred Americans had died at the hands of the Iranian-backed militias, and the nature of the democratically elected Iraqi government, achieved at the cost of so much American blood and treasure, had been brokered in Tehran.

The twilight hours hold special significance in warfare. Your eyes are not acclimated to the changing light, and normal body cycles make soldiers less alert. I had this drilled into me as an aspiring marine corps officer. As dusk approached following a day of trudging around the woods of Quantico, Virginia, the last hour spent struggling to dig a fighting hole through a maze of roots with a small folding shovel that was frustratingly inadequate for the task, a captain suddenly hollered, “Stand to!” As the setting sun cast long shadows across the forest, I dropped into my partially dug pit and pointed my rifle out into the brush and trees. “You are always most vulnerable to enemy attack during the periods of morning nautical twilight and evening nautical twilight,” the instructor said, as part of a well-rehearsed lesson on tactics. “Dusk and dawn are transition periods,” he continued, with matter-of-fact delivery.

In 1987, when I attended the Basic School, a six-month-long school mandatory for all newly minted marine second lieutenants, many officers and senior enlisted had served in Vietnam. The lessons of that conflict, where the Vietcong frequently struck during twilight hours, had been seared into the collective memory of the service. Although with current technology a modern military can attack even on moonless nights or at the peak of the midday sun, the idea remains a valid military tactic. In July 2008, one of the worst attacks inflicted on the U.S. Army occurred just as the first hint of light appeared in the eastern sky of Afghanistan, when the Taliban struck a remote outpost, killing and wounding thirty-six soldiers. While no one attacked us during the training exercise in Quantico, the point stuck with me.

Twilight is an accurate metaphor for the current state of affairs between the United States and Iran. With no diplomatic ties and only occasional meetings in dark corners of hotel bars and through shadowy intermediaries, neither side has an accurate view of the other. The United States lacks clarity about Iranian leaders and the complex structure of the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Iran grows increasingly isolated and ignorant about the United States. This gray zone is dangerous. The threat of miscalculation is great and the military consequences can be grave. For three decades, the two nations have been suspended between war and peace. At various times, relations have moved from the light of peace to the darkness of war. But in the end, 2012 still looks remarkably like 1979, with the two nations still at loggerheads.

Both countries bear some culpability for perpetuating this conflict. The Iranian Revolution was born from anti-Americanism. The leaders who spearheaded that movement thirty years ago remain in power and see little need to change their stance. Hard liners in Iran reject the status quo of American supremacy in the region. With each chant of “Death to America,” they hope to reinvigorate the same fervor that swept them into power and tossed out an unpopular dictator, the shah of Iran, who had been imposed by the United States in a coup in 1953. While in this conflict the United States remains largely the good guy, it has not always been the perfect guy. Both Bush administrations dismissed Iranian goodwill gestures and refused to accept any dialogue that addressed Iran’s legitimate security concerns. The United States supported Saddam Hussein and his Arab bankrollers in a bloody war against the Islamic Republic that killed several hundred thousand Iranian soldiers. The mantra of regime change remains a frequent slogan in many quarters in Washington. Unfortunately, Iran’s response to these trespasses has invariably been to use the tools of the terrorist: an exploding car bomb on a crowded street or a plot to kill a diplomat in a popular Washington restaurant.<...

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