Foreign Policy Blogs

A Candid Discussion with David Crist

david cristDr. David Crist is the author of the book “The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran.” Dr. Crist currently serves as historian for the federal government. As an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, he saw first-hand the war against Al Qaeda and the confrontation with Iran. He served in the first Gulf War and two tours with elite special operations forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Dr. Crist was part of the first U.S. military forces inside Afghanistan who overthrew the Taliban. In 2003, he personally witnessed the confrontation between American patrol boats and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces off the Iraqi coast in one of the tensest incidents between the two nations in 20 years.

A Middle East scholar and recognized expert on Iran and defense issues, he is a frequent adviser to senior government and military officials on the Middle East. He received a B.A. from the University of Virginia and a master’s and doctorate in Middle Eastern history from Florida State University. Dr. Crist sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association to discuss his book and the U.S.-Iran rivalry.


What was the driving motivation to write this book and when did you start working on it? How challenging it was to gain access to sources of information?

Iran is a subject that I’ve studied both as a scholar as well as been a participant in the tangled history.  The research for this book started nearly 20 years ago while I was in graduate school. My dissertation focused on the decision by the Reagan administration to provide a naval escort for Kuwaiti oil tankers amidst the Iran-Iraq War. This led to a quasi-war between the United States and the Islamic Republic. This conflict had been largely ignored at the time due to Cold War disinterest and then subsequent Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 delayed completion of the book as I was deployed twice to Afghanistan and Iraq. During the later deployment in April 2003, I was a part of a confrontation with Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab that nearly led to a shooting war between the U.S. and Iran. I worked on some plans to counter Iran’s early efforts to move Quds Force operatives and surrogate forces into Iraq in the wake of the U.S. led invasion. When I picked up writing the book, I incorporated my recent experiences in Iraq and began looking at larger historical trends between the two counties. Quickly, a number of reoccurring patterns emerged. It was a story of repeated errors and missed opportunities by both sides.

I intended to write the most comprehensive and insightful account that I could in order to inform the general public. Iran is one of the most important foreign policy issues facing the international community. My research required extensive travel, FIOA requests, and personal interviews. I went through every significant archival collection in the United States. I conducted over 400 interviews, not including listening to the many more official oral histories. I was the first person to have access to several key senior U.S. government officials’ personal papers. I went through detailed notes from presidential meetings that an admiral had in the crawl space in his basement. I interviewed Iranian officials as well as the daughter of an Iranian CIA spy who was executed. I met in back alley safe houses in south Beirut with Hezbollah and other people who had worked with Iran.

From a geopolitical perspective, what currently are the key areas of contention between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran? Why, in your opinion, this conflict has remained largely unresolved for over three decades? 

Good question. It goes beyond just the nuclear issue.  Ambassador Ryan Cocker, whose first posting as a newly minted Foreign Service Officer was to Iran, observed, “For Iran, history is not the past, but the present.” I think that is an accurately description of our current predicament. Both nations are a captive by their history. The dramatic events of 1979 continue to cast a long shadow over the two countries’ perceptions of the other.  For over thirty years, the two nations have been suspended between peace and war, between light and the darkness, in the Twilight. Relations have ping-ponged back and forth from the prospect of hopeful dialogue and peace to the smell of cordite and talk of war. Today, a deep distrust permeates the relationship, one that has hardened resolve on both sides. For the current nuclear standoff is a symptom and not the cause of the animosity. For even if the P5+1 talks succeed in resolving that bit of the crisis, the larger antagonism between the U.S. and Iran will remain.

For Iranian leaders, the 1979 revolution enshrined anti-Americanism as a key pillar of Iranian foreign policy. The young men who shouted “death to the shah” and overthrew an unpopular American backed dictator now have grey in the beards, but their attitudes remain unchanged. Tehran rejects the current status quo and sees America’s ultimate goal of overthrowing the revolution. Tehran rejects American preeminence in the region.

Washington views Iranian actions as directly challenges its interests and allies in the region. Iran’s support for Hezbollah and surrogates in Yemen are viewed as especially troublesome.  Some hardliners in the US openly advocate for regime change, accusing Iran of being the nexus of much of America’s troubles in the region. This animosity is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, actions taken by the U.S. over the past three decades have helped build on this foundation of distrust. Both Bush administrations rejected openings offered by Iran. During the 1980s, for example, the U.S. Navy awarded a high-level medal to a ship’s captain who accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner that he mistakenly believed was an Iranian fighter, killing 290 innocent civilians. Iran still views this incident as a deliberate act of murder and American terrorism.

One of the chief problems is neither side has a clear view of the other decision making or strategic goals. We frankly don’t always understand what motivates the other’s actions. This has led to the potential for conflict.  For example during the 1998 Operation Dessert Fox attack on Saddam Hussein. Iran mistakenly viewed the military buildup as a precursor for an attack on them. Likewise, the U.S. never appreciated the impact of the Iran-Iraq war had on Iranian security calculations. For example, their ballistic missile program grew out of the war of the cities in 1988.  The inability to prevent Iraqi missiles from raining down on Tehran left a profound desire by the Iranian leadership to develop a missile deterrent capability of their own.

One Consistent theme has been when one side sees it in their interests to reach out to improve relations; the other does not see it as in their interests. There are many factors for this: mutual suspicion; apathy; domestic politics in both countries; the uncertainty whether improved relations are really in one country’s interests; and the view that if one country wants to talk and improve relations, they must be weak and so why should the other need to compromise. This has led to both sides to pass up opportunities to improve relations. With hindsight, it’s also easy to see that the U.S. has frequently taken the wrong action with Iran-when we need to be magnanimous, we refused to extend the hand of friendship, when we need to be tough we vacillate.

The Twilight War

Penguin Press, 640 pages

Cyber security and conflict have gained significant attention lately. From the U.S. perspective, what factors make the Iranian cyber capabilities be taken seriously given the imbalance in the development of information technology between the two countries? 

As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated in speech in October 2012, “Iran has undertaken a concerted effort to use cyberspace to its advantage.” The 2010 Stutnex virus revealed Iran’s vulnerably in this arena. Over the past few years, they have demonstrated a growing sophistication in this cyber conflict. Iran has a young, educated, and computer savvy population.  I believe Farsi is second only to English in the number of blogs on the internet. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being behind a recent rash of cyber denial of service attacks against U.S. financial institutions and the destruction of thousands of hard drives at ARAMCO.  The Islamic Republic has always liked military actions that afford them plausible deniability as it makes it difficult to ascertain culpability. Cyber fits this perfectly.

Iran’s presidential elections are due in June. In less than six months to the elections, there seems to be a reticence among Iran’s ruling elite to introduce key contenders of their own. What, in your opinion, has led to this inactivity in introducing firm candidates to run?

The Supreme Leader’s main concern is avoiding a repeat of June 2009. He viewed that election and the subsequent upheavals as having seriously undermined the people’s confidence in the integrity of the government. The recent legislation passed that prohibit live presidential debates and ads attacking your opponent are designed to make sure that the next election cycle does not get out of hand and undermine the approved candidates.  I suspect the ruling elite is taking a “go slow” approach in order to line up the candidates ahead of time. But President Ahmadinejad’s recent comments about Larajanis and corruption indicate that it may still be a free-wheeling electoral process.

February 11 marked the 34th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. What do you consider to be the key contributing factors leading to the fall of the monarchy?

There were many factors most of which can be blamed on the Shah himself. Like many absolute rulers, his sense of his own power distorted his view of reality, and he grew out of touch with those he governed. He dismissed Islam as a backward force that impeded modernization. His tax policy and land re-distribution negatively impacted the powerful Shia clergy.  His rapid social change and industrial policies increased instability within the country; Tehran’s population increased dramatically as peasants poured in looking for industrial jobs that did not exist in such numbers. While Iran’s ruling elite grew rich off the newfound oil wealth, this did not trickle down to the population as a whole. In 1975, the Shah canceled elections and abolished the two nominally independent political parties in favor of a single party dedicated to the Pahlavi regime. Any pretext of a constitutional monarchy vanished. This galvanized the opposition movement, including many liberals.

Once the upheavals began, the Shah proved a poor leader. He was ill and failed to establish any credible process for his succession. He had intentionally appointed lethargic sycophants as senior generals who proved incapable of acting without direction. He vacillated between trying to crush the opposition and appeasing them. As a result, he did neither. 

The current sanctions regime against Iran has permeated nearly all aspects of the Iranian economy, seriously impacting the lives of ordinary Iranians. They also seem to have impacted economic interests of the ruling groups in Iran, influencing the dynamics of negotiating with the U.S., and hold a potential to impact the election dynamics in June as well. How can the above picture  impact future U.S.-Iranian negotiations?

The sanctions are certainly taking a toll on Iran’s economy. I hope the current sanctions increase the chance of a meaningful dialogue to resolve not only the nuclear issue, but the wide array of historical baggage that continues to divide the United States and the Islamic Republic. The prevailing view in Washington is that Iran will not seriously comprise without pressure. There are some historical case studies to support this claim, chiefly Iran’s actions at the end of the Iran-Iraq War and their efforts to reach out to the U.S. after 9/11 in reaction to the American military operations. The Iranian government has proven to be quite pragmatic and can compromise when pressed. The question remains whether the current sanctions are creating that level of pressure within the Iranian decision makers. So far, the answer is no.

There is always the danger of sanctions being so strict that you create the conflict you are trying to avoid. If Iran is faced with a de facto blockade with sanctions that prevent its ability to export oil, there is a high likelihood that Tehran will strike back militarily. The logic behind this action would be that this crisis would internationalize the problem and create new pressures to resolve the nuclear standoff, hopefully to Tehran’s advantage.

Do you believe the lack of a significant outcome in the Syrian conflict can be attributed to the U.S. –Iranian rivalry there, impacting the direction of the crisis?

Not really. But the Syrian conflict could have significant consequences for both nations. It could eliminate Iran’s strategic depth by undermining their ability to project power into the Levant.  The U.S. made the correct decision in not rushing in to support the opposition forces. It is a polyglot some of whom present a greater threat to American interests than the current Assad regime. I believe the real rivalry is between Sunni and Shia governments. This growing divide in the Middle East is impacting on the Syrian conflict. It has divided rejectionist groups (e.g. Hamas and Hezbollah), and it has led to Saudi Arabia, among others, to support the opposition with Iran providing military assistance to the government.