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The light dims for US and Iranian relations, says book

A new book documenting US-Iran relations since 1979 will leave its readers very glum about the prospects for peace

With the world’s economy sitting on the edge of more recession a war with Iran could push it over the edge, believe some economists. Yet the drumbeat is growing louder.

Having already imposed an embargo on oil exports and Iran’s central bank, Western governments say new, tighter sanctions may be needed to punish the country for its alleged nuclear programme. In the background, Israel’s belligerent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, continues to threaten the kind of military action that may draw its allies into another regional conflict.

This may be a new and dangerous period but, as David Crist shows in a superb new book, The Twilight War, Iran and the US have been fighting a “war of the shadows” for three decades. And it is, he says, the “least understood conflict in recent history”.

Oil has been the subterranean theme of this conflict. It lay behind the US’ support for the brutal regime of the Shah until his overthrow in the revolution of 1979. It inspired the Carter Doctrine, named for the US president who declared the Strait of Hormuz, through which flows a third of the world’s seaborne crude, to be of strategic interest to the US. Efforts to affect these supplies lay behind the tanker wars of the mid-1980s, which ultimately saw US Navy vessels escort Kuwaiti tankers through the Gulf, defending them against Iranian mines and missiles. And oil has also underpinned the US’ close alliance with the Gulf’s Sunni states in their own uneasy relations with Iran.

However, as Crist shows in a forensic account of the blunders, missteps and wilful deafness that have characterised relations between the two countries, other strategic imperatives have been just as decisive. For much of the 1980s, the US saw the region entirely through the lens of the Cold War. Fears of a Soviet invasion to capture an Iranian port dominated Washington’s view of the region, and even yielded plans for a nuclear attack on Iran to spare its oilfields from communist control. “No one reflected how the Iranians might view such a scenario,” writes Crist.

While one arm of the US government was sharing intelligence with Saddam Hussein to help Iraq defeat Iran in the brutal war between the countries, another arm was siphoning weapons to shady liberals in Tehran during the notorious Iran-Contra affair. It was hypocrisy that compromised US policy throughout the region.

Iran proved a more durable foe than the Soviets. Inadvertently, the US helped sustain the regime. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Saddam, but handed influence in the country to Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards and militias swarmed into the neighbouring land alongside US troops. Nuri al-Maliki, who forged his opposition to Saddam while in exile in Tehran, remains Iraq’s prime minister. “For an American military that prides itself on its planning prowess, surprisingly little had been done beyond the initial drive up to Baghdad,” writes Crist with admirable understatement.

Mutual distrust

Repeatedly, efforts from both governments to foster co-operation have been rebuffed by internal opposition or by the other side. Bill Clinton’s plan to develop commercial relations with Iran, endorsing Conoco’s $1 billion contract for oilfields near Sirri Island, was nixed by a Republican-controlled Congress, despite having won support from then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani. George W Bush twice rejected overtures from Tehran when, fearing that the US would swiftly switch its military attentions from Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran, president Mohammed Khatami sought to open talks. More recently, Barack Obama’s “open hand” has been met with a clenched fist. 

Mistrust has bred mistrust. Crist is a US government historian, but his measured book shows how the failures have come from both sides. The US awarded a Legion of Merit to the captain who shot down a civilian Iranian aircraft in 1988, killing all 290 passengers on board. Scores of Americans were killed by Iranian proxies in Beirut and Saudi Arabia. And so on. The paranoia on both sides has deep roots. “Conspiracy theories abound in the Middle East,” writes Crist, “in part because there are so many conspiracies.”

The nuclear issue, Crist shows, has not been the source of this misunderstood conflict. But it may now bring it to a head. “We will resist America until our last breath,” said Ayatollah Khomenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

Iran has also grown accustomed to international isolation and what it sees as Western persecution. As its deputy oil minister told Petroleum Economist last year, the country has faced sanctions in the past, and has  overcome them.

Its oil exports, which plummeted to beneath 1 million barrels a day after the sanctions took hold in July, rose in August, according to recent data. The US, fearful of a spike in oil prices, in September extended sanctions exemptions to some of the country’s big Asian importers.

Yet oil may still be the trigger for more conflict. Crist quotes a senior Obama administration official, who said Iran may see the latest sanctions as “a de facto act of war”, a statement that has been echoed by senior regime figures in Tehran.

The embargo has sent the country’s economy into a tailspin and its currency into a death spiral.

Crist’s comprehensive history suggests that the weakening of Iran’s economy, however, will do little to make it more willing to cooperate with Western demands.

“Unfortunately,” he writes, “neither side has much desire to work to bridge their differences.” Distrust permeates the relationship.

“When someone within the fractured governing class in Tehran reached out to the American president, the US was unwilling to accept anything but capitulation.

When President Obama made a heartfelt opening, a smug Iranian leadership viewed it as a ruse or the gesture of a weak leader. Iran spurned him.”

It has gone that way for three decades. There may be more jaw-jawing left to come. But Crist paints a pessimistic picture. War, a new oil-price spike and and the economic devastation that will follow is all too possible. “Soon it may no longer be twilight,” writes Crist, “the light is dimming, and night may well be approaching at long last.”

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