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

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The dramatic secret history of our undeclared thirty-year conflict with Iran, revealing newsbreaking episodes of covert and deadly operations that brought the two nations to the brink of open war

For three decades, the United States and Iran have engaged in a secret war. It is a conflict that has never been acknowledged and a story that has never been told.

This surreptitious war began with the Iranian revolution and simmers today inside Iraq ...

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

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Overview

The dramatic secret history of our undeclared thirty-year conflict with Iran, revealing newsbreaking episodes of covert and deadly operations that brought the two nations to the brink of open war

For three decades, the United States and Iran have engaged in a secret war. It is a conflict that has never been acknowledged and a story that has never been told.

This surreptitious war began with the Iranian revolution and simmers today inside Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. Fights rage in the shadows, between the CIA and its network of spies and Iran's intelligence agency. Battles are fought at sea with Iranians in small speedboats attacking Western oil tankers. This conflict has frustrated five American presidents, divided administrations, and repeatedly threatened to bring the two nations into open warfare. It is a story of shocking miscalculations, bitter debates, hidden casualties, boldness, and betrayal.

A senior historian for the federal government with unparalleled access to senior officials and key documents of several U.S. administrations, Crist has spent more than ten years researching and writing The Twilight War, and he breaks new ground on virtually every page. Crist describes the series of secret negotiations between Iran and the United States after 9/11, culminating in Iran's proposal for a grand bargain for peace-which the Bush administration turned down. He documents the clandestine counterattack Iran launched after America's 2003 invasion of Iraq, in which thousands of soldiers disguised as reporters, tourists, pilgrims, and aid workers toiled to change the government in Baghdad and undercut American attempts to pacify the Iraqi insurgency. And he reveals in vivid detail for the first time a number of important stories of military and intelligence operations by both sides, both successes and failures, and their typically unexpected consequences.

Much has changed in the world since 1979, but Iran and America remain each other's biggest national security nightmares. "The Iran problem" is a razor-sharp briar patch that has claimed its sixth presidential victim in Barack Obama and his administration. The Twilight War adds vital new depth to our understanding of this acute dilemma it is also a thrillingly engrossing read, animated by a healthy irony about human failings in the fog of not-quite war.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

We live in an age when international conflicts often begin with no formal declaration of war and evolve in unpredictable, sometimes even uncontrollable ways. For three decades, the United States and Iran have been waging a secret war. It began with the Iranian popular uprising against the American-supported Shah, but soon took on a life of its own. David Crist's The Twilight War serves as a history of these surreptitious bouts of give-and-take, involving everything from spies, speedboats, clandestine soldiers, and computer hackers. There were times when either or both parties attempted to enact an informal truce: Crist reveals the story of post-September 11th secret negotiations that finally ended President George W. Bush's rebuff of Iranian overtures. With its continuing foreign policy implications, this book is likely to receive significant media attention.

Publishers Weekly
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. This shadow war is characterized by espionage, assassination plots, and frequent eruptions of open hostilities, and exacerbated by egregious missteps and blunders by both sides. (Crist loses no time in labeling the American invasion of Iraq, for instance, as one of the “worst planned campaigns ever executed by the U.S. military.”) Enriched by hundreds of interviews with key players as well as the author’s own experiences in the Persian Gulf, this is a comprehensive and readable account of American-Iranian hostilities since the 1979 revolution. Crist reveals many previously unreported details of recent maneuverings, such as the provenance of the Stuxnet virus and the backstory of the bizarre case of Shahram Amiri (the nuclear scientist who defected to the U.S. and then posted videos on YouTube claiming that he was being held captive by the CIA), but the broad outlines of the narrative are not nearly as “secret” as the subtitle implies. If there is a moral to this story, it may be that despite the furious machinations of the world’s intelligence agencies, critical change points more often than not hinge on blind luck and happenstance. Agent: The Wiley Agency. (July)
Library Journal
Hostility and mistrust have characterized U.S.-Iranian relations since the 1979 Iranian revolution and hostage crisis. Crist, a senior historian for the federal government who has served as a marine in the Middle East, undertook extensive archival research and interviewed more than 300 American and Iranian government and military officers for this detailed narrative of diplomatic and military challenges since that time. His coverage ranges over numerous confrontations in the Persian Gulf, proxy skirmishes in Lebanon and other Arab countries, and tangled military interactions during the American occupation of Iraq. While accurate and balanced, Crist is critical of Iran's revolutionary support of anti-Americanism throughout the region and widespread encouragement of terrorist attacks on America and its allies. He portrays incompetence and arrogance among American military and civilian leaders and an inability and unwillingness to develop a realistic policy based on actual American interests and Iranian conditions. This is a long, complex book filled with details of military action and policy discussion, clear about ideological and personal in-fighting, and effective in portraying the individual actors. Crist is not optimistic about the outcomes and fears that hardened antagonisms heightened by Iranian nuclear research may yet lead to an actual war. VERDICT With important insights into Middle Eastern affairs and American policymaking, this is highly recommended for serious readers. [See Prepub Alert, 1/8/12.]—Elizabeth R. Hayford, president emerita, Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Evanston, IL
Library Journal
CIA spies square off against their counterparts in Iran, Iranian speedboats attack Western oil tankers, and Iran counters the American invasion of Iraq by sending in soldiers disguised as tourists, reporters, and aid workers. Iran and the United States have engaged in an unacknowledged almost-war for three decades, argues Crist, who as senior historian for the federal government has access to the people and the papers that can give him the data to make his case. Important.
Kirkus Reviews
An encyclopedic account of the ongoing military and diplomatic conflict between the United States and Iran. Since the fall of the shah in 1979, Iran and the United States have been thorns in each other's sides. Iran seeks recognition as a regional power and as a champion of Shia Muslims throughout the Middle East, but its policy toward America has often been driven by a "paranoia that the real goal behind U.S. actions was the overthrow of the Islamic Republic." America, for its part, has consistently "helped perpetuate the animosity [by displaying] a callous disregard for Iranian grievances and security concerns." The result has been an ongoing "shadow war" in which each side has inflicted grievous casualties on the other without quite falling into open belligerence, while missing numerous opportunities for rapprochement. In a monumental debut, senior government historian Crist presents a comprehensive narrative of this conflict from the ascendancy of the Ayatollah Khomeini to the present day. Drawing on extensive access to American government leaders and documents, Crist surveys his topic in thorough, if sometimes ponderous, detail, including coverage of the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut, the Iran/Iraq war, the arms-for-hostages scandal, the naval battles of the "tanker wars," Iran's involvement in post-Hussein Iraq and its present pursuit of nuclear ambitions. Completely in command of the competing interests and personalities at the highest levels of American policymaking, 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 on the Byzantine diplomatic maneuvers, by turns farcical and dismaying, and the motivations of the politicians, clerics, Cold Warriors and con artists who have stoked the ongoing tensions between the two nations in spite of important common interests. Some casual readers may be turned off by the page count, but this is likely to be the authoritative history of the origins and progress of the Iranian policy morass for years to come.
The New York Times
…painstakingly researched and elegantly written…Other books…have ably covered American foreign policy toward Iran. Mr. Crist's stands out for its focus on the troubled relationship's military context…[and for] its granularity—the book is based on more than 300 interviews and has 45 pages of endnotes—which will reward careful readers with revealing anecdotes…[The Twilight War] deserves a spot on the short list of must-read books on United States-Iran relations.
—Karim Sadjadpour
The Washington Post
…lucid and thoughtful…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.
—Ray Takeyh
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203411
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/19/2012
  • Pages: 656
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.35 (d)

Meet the Author

Dr. David Crist is a senior historian for the federal government and frequent adviser to senior government officials on the Middle East. As an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Crist served 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 B.A. from the University of Virginia and a master's and doctorate in Middle Eastern history from Florida State University.

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Read an Excerpt

From THE TWILIGHT WAR: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2012 by David Crist.

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.

The research for this book, which included more than four hundred interviews, started in 1994 when I first traveled to the Tampa headquarters of CENTCOM to speak with officers charged with running this Iranian cold war from a worn, mazelike building at MacDill Air Force Base. I traveled to the backstreets of south Lebanon Shia neighborhoods and to the posh capitals of the Persian Gulf states interviewing Iranians and Arabs involved in the story. I went through my father’s papers and then the first of many linear feet of other personal papers and official records.

While the focus of the book changed as time passed and history continued to unfold, the essence of the story has remained: the two countries have been engaged in a largely unknown quasi-war since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Six different American presidents have faced a seemingly intractable foe in Tehran. Each had a defining event that pushed the two countries like a pinball back and forth between rapprochement and war. What I found myself involved in on that April morning in the northern Gulf was the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of this shadowy conflict.

This story continues to unfold. As of this writing, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the two countries seem headed to the dark side of military conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. The saga is seemingly playing on an endless loop. After reading one recent memo outlining the Bush administration’s policies toward building an Arab coalition against Iran, as I relayed to the marine deputy commander at CENTCOM, John Allen, I could have interchanged the memo for one that had been written twenty- five years earlier as his predecessor grappled with the same enduring challenge of Iran. Iran’s quest for nuclear technology has heightened the stakes and the tension but it has not been a catalyst for the conflict.

I have tried to tell the most accurate and complete story I could of this three- decade- long conflict between Iran and the United States. The story begins with the seminal events of the Iranian Revolution that decisively turned the two countries from allies to adversaries and continues to the stories behind the headlines of today’s newspaper. The ideas presented in this book are my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

The experienced American diplomat Ryan Crocker said to me in an interview, “For Iran, there is no such thing as history; it is all still the present. We are the most ahistorical and they are the most historical” of nations. In telling this story, I hope to rectify this fact. It is a story in which I have been a participant, dispassionate scholar, and, most recently, an adviser to senior Defense Department officials. It is a war of the shadows, largely unknown, arguably the most important and least understood conflict in recent history. It is the twilight war.

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Table of Contents

Maps viii

Preface 1

1 "A Little King in Your Heart" 7

2 A New Grand Strategy 33

3 Barbed-Wire Bob 49

4 A Den of Spies 65

5 A Fig Leaf of Neutrality 84

6 Sharon's Grand Design 106

7 A Spectacular Action 122

8 The American Hamlet 139

9 Sleepy Hollow 159

10 Arms For the Ayatollah 175

11 A Ring on the American Finger 203

12 The Wake-Up Call 220

13 The Invisible Hand of God 235

14 A Window of Opportunity 256

15 The Night Stalkers 276

16 A Very Close Call 300

17 No Higher Honor 320

18 Good-Bye, Captain Nasty 339

19 The Terrible Climax 358

20 Goodwill Begets Goodwill 380

21 War or Peace 398

22 An Atrocity 416

23 An Axis of Evil 440

24 Defeat or Victory 461

25 The Freedom Agenda 485

26 A Quasi-War 511

27 An Extended Hand and a Closed Fist 538

Epilogue 562

Acknowledgments 573

Notes 576

Index 624

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted July 19, 2012

    A GREAT READ

    FINALLY A BOOK HAS ARRIVED THAT GIVES US A VERY ACCURATE AND DETAILED ACCOUNT OF THE SECRET WAR BETWEEN BETWEEN IRAN AND THE UNITED STATES. IT READS SOMETIMES LIKE AN ADVENTURE NOVEL AND SOMETIMES LIKE A HISTORY BOOK.WE FINALLY HAVE SOMEONE WHO HAS THE BACKGROUND AS A REPORTER,COMBAT MARINE, AND A NOTED SCHOLAR WHO HAS GIVEN US A GREAT BOOK ON THE SUBJECT LONG OVERDUE AND HAS WRITTEN ABOUT THE DETAILS THAT AN INFORMED CITIZEN SHOULD KNOW..I ALSO AGREE WITH THE AUTHOR THAT EVERY PRESIDENT HAS FAILED TO ALLEVIATE THIS PROBLEM OF WAR BETWEEN OUR TWO STATES. IF YOU WANT TO LEARN HOW NOT TO CONDUCT POLITICS IN THIS REGION,THEN THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU.

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 14, 2012

    Iran explained by David Crist

    David Crist -- impeccable credentials, soldier, scholar, historian. Dense reading but Iran is a dense, deep problem with a long history

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 15, 2012

    Incidents straight out of the history books, under Crist's hand,

    Incidents straight out of the history books, under Crist's hand, become
    Hollywood worthy edge-of-your-seat narratives. The real "inside
    baseball" detail gave me a greater respect for the commander vs.
    politician/bureaucrat relationships, and how acting in the best interest
    of national security in our dealings with Iran hasn't always been
    politically expedient.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2012

    Excellent Book

    A must read for military and national security professionals or anyone looking to better understand the complex and troubled relationship between the United States and Iran. Concise and exhaustively researched, this title was a page-turner.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2013

    For those of us who lived through the period of the hostage cri

    For those of us who lived through the period of the hostage crisis, the disaster at "Desert ONe", the reflaging of the Kuwaiti tankers and the many years(still ongoign) of the Iranian nuclear program David Crist offfers an excellent and insightful compilation of these events and, especially for the American side, a telling look at the personalities and views of key players in this long running confrontation. It is actually painful to read of some of the well intended, but ultimately misguided, steps leading to the "arms for hostages" deal during the Reagan Administration and the lack of clear understanding on the part of Donald Rumsfeld anad others as to the likely consequences that would (and did) flow from the policy of "regime change" in Iraq. Crist, whose Father at one point commended CENTCOM is in an excellent position to address this enduring and complex subject and generally does so with considerable skill. My criticisms of the book are several, but relatively minor. First, as with so many modern publications, the book would have benefitted from somewhat better editorial supervision. The editor should have caught the several instances of repetition of material at different points in the book; occasional jumps back and forth in time (over at least a few years) without preparing the reader; and the occasional missing word or statement that leaves the reader thinking , "Can this really be correct?" However, these are moinor complaints given the length og the text and complexity of the subject. Crist does an excellent job in detailing the dealings, including secret meetings in Tehran, between Americans and the Iranians during the arms for hostages misadventure. Either some of this material is based on new research (interviews with the participants) or else I've simply forgotten reading about the events at the time. Either way, it is exciting and insightful reading that cannot help but leave the reader with a sense of frustration about th course of events. Crist's depiction of the decisions at the command level (CENTCOM, PACOM, the NSC and JCS, and the White House) during the tanker reflagging and convoy escort operations are nicely paired with detailed descriptions of the challenges faced by local commanders and the actions of the forces directly engaged in combat operations in the Persian Gulf. All-in-all a very good read for anyone looking for a comprehensive overview of the United States' involvement in the region since the fall of the Shah, including our support to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. It is a book that is easy to recommend to anyone interested in the recent military-political history of the Middle East. And it deals with a subject that is certainly still of current concern, as frequent news articles about Iran's ongoing nuclear program and the sanctions imposed by the West attest on almost a weekly basis.


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