Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Iran Wars

The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East
© 2016 Jay Solomon
352 pages

When the young people of Iran hit the streets in protest about suspicious election returns in 2009, the United States was unexpectedly quiet. For years DC's establishment had voiced ominous desires to effect regime change in Iran, and now an opportunity had presented itself.  All that was needed was a little stoking of the fires, passing of intelligence and funds to the right people. And yet..nothing happened, and soon the leaders of the "Green Movement" were in jail.  What no one realized then was that the Obama administration had already begun its efforts to move toward some kind of concordance with Iran, and that this silence was a show of  good faith, an indication that the administration was serious about its efforts to establish a working relationship with the Islamic Republic. Much of DC's foreign policy in the middle east from 2001 to 2016 was conducted with an eye towards Iran,  including the American response to Syria, and The Iran Wars follows two presidents' attempts to find a solution to the Iranian problem, through war,  finance, and diplomacy.

The middle east is a complicated place, to say the least,  with active ethnic, religious, and political conflicts. Iran's role in all this is poorly understood by many Americans;  in addition to Persians and Arabs being two  separate  ethnic groups with a competitive history, the version of Islam which is the state religion in Iran is a minority everywhere else, and viewed with contempt by Saudi-held Arabia, al-Queda and its would-be successor, ISIS.  Iran's sole ally in the Arab world, Syria,  is an important support for it, and a  source of continuing conflict between Iran and the west. 

The events of September 11, 2001, as tragic as they were, presented an opportunity for American-Iranian relations to begin anew, with a common enemy in al-Queda and its drug trade. What opportunity there may have been, never developed by skeptical aides,  was dead by the time DC chose to invade Iraq,  with the intent of weakening Iran's influence in the region by freeing its Shiite majority from Saddam's rule and giving them the opportunity to protest against the ayatollahs. Instead, that Shiite majority aligned with Iran more closely as sectarian war erupted in the region, That  conflict was promoted by both Syria and Iran to prevent American power from growing in Iraq, as Assad promoted Sunni militias in the north and Iran promoted Shiia power in the south. Their role in promoting Iraqi instability made both enemies in DC and abroad.  Still worse,  Iran counted itself the implacable foe of Israel and pursued nuclear capabilities, with the possibility of militarization.

Although some in DC ominously hinted that military options were fully on the table for addressing Iran,  with so many resources mired in two civil wars, few actually proposed it.  Bush chose instead to develop a third option: disrupting Iran's nuclear program through cyber warfare. (See Countdown to Zero Day for a comprehensive history of that.) Solomon only barely mentions this, but moves quickly on to Obama's two-track attempt to reach some kind of concordance with Iran.  Obama moved to isolate Iran financially by working with China and the powers of Europe to effect heavy sanctions and remove Iran from the global economy, while at the same time reaching out to the Iranian people through public speeches, and Iranian leadership through an Omani intermediary who saw his vocation as being a broker of peace between DC and Iran.

Both tracks meant compromise, as DC had to give more than it would like to prove to both its international partners and Iran that it was serious about effecting a deal. It also meant  that Obama felt compelled to intervene in Libya to indicate to Iran that he was serious about enforcing red lines, but had to walk back his threats against Assad so as not to drive the Syrian ruler's allies from the negotiating table. Although the deal itself was hailed as a triumph, with one historian optimistically chronicling it in a volume called Losing an Enemy,  Jay Solomon concludes this history with a warning.  If DC and Iran do truly establish a lasting peace, there will be disruption to contend with. The Saudi family in particular  may aggressively court other alliances, and whatever influence DC has over its codependent partner will lessen. The Iran wars are not over, writes Solomon; this deal, as promising as it sounds, is only the start of a new chapter.

Solomon was quickly proven correct, and in 2018  it is sad to read about the years of dogged labor Kerry, Obama, Mohammad Zarif, and Sultan Qaboos  poured into making the deal, including the long labors with Europe and China, now squandered, and US diplomatic credibility seriously reduced.  For me, this was a valuable book to read,  illustrating why Obama reacted toward Syria as he did, and why Syria is such an obsessive target for the west in the first place.



  1. entanglement in the mid-east seems like a totally fruitless endeavor... if it wasn't for the nuclear card, the best strategy would seem to be to stay away from the place and let them murder each other as they've been doing for at least 4 thousand years... this sounds like an informative book, but depressing in it's portrayal of the human species' favorite pastime... after all, if their oil wasn't available, maybe western industry would invent a better substitute... fusion?

    1. Still a pipe dream, as far as I know. When things get grim nuclear will have to be given its shot again, as expensive and potentially dangerous as it is. I continue to hope that we'll see sense and start building and re-building with human-scale transit in mind (nixing rules that get in the way), so that walking and cycling are possible and transit is placed within densities that pay for it, but that's not especially encouraging these days. With the big oil crunch relaxed, the "death of the suburbs" has disappeared..

  2. I agree with Mudpuddle's observation that entanglement in the mid-east seems fruitless. There have always been advocates for avoiding all foreign entanglements and I would agree even more strongly with them.
    As regards the mid-east, there is also the internecine warfare between the sunnis and the shiites. The best book about this area I've read is still T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

  3. I have a small (but growing) bunch of books on the Middle-East that I need to schedule in at some point. But I will be reading a book on Iran early next year if things progress as planned. A fascinating, worrying & sad area all round I think!

    1. Do you have your Iran book chosen? Iran has a particular hold on my interest, I think because it and the west have crossed paths so many times, and because it was a strong enough culture to preserve itself even when the Arab-Islamic world was at its most influential. I'd like to find a book that covers Iran-India and whatever cross cultural currents they share. There's a lamentably and persistently expensive book called "The Horse, The Wheel, and Language" that focuses on that area's deep history, as people spread out from Africa across the globe. I may just send for it by interlibrary loan..

  4. Yes. the book is:

    Revolutionary Iran - A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (2014). It's by Penguin Publishing and I have a high opinion of their books so I'm expecting it to be a good one.

  5. Just posted my first Russia book review BTW if you want to check it...


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