In The Twilight War, government historian David Crist outlines the secret history of America's 30-year conflict with Iran. The book, based on interviews with hundreds of officials as well as classified military archives, details how the covert war has spanned five American presidential terms and repeatedly threatened to bring the two nations into open warfare.
Crist tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that there have been several incidents that have almost resulted in battle over the past 30 years.
Crist himself observed a close call between American and Iranian vessels in 2003, when he was a member of the special operations forces.
"We were about an hour into the mission when all of a sudden, three Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats come streaming across from the other side of the river, stop just in front of us, unmask their guns and point them straight at us and then proceeded to bombard us with a hail of choice American obscenities," he says. "Our commander at the time was a Navy Seal who had lived in Tehran until he was 16 and he tried to talk with them. He even rigged an Italian flag turned sideways – which looked liked an Iranian flag – to show we had no hostile intent. We unmasked our guns, we called for our airpower and I thought we were on the absolute brink of a major shooting war with Iran."
Crist and his fellow troops were ordered to withdraw and not antagonize the Iranians by high-level military officials.
"So we pulled back with the Iranians trailing us, and what I didn't realize at the time was that that was a pretty significant mistake," he says. "By doing so, we surrendered that entire waterway to the Iranians and they were in the process of the counter-invasion of Iraq. And they were flooding southern Iraq with forces [and arming the Shiite militias]. And what these three boats were doing was trying to prevent us from interfering with that counter-invasion."
Crist says the U.S. should have stopped the Iranians – or made a more concerted effort to stop the Iranians.
"By backing down, we acquiesced to them," he says. "And it goes far beyond this one boat incident. ... We missed an opportunity, I think, for reducing the amount of influence Iran was going to have in Iraq afterwards."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest David Crist has written a new book about the secret war between Iran and the U.S., one that has gone on for 30 years. The book is called "The Twilight War," and it details conflicts that have frustrated six American presidents, involved Iranian-backed acts of terrorism, ongoing failures of diplomatic dialogue and several times that nearly led to war.
This history explains how we got to where we are today, with no diplomatic contact and the U.S. coordinating international sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. Crist has a unique perspective on this conflict. As a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, he made two tours with the elite Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. His father, General George Crist, was the commander of CENTCOM from 1985 to '88.
David Crist is now a senior historian for the Defense Department, but the book reflects his own analysis and does not represent the views of the government. The book is based on documents released through his Freedom of Information Act requests, his father's papers and hundreds of interviews with people ranging from CIA officials to members of Hezbollah.
David Crist, welcome to FRESH AIR. What's the closest that we've come to war with Iran?
DAVID CRIST: There's been a couple of key times. I think in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. made the decision to escort, naval escort Kuwaiti tankers who were being attacked by Iranian warships. At the time, Kuwait was a major financial backer of Iraq in their war with Iran. And the Iranians took that as a direct challenge in their war effort and deliberately mined us, damaged a U.S. warship, nearly sank a U.S. warship, which resulted in the Navy's largest battle since Leyte Gulf in World War II. That's one example.
The other example, I think, is Khobar Towers. Khobar Towers was a dormitory for Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. pushes through a plus-up of the CIA's covert budget. Newt Gingrich is the main sponsor of that. It was done very publicly, mostly for domestic reasons. But Iran took it as a deliberate act of covert war.
And so they respond in their usual way, with terrorism, which is a truck bomb outside this dormitory, kills 19 airmen. And probably by about - that was in 1996. Two years later, by the time we'd really uncovered the Iranian role in this, it revitalizes a whole set of new military plans to attack Iran. And I think that was probably the second-closest time we've come.
GROSS: So in the case of the Kuwaiti ships, how come - and this was during the Reagan administration. How come we didn't end up in a war with Iran?
CRIST: Well, ultimately, I think it ends up in a pretty sharp skirmish in April, ends up in about half the Iranian navy, around 60 sailors, killed. So it's a pretty substantial fight. But it's at the end of an eight-year war with Iraq, and between that fight with the U.S. Navy, between their defeat at the hands of Iraq with a lot of U.S. support, causes Ayatollah Khomeini, who's the supreme leader at the time, to accept a ceasefire.
So really, it was a case of a lot of pressure, including military pressure, causing Iran to back down.
GROSS: And what about the Khobar Towers bombing during the Clinton administration? How come that did not end up in a war?
CRIST: For a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is there was an election in Iran, and you have a new president by the name of Khatami who's elected, and he seems much more pragmatic. He makes early openings to the West to try to improve relations. And regarding Khobar Towers, when the U.S. sends an inquiry putting Iran on notice through the Omanis, Khatami responds with an interesting line, which is: Well, we had nothing to do with it, but it will not happen again.
GROSS: That's funny: We didn't do it, but it won't happen again. So that was an opening. Do you think if it wasn't for Khatami, there would have been more military action?
CRIST: Yes, I think absolutely. The Clinton administration, I think, was gearing up for a pretty substantial military strike. They developed the first major war plan since the Kuwaiti tankers operations about 10 years earlier. So I think yeah, absolutely, we were gearing up for a conflict had Khatami not been elected, and it seemed like a new opening. And Khatami sacked one of the MOIS, who's Iran's intelligence service, one of their senior commanders who was probably involved in the bombing of Khobar Towers.
So all the indications were that Iran wanted to get beyond this and improve relations. So I think President Clinton wisely took the military option off the table and pursued diplomacy.
GROSS: The U.S. has had several secret war plans to attack Iran. What's the earliest one that you came across?
CRIST: The earliest one was actually in the very early 1980s, about 1980. And oddly enough, it really wasn't geared towards Iran. It was geared towards the Soviet Union. Iran was actually the chessboard on which the U.S. and Soviet Union were going to play. And the amazing thing is through the plan, as the U.S. was discussing ways to counter a Soviet invasion of Iran, which was going to be a precursor to seizing Persian Gulf oil, the whole role and attitude of the Iranians never even figured into the plan.
GROSS: What do you mean the role of the Iranians never figured into the plan?
CRIST: There was no thought about how the Iranians were going to react to either the U.S. or the Soviet invasion. It was if they were sort of a neutral territory, which we're going to play a war on. It's not until about three years later that the United States starts taking a hard look at, you know, the Iranians really don't like either us or the Soviet Union. How do we know they're going to welcome us with open arms if we try to invade them on the precursor that it's to try to stop the Soviets?
GROSS: So this war plan was to invade Iran if the Soviets had invaded or to prevent an imminent Soviet invasion during the Cold War?
CRIST: That's absolutely correct. All the early U.S. war plans, up till about 1986 or so, when Iran starts emerging as a threat from the U.S. perspective in its own right, all the American war plans and thinking about Iran was all vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
GROSS: So was this plan right before or right after the hostage crisis in Iran?
CRIST: It is all right after the hostage crisis. The main U.S. command that was established by President Carter was called, initially, the Rapid Deployment Force. It was a headquarters that was going to fly in with troops from the United States and respond to probably a Soviet incursion aimed at Persian Gulf oil.
The U.S. was very concerned at this point in the Cold War that the Persian Gulf was an Achilles' heel of the West, that rather than confront the West in Europe or out in the Pacific, if they seize the oil, they effectively cut off the lifeline of the West.
So when the hostage crisis happens, it coincides with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and just sets alarm bells off in all quarters of Washington.
GROSS: You write during this period the American military was planning for World War III in Iran. Were nuclear weapons involved in this war plan?
CRIST: Yeah, in sort of the best Dr. Strangelove-ian speak out of the Pentagon, it was called the passive option. And the goal or the objective was we would airdrop in these about 163-pound, man-packed nuclear weapons. They would arrive with American Special Forces, and that we would detonate a series of large passes that run through - around Azerbaijan on the likely avenues the Soviet troops would invade.
And in using these nuclear weapons, we'd seal these passes up, and then the Soviets couldn't get in. And it was called the passive option because we wouldn't use nuclear weapons directly on Soviet territory, just Iranian territory.
GROSS: But it would still be a preemptive use of nuclear weapons?
CRIST: Absolutely. And that was - there was an interesting series of memos I uncovered on just that point. And one of the senior officials - and this time it was early Reagan administration - raised the issue that, well, then, the Soviets might respond by dropping nuclear weapons on the ports the U.S. needed to get into Iran: Bandar Abbas, Bushehr.
And one of the officials, a guy named Robert Komer - better known as Blowtorch Bob for his combative style - said, well, that would be OK, too, because if we can't get in and the Soviets can't get into Iran, the Persian Gulf oil is safe. And nobody bothered to inquire how the Iranians might react to that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Crist. He's the author of the new book "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran." So you witnessed how easily war could break out after the American invasion of Iraq, when you were in the Special Ops and you spent two weeks after the invasion of Iraq on a mission on a river that separates Iran from Iraq. What was your mission?
CRIST: Well, I was part of a, as you said, a naval special warfare unit. And our mission was to drop several U.S. patrol boats off at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, which was the waterway that divides Iran from Iraq. We were about an hour into the mission when, all of a sudden, three Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats come screaming across from the other side of the waterway and stop just in front of us, unmask their guns, point them straight at us, and then proceed to bombard us with a hail of choice American obscenities.
Our commander at the time was a Navy SEAL who had lived in Tehran up until he was 16 years old. So he's fluent in Farsi. And he tried to talk with them. He had even rigged an Italian flag turned sideways to make it look like an Iranian flag to show that we had no hostile intent. But the Iranians would have none of it.
And we unmasked our guns. We called for airpower, and I thought we were on the absolute brink of a major shooting war with Iran.
GROSS: Why did not that happen?
CRIST: We were ordered to withdraw by a very high level, to withdraw and not antagonize the Iranians. So we pulled our ships back with the Iranians trailing us. And what I didn't realize at the time was that was a pretty significant mistake, because by doing so, we essentially surrendered that entire waterway, in many ways, to the Iranians. And they were in the process of what I term in my book the counter-invasion of Iraq, and they were flooding southern Iraq with Quds forces, who there's - their special forces officers, plus thousands of armed Iraqi supporters.
And what this - these three boats were doing were trying to prevent us from interfering with that counter-invasion.
GROSS: They were arming the Shia militias and training them.
CRIST: They were - yeah, they were arming the Shia militias, and they are also bringing in their own. They had - the Iranians had a sort of a surrogate force of Iraqi exiles called the Badr Corps, perhaps 10,000 fighters. And right behind the U.S. tanks, as we were driving on to Baghdad, these guys were flooding into southern Iraq to position Iran for the post-war world in Iraq. And they did it very effectively.
GROSS: OK. So you think that by withdrawing, the U.S. empowered Iran to train and arm anti-American militias in Iraq. On the other hand, had your boats not withdrawn, had your boats and the Iranian boats fired on each other, think about what that would have led to.
CRIST: Oh, I think it would have led to a conflict. The issue is the Iranians were trying to position themselves to influence Iraq, arm trained militias, flood their own advisors into southern Iraq as quickly as possible. Had we stopped or made a more concerted effort to stop this, it would have positioned us far better for afterwards. Iranian influence would not have been as significant.
And by backing down, essentially, what we do is we acquiesce to the Iranian military, as far as their operations.
GROSS: But couldn't that have led to a full-blown war between Iran and the U.S.?
CRIST: It's possible, but the one thing I've noticed with the Iranians over the years is - particularly the Revolutionary Guard. They tend to respond - they're very cautious by nature. They push till they find weakness, and then they try to exploit it. But when they meet resistance - particularly by the U.S. military, that they know is much more powerful than they are, they usually back off.
So I think rather than lead to an expanded conflict - particularly at that time, with 250,000 U.S. troops positioned right next to them. Rather than expand or lead to a conflict, Iran probably would have backed down and been much more cautious about their approach with Iraq.
GROSS: My guest is David Crist, author of the new book "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Crist. He's the author of the new book "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran." You write about a couple of possible positive breakthroughs that could have happened with Iran. One of them, and President Khatami, who's, you know, a relative moderate - was perceived as a relative moderate in Iran - after the 9/11 attacks, wanted to go to ground zero and light a candle.
And he also wanted to have additional Revolutionary Guard officers expand the security dialogue that was taking place in Geneva between the U.S. and Iran. So before we go any further, tell us about what that dialogue was.
CRIST: The U.S. had meetings with a host of nations in Geneva over Afghan refugees, even before 9/11. But after 9/11, Iran makes it quite clear that they would like to work with the U.S. in Afghanistan. The Taliban were hated by the Iranians. They had killed a number of Iranian diplomats a few years earlier. That nearly led to a war between Iran and Afghanistan. So they had no love for the Taliban, either.
And so they make a - through a series of meetings, efforts to try to work with the United States that really does bear some fruition. It culminates in December of 2011 in the Bonn Agreement, which establishes the current Afghanistan government. And the Iranians were key to getting that deal done, and also early contributors to a lot of money to what would be Karzai's government in Afghanistan.
So the Iranians clearly saw that there was an overlap or a confluence of interest between the United States and Iran, at least on Afghanistan.
GROSS: OK. So President Khatami wants to light a candle at ground zero and bring more of his people into these talks in Geneva. The U.S. government refuses him on both counts. Why?
CRIST: It was considered - at least by many within Bush's first term - that it would confuse the war on terrorism, that the war on terrorism had to be this broad-based monolith that included essentially every terrorist nation, regardless of whether they were involved in the 9/11 attacks.
And as Newt Gingrich - who had a lot of influence in the administration - said, that by having Iran seen as an ally in the war on terrorism only undercut our efforts to delegitimize the Iranian regime.
GROSS: And not expanding the security talks to include more Iranians, same reason?
CRIST: Exactly the same reason. There was a deep division within the Bush administration over the wisdom of talking with the Iranians and pursuing these - building on the Afghan talks. The Vice President's Office, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, were both adamant that this would do nothing but give the Iranians a platform to delay and stall, and was not going to achieve anything anyways. You can't trust what they say, so it was actually going to undercut our efforts to isolate the regime.
Other elements of the administration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, for example, both believed that there was potential openings that we could use with the Iranians. For example, one of the things the Iranians offered was to use one of their ports as a supply base for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
We decided that was sort of a bridge too far for our relations, but there was potential we might have been able to build on.
GROSS: So this could have been an opening of sorts, you think?
CRIST: I think - you know, it's the great unanswered question, since we never pursued it. In this case, the hardliners on Iran in the administration won the argument. We're never going to get a situation with Iran where we sit down and hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." There are steep and deep divisions between the two countries. We have a relationship that was founded on mistrust, and we built a house over the last 30 years that has done nothing but become more and more unstable.
However, the opportunity, I think, was there to start a dialogue with the Iranians that we haven't had for 30 years, a formal face-to-face diplomatic interaction that we simply haven't had. In fact, the way we do business now diplomatically with the Iranians is it's like two schoolchildren passing a note through an intermediary.
In this case, it's the Swiss. We don't even know if the note gets there correctly. Or we have these strange meetings in dark corners of hotel bars between our diplomats, or our CIA and their spies. It's no way to either reduce the amount of distrust or have a frank dialogue on each country's interests.
GROSS: So after the U.S. government turns down Iranian President Khatami's request to go to ground zero and light a candle and to bring additional Revolutionary Guard officers to the security talks in Geneva, shortly after that, President Bush gives his axis of evil speech, and Iran is surprised to hear that they are included in the axis of evil. What did you learn about Iran's reaction to the axis of evil speech?
CRIST: They were stunned. In fact, what it leads to is a complete cutoff by the Iranians of the talks we were having in Geneva and Paris, these quiet talks we were having that started with Afghanistan. They completely cut them off. They released a pretty nasty Afghan warlord they'd been holding, deliberately to tweak the American nose. And it really soured many Iranians who had been hopeful that this might lead to better relations between the two countries.
It seemed like the U.S., from their perspective, was back to its old habits of name-calling and bashing Iran and lumping them with the likes of al-Qaida and North Korea.
GROSS: And so tension increases between the two countries. How serious do you think the Bush administration ever was about making Iran the next Iraq, the next target of regime change?
CRIST: It might very well have come up had Iraq - had the war in Iraq gone better. However, having said that, there is no evidence that I've uncovered - and I've gone through just about everything - that there ever was a secret Iranian war plan, that after Iraq, we're immediately going to take on Iran. There wasn't much stomach, even amongst the hardliners in the Bush administration, for a real war with Iran.
It's just a big country. It's much more powerful than Saddam Hussein was. What they had hoped Iraq would do was have a - the term they used in their memos was a coercive effect on Iran, that between the sight of free elections, or the Shia in Iraq would make Iranian people think that why can't we have that same thing here, and that it would sort of start to subvert the regime, as well as make the regime nervous that maybe they are next with U.S. forces on their border, both of Afghanistan and Iraq.
GROSS: David Crist will be back in the second half of the show. He's the author of "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Crist, author of the new book "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran." The book is based on hundreds of interviews, and on documents released through his Freedom of Information Act request. He also had access to the papers of his father, General George Crist, who was the commander of CENTCOM from 1985 to '88. David Crist served in the Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's now a historian for the Defense Department, but his book is his own analysis and does not reflect the views of the government.
One of the incidents you write about in your book is the bombing of the Marine barracks during the Reagan administration in - was it 1983?
GROSS: Where 241 Marines were killed. What did you learn about the attack that you don't think was public before?
CRIST: Well, what's interesting about the attack is, one is, it depends on how one looks at the - at both sides of this issue. From the Iranians' perspective, the U.S. Marines were not peacekeepers, but were part of a policy that the Reagan administration had adopted of openly supporting the Christian Phalange, who were the...
GROSS: In Lebanon.
CRIST: In Lebanon - and openly supporting the Christian Phalange in Lebanon. And they were seen as just - while they were technically the Lebanese government, they were also seen as just one party of a really nasty civil war. So the U.S. was no longer neutral when they started openly supporting the Lebanese army and the Phalange. Iran had a long-standing relationship with the Shia community - it goes back many, many years. And when they Iranian revolution happens, the Iranians really tried to exploit that. They send a lot of idealistic, young Iranians who will become - Iranian soldiers who will become key leaders later in the Iranian military to help and train and support the Shia.
When they make the determination that the U.S. was essentially just another party of the civil war, one of their Shia supporters, a guy by the name of al-Musawi, who runs an organization called the Hussein Suicide Squad, goes to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus and he basically says, hey, we want to take a spectacular action. We don't know against who. Should it be the Americans? Should it be against the Christians? Maybe the Israelis?
And the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, who's really the main guy running their operations in Lebanon at the time, says: "Why don't you take a spectacular action" - a direct quote - "against the Marines?" And so he steers them to target the Marines who were mostly housed in a single, multi-story building that served as a headquarters and barracks for them.
And so there's some back-and-forth between Musawi and Lebanon, the ambassador and the Foreign Ministry in Tehran. And it's quite clear from the documents I uncovered that it was not only approved by the running ambassador in Damascus, but it was approved by their foreign minister and very likely by Ayatollah Khomeini himself to do a suicide bombing against the Marines. And it succeeds wildly: 241 Marines are killed. It ends up forcing the Marines out of Lebanon, and the U.S., it really collapses the American policy in Lebanon.
GROSS: So is this basically the prehistory of Hezbollah?
CRIST: It certainly is. Hezbollah, as a group, didn't really exist. It was still coalescing amongst a whole faction of - multiple factions of pro-Iranian Shia. And the interesting aspect of this whole debate is the Reagan administration doesn't respond to this. There's - it's - some very contentious debates within the White House Situation Room between Caspar Weinberger, who was opposed to military retaliation - mostly, he was opposed to the entire mission of Lebanon - and others, Secretary of State George Shultz and the national security adviser, who basically say you cannot allow 241 Americans to be killed and not respond to it.
Finally, it appears the president has made a decision on November 16th of 1983 - which is about three weeks after the bombing - to retaliate. But the military strike never happens. And it doesn't...
GROSS: Why not?
CRIST: The strike doesn't happen because everybody comes out of the meeting with the president in the Oval Office convinced the president had said something differently. Weinberger believes that the president had said, well, let's continue to wait and build up the intelligence to make sure we strike the right person - which, of course, is what he wants to do.
And those who are advocating the military strike - Bud McFarlane, who was the national security visor at the time - believes the president ordered a military strike. And McFarlane, in my interview with him, claims - and there's some documentary evidence to support this - that he calls up his command center in Pentagon about two in the morning and asks how the military strikes went, the air strikes went. And he's told, well, the secretary of defense called them off. And McFarlane's livid.
And he gets on the phone to Weinberger, and Weinberger says, well, I just don't think the president really wanted to do that. And so as a consequence, we never respond, and it's not President Reagan's finest moment as a leader. He essentially vacillates and never takes a firm stand on it.
GROSS: You call him the American Hamlet in that chapter.
GROSS: My guest is David Crist, author of the new book "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran." We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Crist. He's the author of the new book "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran."
Let's talk about where we are now with Iran. Iran appears to have backed the terrorist attack against - young vacationing Israelis in Bulgaria, which was what, about a week ago.
GROSS: The Stuxnet Virus - which it's unclear how much Israel and how much the United States had to do with that - but that virus destroyed a fair amount of Iran's nuclear program. And there were several Iranian nuclear scientists who were assassinated. And it is assumed - it is widely assumed that Israel is behind that. So this kind of low-level conflict is underway between the U.S., Iran, Israel and Iran. Where would you say we are now?
CRIST: Well, I think there is certainly a sort of low-level war that's being engaged between both sides. There's very little doubt in my mind the bombing of Bulgaria was in retaliation for what Iran thinks of the Israeli assassination of their scientists. And it's very much in keeping with the Iranians' playbook, which is you don't attack directly at a much stronger enemy. You use terrorism to sort of achieve the same result. And it provides the Iranian government with plausible deniability. It's hard - in many cases, it's hard to trace these back to the Iranian leadership.
But I think it's just a continuation of what I describe in the book, which is, in many ways, a 30-year quasi-war between the United States and Iran. And Iran has used terrorism a number of times - from Khobar Towers to the Beirut bombing - as a means of striking back in this covert war.
GROSS: President Obama initially wanted to approach Iran and talk with Iran, and that not having been successful, is now working with other countries to keep increasingly tightened sanctions against Iran. Where would you say we are now on that?
CRIST: I think President Obama made a very courageous move early in his administration to try to extend his hand to the Iranians. Between public speeches, between a Nowruz message, I think he really tried to reach out to the Iranians. And it was a mistake, I think, for the Supreme Leader not to accept it.
When that was shut down, that avenue was shut down, Obama falls back on a policy that, in fact, was already in place by Bush. There was an interesting meeting in the Oval Office between the two men just before Obama's inaugural where, essentially, Bush lays out what steps the United States is taking to delay the Iranian nuclear program. And he needs - and he's really trying to buy time for President Obama, so he's not faced with a nuclear crisis early in his administration.
So Obama already has that in his hip pocket if his opening to the Iranian leadership doesn't work. And when it doesn't, he falls back on that and, in fact, has really built on it, these - the sanctions. And really, the international pressure, I don't think I've ever seen as quite so - not only so coercive, but so well-coordinated, not only with the U.S. government, inside the U.S. government, but across the international community.
And I think the crisis is really starting to come to a head, at least as far as the nuclear issue. I think at some point, either Iran's going to do like they do in many cases: They take everything up to a brink, and then they find a way to make an agreement. Or it could be leading to a conflict.
I'm hopeful that the diplomacy works. I really think it's the right approach at this time with their nuclear program. But the other thing I think is important to realize is that the nuclear standoff is really a symptom of a larger problem with Iran. It's not the - it's really a - this antagonism and this mistrust that has gone back for three decades. And if we solve the nuclear problem tomorrow, that's not going to change.
GROSS: Your book about the 30-year conflict between the United States and Iran ends with this sentence - your book is called the "Twilight War." And the sentence is: Soon it may no longer be twilight. The light is dimming, and night might well be approaching at long last. That's a very pessimistic note to end on.
CRIST: Yeah. I guess I'm not an optimist when it comes to the U.S.-Iranian relations. I just think if you look at it - as I said, we built a foundation of distrust, and over the years it's only widened. I don't think we've ever been quite at such loggerheads with the Iranians. The potential for miscalculation in the Gulf, a firefight that breaks up between our warships is extremely high.
We have no way to easily defuse it, because we don't have any direct diplomatic ties with the Iranians. So we'd have to go through an intermediary, which takes time. By that time, it'll be too late.
And the nuclear standoff's an open question. And I don't see this antagonism changing much, frankly, while the current supreme leader's around. The Iranian revolution put in place a key pillar of Iranian foreign policy, which is really anti-Americanism. And the young men who overthrew the very unpopular U.S.-backed Shah of Iran 30 - over 30 years ago, now have gray in their beards, but their attitudes have not changed that much. And so I think the key is we have to figure out a way to continue to avoid heading into the night, at least staying into the twilight, and at the same time hoping that over time, attitudes on both sides will change.
GROSS: Your position is as a historian for the federal government. I don't know if you're in the position of doing in that role what you had to do for this book. And what I mean is for this book, you got a lot of formerly secret documents. You worked through the Freedom of Information Act and mandatory review requests. Does that go counter to what's expected of you as a historian of the federal government?
CRIST: No. In fact, it's our tradecraft, in many ways. I spent probably two decades - although I hate to admit it, that it's been that long - on researching this book, both inside and outside of the government, and I dug very deep. As you said, I got access to senior officials' records that hadn't been accessed before. I found an admiral who had some great meetings of - very important presidential meetings in his journal, which were in the crawl space in his basement. And I traveled to back-alley safe houses in south Beirut to interview Hezbollah and Hamas representatives to get their side of the view. It's essentially what a historian inside or outside the government should do.
And the one thing, you know, I do have affiliation, a long affiliation with the U.S. military. Obviously, I'm a colonel in the Reserves and have been around it for a while. And the one thing I can say unequivocally is I've never known a general to object to good history.
GROSS: Having spent two decades writing this book on the secret history of America's conflict with Iran, do you see any presidents differently than you did before the research?
CRIST: What I found is that the interesting trend that each president has had some successes and failures dealing with the Iranians. I think at least presidents who have served two terms, everyone has had a close encounter with war and also made an effort to try to reach out to the Iranians. I think Bush is a real - George W. Bush is a very interesting person because his first administration, Iran wasn't well done. It was very dysfunctional.
There's tremendous divisions within the administration and he's not real strong or resolute about making a decision between the two competing views of a way forward. His second term is far different. He's much more comfortable. He's not afraid to overrule his advisers, and as a result, there is a much firmer, much more concrete inner agency or national plan to deal with Iran of which President Obama was a great beneficiary of.
GROSS: And that plan was?
CRIST: The plan is essentially what we have now, which is you continue to reach out to the Iranians. If they're willing to unclench their fist, as President Obama said, we'll take it and we'll pursue on a wide variety of issues including the nuclear issue. If they don't, we'll continue to increase the sanctions and increase their international isolation.
GROSS: So when you're a historian for the Defense Department, what exactly are you doing?
CRIST: Well, I write a lot for them too. Unfortunately, those books are usually stuck in vaults and won't see the light of day for a long time. But they're...
GROSS: Why are they in vaults?
CRIST: Because they're all classified.
GROSS: So you're writing classified histories.
GROSS: So is there classified information that's in your brain that you couldn't use for the book because that's classified and you didn't get access to the Freedom of Information Act...
CRIST: Yeah. They're...
GROSS: ...to get the documents that you've already been able to read?
CRIST: Well, I meticulously avoided writing about Iran while I was doing this book so I wouldn't have those dilemmas. I was writing about Iraq and some other issues, some special operations issues and things like that. But, you know, I've also been an advisor recently to senior leadership. So, yeah, there's a lot I know that I can't have in this book.
GROSS: So you're writing books for the Defense Department that end up in vaults. When do they - when do those vaults end up getting opened?
CRIST: Well, we're just now - my office is just now getting, I think, the Ford administration reviewed for declassification. So you're about 30 years behind the times. So it's a good long time to let the sensitivity of a lot of the issues drop off and also it's long enough that you can then go back and relook at an issue with sort of a more objective eye than you might have had writing about an essentially current event.
GROSS: And the histories you're writing about are based on classified documents?
GROSS: What an unusual and interesting job.
CRIST: Oh, it's fascinating. It's the best job for a historian, in my view.
GROSS: Better if you had readers, though, right?
CRIST: I'm sorry?
GROSS: It would be better if you had readers.
CRIST: It is much better. Nobody reads this.
CRIST: This is not a lie. I wrote a history that I think five people read because of the sensitivity of it. It is an absolutely fascinating story and 70 years from now when that thing's declassified people will look at Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq - really, our whole wars with Saddam Hussein in a different light. But it's just not going to - and it's classified for some very good reasons. There is a lot of people's lives on the line if these things are exposed.
So, yeah. It's a fascinating job. Frustrating, again, sometimes because if your audience is only five people, well, what's the point of it sometimes? But I think it's important for the American public to have this stuff captured because eventually the stuff will get released and they'll know what the government's done in their name. And in many cases, it's actually pretty good stuff.
GROSS: David Crist, thank you so much for talking with us.
CRIST: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: David Crist is the author of "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's 30 Year Conflict with Iran." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about our conflicted attitude towards swearing. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.