Realpolitik and America’s Conflict with Iran, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Advisor David Crist

March 30, 2015

Negotiations between Iran and the U.S., in concert with Germany and the United Nations Security Council, are set to result in an agreement on March 31, 2015 regarding Iran’s nuclear program, potentially restricting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Senior Historian for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and adviser to senior government officials on Iranian issues, David Crist, joins host Josh Zepps to discuss how the past several decades have lead up to this decision, and what it will mean for the future.

Though no one can say for certain what will be decided on March 31, Crist is uniquely qualified to offer his insight as author of the book The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran. While he does not hesitate to explain the ruthlessness of the Islamic regime, he also does not fail to criticize America’s shortcomings and missed opportunities. This is a fascinating and rare look into the realpolitik of one of the most consequential international challenges of our time.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 30th, 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Iran, Iran, Iran. Few countries are as baffling as the Islamic Republic, where anti-American religious extremists rule a population of fairly pro-American religious moderates. At the time of this podcast, the U.S. and Iran, along with the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, are still interminably hammering out a long attempted deal to restrain the country’s nuclear ambitions. A deal deplored by Republicans and by Israel. So I think it’s a good time to get behind the headlines, to pull right back and discuss how we got here with David Crist, a senior historian for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is an adviser to senior government officials on Iranian issues. He was also a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps in the first Gulf War and was with the first U.S. military forces in Afghanistan after 9/11 that he served in Iraq, too. His book is The Twilight War The Secret History of America’s 30 Year Conflict with Iran. David, thanks for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks, John. I appreciate it. 

So let’s start with the basics. Who runs Iran? 

Well, ultimately, old. All key decisions are made by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. But Iran has by design, a very diffused government system. The constitution was sort of forged by those Islamists, if you will. And also leftists at the time. And our reaction to a very strong totalitarian government. So if you think the U.S. government has convoluted politics, it’s nothing compared to the Iranians. They have Majlis parliament. They have the Supreme Council, National Security, which is like an NSC organization. They have military. They have, of course, a president. They used to have a prime minister. And all these guys sort of compete for power. And that’s part of the reason why the supreme leader is ultimately the arbiter for a lot of the various disputes that crop up within the government on policy. So if you want to say if there’s anyone in charge, it’s ultimately him. 

And so how did that come about? Just take us. But we all know the basic story. But take us back to before 1979 and what the status quo was then and what happened up until 1979. 

Iran was ruled by the shah of Iran. He was a monarch. He was very pro-American. He was in many ways. The U.S. had adopted a term called the Twin Pillar Strategy, which is in the 1970s, an idea developed by by Nixon and Kissinger. The U.S. security for the Middle East would rest upon effectively Saudi oil money and the oil and military power of Iran. And this was designed primarily as a bulwark against the Soviets, who may try to take over and control Western oil, which was seen as kind of a Achilles heel of the West to take over our oil, cut off the supplies, then Europe and NATO would dry up. So the U.S. put a lot of resources behind the shah of Iran. He could buy any equipment short of nuclear weapons and the U.S. in the diary. And as we know now, he was actually working on the nuclear weapons program, was probably some help from the Israelis at the time. So the Shah was very much our key ally in the region in a way that we really haven’t had since. But the problem was he was a a as I describe in my book, a old, sickly and foolish leader. He was. And some interesting parallels to Mubarak. He was ill. He had effectively lost touch with the population and the discontent. He forced modernization and a lot of very unpopular decisions. A lot of the money was congregated only in a very wealthy elite. And it create a lot of backlash within the country, which broke out in an open revolt. And and that culminated in February of 1979 with his overthrow. And with that effectively removes the US’s main ally and also installed a revolutionary government that saw the U.S. support for the Shah as propping him up. So ultimately, we’re complicit with a lot of the human rights abuses and a lot of the decisions made by the Shah. So it put us on the path of animosity from the very beginning. 

How did a leader who was able to buy any military equipment he wanted to from the United States should have nuclear weapons get toppled by by the people? Did he lose the faith of the military? 

Well, the military was a conscript force then and now. And so when the when the revolution started in earnest, the military itself was not reliable. And there was. Organization of Wawn officers who were kind of professional military guys. 

But they are heavily influenced by Khomeini’s early speeches. So there’s a whole element within the military that actually quite influenced by Khomeini’s doctrine and ideology. But ultimately, the problem with the shores is here. He managed to piss off every major faction in the country. The peasants pissed off because they didn’t have the government. The Balzarini or the merchant class resented a lot of his policies, which they felt were infringing on them to the to the benefit of some some key advisers of his. And, of course, he he cut off payments, these normal payments that used to be made to the to the mullahs and the clergy and GOMM, which kind of kept them placate. Well, he cut that off, too, and made a lot of statements that he said Islam is sort of a backwards religion. And what was still a pretty conservative society at the time. So all this grows and grows and grows and outside. He had expelled Khomeini’s, I think, back in the 50s, 60s out of Iran. Khomeini was a religious leader of considerable influence and gravitas. He had all that. He was a grand ayatollah. He had all the sort of the right tickets for as far as religious credentials. But he was adamant against the Shah. He opposed the Shah’s rule. He thought he was anti-Islamic. And so the shah forced him an exile and to Iraq, which, as you know, has a large Shia population. But in the early, early, mid 70s, Khomeini’s kept stirring up problems he was sending and cassette tapes of his sermons, which was influencing people in the government. So Khomeini’s puts pressure on the Iraqi government to expel him, unfortunately, which works. But he goes to Paris, where he now has all the Western media to continue. I mean, it just increases his ability to influence Iran’s population exponentially. And so all this builds and culminates in a revolution in February 79 and the Shah. There’s a whole question of the degree. He he could have closed this with military force. But I think when that when it comes down to it, he could rely on his military to shoot on the population, on the protesters right now. Once that decision was made, everything else kind of falls. 

When you say that Khomeini was so important as a religious figure, to what extent do you think religion was the driving force behind the revolution? And to what extent was it just a way of of achieving secular means, like poverty alleviation or anti-corruption or things like that? 

Yeah, I would say. And truth is probably both. I think they saw the harmony clearly was driven by his religious calculations and the value of, as he call it, which is a grander view of of expansion of the Iranian revolution to the Shia world as a whole. And he vision himself as the protector of the downtrodden Shia. That was all part of his motivation, but also the issue of poverty, the inequity of wealth, all that figures into heavily into Islam. Anyway, I was sort of social issues, but also, you know, that the time the revolution was also driven pretty heavy by a leftist movement, by a communist part of the Tudor party, which was Iran’s Communist Party. So there was a lot of leftists as well who are disenchanted with with the Shah and his pro-American views. And so both of these merged and a temporary alignment to get rid of the Shah. But then immediately after the shah was gone, they have a falling out. And one of the interesting things I bring out in the book was one of the main reasons the Shah, the Ayatollah Khomeini, supported the takeover. The American embassy in November 79 was because he thought it would galvanize the population around his faction to the exclusion of the communists. And then in 1981, there’s almost a mini civil war and there’s thousands of Tuto party are killed by Khomeini’s, essentially gets rid of the main political rival. So it’s like a lot of revolutions. It was it was a variety of factors and factions. 

So from our perspective, from the West’s strategic perspective, for decades, up until then, for most of the 20th century, as you said, we’ve been thinking of Iran as I mean, a main concern has been that it would force away to the USSR right within. There were military contingency plans to occupy Iran. There were contingency plans to nuke Iran if the Soviets invaded. Is that true? And how does that all shift then suddenly after up to 79? 

That is absolutely all true. The U.S. develops a series of contingency plans beginning in about 1981, starts a little bit under Jimmy Carter, too. But once the hostage issues. And it’s all aimed on at countering what was perceived as a possible Soviet invasion of Iran. And there’s there’s some reasons at the time, as I’ve mentioned, either the the Communist Party was pretty active. There was a concern that there might be instability. The Soviets would then try to take advantage of. And Iran was I mean, then and now is as a key player, controls at least one half of the side of the entire Persian Gulf War. At the time, about 50 percent of the world’s oil came from. So a strategically very significant. And the Soviets realize that. We realize that. So we developed a lot of plans that the rapid deployment joint task force, what would become U.S. Central Command in 1983, was all devised to intervene primarily to counter Soviet attack into Iran. And part of that was a series of before the Iron F treaty abolished, it was a series, a use of a lot of tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet forces as if they came and to Iran, including dropping U.S. special forces with these things that were known as MANPADS, nuclear weapons, who would go and drop is kind of one man nuclear bombs to blow up these big parties of which the Soviets had to come from Azerbaijan into into Iran. 

The odd thing about all the military planning for the first few years that the U.S. military did was Iran was seen as kind of a chessboard and there was very little thought given about, you know, where we’re going to be in a nuclear war and committing troops in the fight against the Soviets. Well, what’s the Iranian population’s reaction going to be? And oddly enough, that was not even take into consideration that, you know, these people may not want to be in the middle of a nuclear war, may have their own view on who should who should win this war or how to influence it. So it’s about two or three years. 

It’s not to the mid 80s that you start to see a more realistic view of what the Iranian population’s calculations are going to be in this conflict. But the war at the time was everything. You know, it really was a global chessboard. 

Sir, you mentioned CENTCOM and you mentioned the mid 80s. Your dad, of course, was the commander in chief of CENTCOM in the 80s. He dealt with Iran a lot in that era. What was America’s calculus about Iran? 

Well, Iran is not seen as sort of two issues. One was in 1981, President Reagan signed a executive order that essentially lays out U.S. foreign policy, which will really govern for his entire term. And it was one to contain the Iranians, which contain Iran and revolution so it doesn’t destabilize Iraq or Saudi Arabia. And the other one was to figure out ways to engage it. Now the words to Iran, back to the U.S. side of the Cold War. And so we pursue both of those strategies for almost the entire eight years of President Reagan. And the engagement part sort of falls apart with the Iran and the secret dealing that will become Iran Contra with the U.S. secretly sells weapons to the Iranians, hoping that will ingratiate us to moderates while at the same time we’re providing intelligence, too. 

And a lot of assistance to the Iraqis to keep them from losing their their war with Iran at the time. So we’re off sort of supporting both sides. But as that sort of falls apart in the mid 80s. The U.S. takes a much more confrontational. Essentially, OK, if engagement doesn’t work, will double down on the confrontational aspect. And so what happens is in 1987, 86 is when it really starts. But it culminates in 87. Iran starts attacking neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf. And this becomes a conflict known as the tank of war. And it was pretty expansive. I think they they attacked 214 ships over the next year and the Persian Gulf oil tankers headed to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, etc., and without regard to their flag. And they do this to try to pressure the Gulf states to decrease support for Iraq. And so the U.S. intervenes in this and sends a pretty large military force. Our first real one and ever deployed to the Middle East’s recent War two. And it’s designed specifically to contain stop the Iranian attacks and ultimately as part of a larger containment strategy against Iranian military. And so my my father at the time as a CENTCOM commander and kind of led that bit of the operation against the Iranians. 

And then there’s a there’s a strike right on the USS Samuel B. Roberts. The Iranians hit it. 

Yes. In the middle of this operation actually is about a year into it, which entail the U.S. primarily providing safeguard for Kuwaiti oil tankers who are bearing the brunt of a lot of those Iranian ship attacks and had been going on a year. And the Iranians are actually not doing very war well against the Iraqis and the war, their fatigue. They probably had a million dead by this point in the war. And so they make a deliberate decision to mine lays mines in the path of what will be the U.S. Samuel B. Roberts. And they do it as a way of trying to inflict casualties on the United States under the assumption that if they can do that, it will weaken public resolve for the U.S. effort in the Gulf at the time. And that essentially will withdraw. It’s sort of an old narrative people have if the U.S. can’t take casualties. And so the Samuel B. Roberts, which I explain is it’s an amazing story, but it goes long and sees the mine lines in front of the guy, watch out front, sees it and they try to back repeatedly retrace the steps, if you will, on the water, knowing that at least where they been, there wasn’t a mine. There were unfortunately swerve off a little bit and they hit another mine that they didn’t know was there. And it literally cracks the ship in half. And there’s it’s an amazing story of why that ship didn’t sink. And I got to the Captain Wren, who was a very charismatic guy, goes down into the ship and he sees all these sailors stripping off all their clothes to shove them into these cracks in this one bulkhead. And he knows if that one bulkhead gives away, the entire ship is gonna sink. And so he tells these guys, hey, no matter what you do, do not let this bulkhead collapse or the ship’s gone. And so these guys stripped off all the clothes, do everything they can to plug up every leak in there. And he leaves thinking that he’ll never see any of them alive again. But miraculously, they succeeded and held the ship together. Well, after this, the U.S. responds pretty massive military response for this. And it leads to what is today still the largest naval engagement the U.S. has had since World War Two and against the Iranians, which results in about half the Iranian navy getting sunk or damaged and effectively takes Iran’s navy out of the war and has a big impact on influencing the Iranian government. And Khomeini’s specifically that, you know, we need to accept a peace agreement with the Iraqis because we’re losing everywhere right now. That’s a dramatic story in a lot of ways. 

Yeah. Have any U.S. presidents really gotten Iran? There’s a there’s that anecdote about Bill Clinton loitering around in the basement of the United Nations in 1999, hoping that he’s going to just bump into the Iranian president Khatami, the reformer. I mean, it seems like such a sort of such a sweet and almost childlike way to do international diplomacy. 

Well, the problem is when you don’t sense that the Iranians took the embassy in 1979, we’ve had no diplomatic relations with them. So literally, the only way we can get messages to and from the Iranians is through the Swiss intermediaries or sometimes Oman and some other countries, well, will pass messages back and forth. And if he can’t sit down literally and pick up a phone and talk to an Iranian diplomat, it really is even even getting some kind of relationships going as hard. Bill Clinton is another example, but I think even a more humorous one is George H.W. Bush. Bush 41, as we like to say, famously picks up. He gets a phone call from a guy he thinks there’s the Iranian president, Rafsanjani. This is 1989. And he picks up the phone, calls him back the next day and has a half hour conversation with a guy. Turns out to be a complete impostor. 

To this day, I’m not sure who he was and whether was a crank call or or what. But I mean, to the point where we even don’t know the guy’s phone number. So the answer is we’ve gotten a wrong many times for a host of reasons that, you know, fundamentally, when one side wants better relations, the other one hasn’t wanted it, they see it a sign of weakness. They just think they have the upper hand. So we’ve played this little game with them and there’s probably seven or eight times when one side or the other has made a significant opening to improve relations. And they’ve always been shut down by one side or the other. Timing wasn’t right. You know what is going on, at least with the nuclear deal up to this point? Somewhat remarkable. One is, you know, it started with a phone call between President Rouhani and Obama. 

So at least in this era, we at least got the right phone number for the Iranian press. So I guess that’s a step in the right direction. Yeah, that’s good. 

It’s also led to the ability for both sides to want to talk. And there’s a variety of factors on why that is. But it is the first time have having looked in the last 35 years, that both sides see it as in their interest to talk together at the same time. 

I would just want to talk about one of those missed opportunities, which was after 9/11 when the Iranians reached out to the Bush administration. I guess the Bush administration was was not in that climate terribly keen on having dialog. 

No, they weren’t. And there was a couple of at least a pretty significant Iranian opening after 9/11. Some of it worked throughout. Well, I mean, we’ve kind of coordinated on the set up with the new Afghan government that would President Karzai would come in on. But your audience, I think, had to calculations. One is that I think they were legitimately Bonnot, bothered by the Sunni extremist attack. That level of a terrorist attack. If you look at the headlines, at least as of the time we’re recording it, they’re acutely aware of ISIS and the latest extremist group that seems to be taking. So they’ve got whether they were aware and I think they legitimately bothered. And the other one is they weren’t sure about the U.S. reaction. And so they also wanted to help placate. There’s a great line where one Iranian leader described the U.S. as this huge angry giant who’s going to swing its club around the Middle East for the next few years. And Iran has to figure out how to stay out of the way of it. And so I think that was another calculation that they did. They they we had a sort of secret dialog between U.S. diplomats and Iranian diplomats in Geneva and Paris that went on for nearly a year. Durand’s made a lot of opening through a lot of issues on the table that would be of interest to the United States at the time, support for terrorism, cooperation against Saddam Hussein, cooperation against the Taliban, a lot of issues. But ultimately, the Bush administration was not really interested in it. And part of it was a lot of a lot of people within that first his first term, specifically Secretary Rumsfeld, and a lot that came in with OSD, the vice president, who fundamentally believed that regime change, not accommodation, should be U.S. policy. And I say in my book a couple of memos, including one that Rumsfeld wrote to President Bush in 2002, that specifically says that regime change, not accommodation, should be American policy. So if you’re going to talk to the Iranians, that’s only Lacourt legitimizing their right as a legitimate government. So they cut it off effectively. 

I mean, presumably you want both. Right. I mean, presumably you want accommodation while you need to have accommodation. And ultimately, you also want to have other people who are better to deal with than crazy religious ayatollahs and theocrats. 

Absolutely. I mean, my view is it’s I don’t see why Iran is not nearly as significant. The security sense as the Soviet Union, it’s a similar object. You know, you talk to your enemy not because you necessarily want to, but you need a venue to make sure that Leesha gets his phone number right. And you’re not calling an impostor in Tehran, which in a crisis is not a very good thing. And to make sure that you get a better sense for what his policy is and allows you to, that engagement allows you to at least have accommodation on areas where there’s an overlap of interest. But at the same time, of course, you don’t change your value system. And, you know, Iran is it’s not unlike most of the Arab part of the Middle East. It’s a young, very sophisticated population, tremendous Internet access. It’s a population that wants to evolve. And so what you need to do, as there is understand that in the short term, you’re probably not going to get there. The long term you will. And you so you helped steer that that course at the same time. You mean that to me is the correct strategy. 

Is there a lesson from 1979 in terms of our support of the Shah and then how suddenly and dramatically Iran went off the rails? And then you look at you fast forward to today and you look at what’s happened in Egypt and you look at what’s happening across the rest of the Middle East in terms of strategically supporting secular dictators and oppressing religious people. I mean, Zawahiri claims that he was radicalized in an Egyptian prison. We’re now seeing this happen again in Egypt today with Sisi imprisoning a lot of Muslim Brotherhood people. How do you deal with religious radicals without suppressing them so much that they then blow up in your face? 

That’s that in many ways as the 64000 dollar question. If I had the perfect answer, I’d be in my retreat on central pay right now. It is the ultimate question. And I remember one of Barak was in trouble. One of the memos that I crafted was a comparison to what we did right or wrong with the Shah. And we really had two courses of action for the Shah, which was one, we could support him. In fact, Brzezinski even has a phone conversation with him, essentially telling the Shah Brzezinski was the national security adviser for President Carter at the time that if you know, if you have to blow away a lot of civilians, that’s OK by us. We’ll look the other way. So there was and he later was pushing hard for the military to run, any military to essentially take over and coup. The other side of the administration’s view was held by Secretary Vance and the ambassador in the region at the time was, you know, the Shah’s days are numbered. There’s a widespread opposition to this guy. He’s not in good health. His son is not smart enough to take over form. So we’re facing a succession crisis anyway. The sooner we do our deal with the Islamists more in this case, maybe the better we will in the long term. In other words, we engage them. We try to use our influence to keep them on a more moderate path. And of course, you see the same debate played out in Egypt in 2011. And the problem was with the Shah, we didn’t really come down on either side. We sort of wishy washed it and didn’t really achieve much. 

Do you think that it would have been sustainable at all to actually continue supporting the Shah? Wasn’t wasn’t that ultimately going to end at some point? 

Exactly. I mean, the Shah’s days were not while he was dying of cancer anyway, although the U.S. intelligence, what at the time 20 billion dollar intelligence budget didn’t know that at the time he was dying of cancer. So he was gone by 81 anyway. So in many ways, the ambassador soul at the time was right. We’ve got to start thinking about what happens post Shah. And as long as we’re continued associated with supporting him, the less it’s going to help us in the long run. My view is, you know, at some point sentimentality ends and your national interests. And yeah, this guy was a great supporter of the U.S. interest for 30 years up to that point. But it was over. And the U.S. government needs to start thinking about what the next place the problem is. Ultimately, Khomeini was never going to really trust the United States. That revolution was anti-American from its core. However, having said that, there were enough moderates within the revolutionary movement that we might have, at least I think what we could have done is we could have lived with the government that came in. They might not have liked us. They might have been suspicious that it wouldn’t be as hostile as it turned out to be over the course of time. Whether that’s the right strategy or not, it’s really it’s it’s a very tough policy decision for the US. 

I look at the Middle East. I mean, I look at the Middle East today and look at the Saudis, for example. And I think just a few years ago, Syria and Libya looked like they were stable when in fact, of course, they were as brittle as as the as they could be once the wind started turning. Can you imagine a scenario in which the House of Saud is a bit like the Shah? 

I mean, what happens if Saudi Arabia? Is it possible that Saudi Arabia could go? 

So I think it’s possible for any monarch in the region to go. Saudi Arabia is more vulnerable. They get a large Shia population. They’ve had a rise in unemployment. It’s a bigger population. It’s still a very tribal society in many ways. Bahrain’s vulnerable. Jordan’s Balram. I mean, I think. You know, my view is that at least right now, as of March 2015, we’re in a transformation in the region. And really the old order that was put in place, you know, in many ways postwar were one and held in place due to Arab nationalism, secularization and the Cold War is all going. So all these all governments are changing. And what you’re seen as a rise and and a lot of the traditional secular struggles, you know, Sunni, Shia rise of tribal struggles, all are vying for competition. So I know 10 years from now, it could be an entirely different region. 

So how do we try to get the least worst outcome then? What’s the lesson for you from 79, if there is any? About how we should be posturing ourselves now with an expectation of the possibility of the fall of these these regimes so that we don’t end up on the other side of it with theocratic countries? 

I wish I had a great answer for that question. You know, it’s a it’s a question. Do we push for you know, and this is a challenge for U.S. foreign policy, all that history of the region. Do we push for ideals, in other words, for democracy and and human rights, or do we push for stability? If you push for stability, you continue to support current monarchs, which in some ways have have worked pretty well for us. Maybe you just reinforced that with whatever the next generation has already pushed for democracy, which ultimately in some ways carries its own reward as long as they don’t continue to elect anti anti-American, which unfortunately seems to be the. Sentiment. So I don’t have a great answer on that question other than I think it’s going to be a country by country basis, a case by case basis. And ultimately, it’s going to be quite a challenge for the United States policy in the region and the coming future. There’s no great answers. 

Lastly, what’s your long term prognosis for Iran? 

Well, I think we’ll we’ll see. You know, as of this hour interview, I have no idea what’s going to happen with the nuclear talks, although the indications are there will be an agreement. But I think long term, I think Iran is in many ways the rising power in the region. There’s a reason why the U.S. supported the Shah to the same degree. Ron has a population. They have oil and they have a population numbers and a sophisticated population. I mean, if you just look at their arms industry and it’s amazing what the Iranians are producing now on their own and Internet access and a lot of stuff that they have. So I think Iran is going to be a great is going to be a dominant regional power, maybe not in the sense of, you know, a megalomaniac like Saddam Hussein trying to conquer everything. But as far as influence, as far as economy. And so I think there is a realization that’s going to happen no matter what the U.S. does. I also think long term that none of that changes a potential conflict of interest between the United States and Iran in the short term, in the long term, as the revolutionary generation dies off and the new generation takes over, who isn’t colored by the events of 1979 and are colored by a lot of the historical baggage between those two countries? I think long term, there’s a very high likelihood of what approach, Mark, between the United States and Iran. They just see the confluence of interests. We’re not there yet. We won’t be there for the immediate future. But I think long term we are. And frankly, I think that some of the stuff that President Obama has been banking on with a lot of his openings to the Iranians is playing not for the short term, but for a long, longer term game. 

David. Chris, thanks so much for being with us. The book is The Twilight War The Secret History of America’s 30 Year Conflict with Iran. Thanks for being a point of inquiry. 

Thank you. Appreciate it. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.