Confrontation, cooperation and concord: The strange story of US and Iran (Book Review)

Title: The Iran Wars; Author: Jay Solomon; Publisher: Random House; Pages: 336; Price: Rs 699

The Iran nuclear accord is one of the two initiatives that Barack Obama hopes will serve as his Presidential legacy. While only time will tell how it works out, there can be no denying that the path to it, a rare but not entirely unknown point of understanding between the US and Iran who have been engaged in a largely-undeclared conflict for decades, would make for an engrossing story.

And Jay Solomon skillfully recounts the tale, which features high intrigue, deception, violence, but also determination, commitment and a spirit of reconciliation, and sees conflict extend into cyberspace and the realms of international finance and make scientists targets too.

It also features a rich cast of characters, from a shadowy Iranian militia commander successful in leading military operations, and especially the Indian-American who played a key role in the secret negotiations that led to the treaty.

Solomon, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, however does not restrict himself to Iran’s nuclear programme, the attempts by Western powers and Israelis to stymie it and finally the negotiations, but traverses the whole spectrum of the US-Iranian dynamics in the Middle East – and beyond.

Beginning with a visit to the Holy Defence Museum in Tehran, where the latest exhibit are the sedans of four assassinated scientists, he provides a brief view of why the relations between the two have been stormy, from the 1979 Islamic Revolution (though omission of the 1953 coup and the American role thereof is glaring) to a new cycle of violence resorted to Iran’s proxies against US in the region subsequently.

But for this, the only examples are the attack on the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the Khobar bombings in the 1990s. On the other hand, there was also the Iran-Contra scandal, but Solomon’s explanation is flawed (hostages were only an add-on to the deal, which was primarily meant to sell arms to Iran to get money for Contra rebels battling the Sandanistas in Nicaragua after Congress blocked funds).

Solomon then takes up the missed chance for some sort of rapprochement in wake of the 9/11 attacks (when Iran was the Middle Eastern country apart from Israel to hold public condolence meetings), the Iranian help in Afghanistan, both of the battlefield (it is here we first meet Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani of the Qods Force) and in convincing some obdurate factions to agree to the transition government headed by Hamid Karzai) and how all this was blocked by George W. Bush listed Iran in the “Axis of Evil”.

More instructive is the case of Iraq, which was a spectacular self-goal for the Bush regime. We learn how the main rationale for the US invasion – weakening Iran in the region – was first encapsulated in a small, obscure 1999 work by little-known Middle East strategist David Wurmser (who had go on to hold posts in the State Department and Pentagon during Bush’s tenure).

But as Solomon dryly notes that “the conflict he (Wurmser) had written about in 1999 played out along the very fault lines he envisaged, though not necessarily with the outcome he predicted”. Soleimani pops up here too.

There is also a considerable section on Syria, how the nuclear negotiations may have affected US response to the civil war and how Obama erred but this is where a slant starts to appear.

One point that raises concern is the economic warfare resorted to by the US to knock Iran out of the global financial system, and its additional tactics of squeezing Iranian funds through lawsuits for past events. What happens when other aggrieved countries resort to similar tactics – will it be considered as righteous as presented here?

Then the opinions of Solomon, who makes it evident from the outset that he opposes Obama and John Kerry’s willingness to deal with Iran and the nuclear deal, questions Iran’s readiness to abide by it (though conceding, in one paragraph in the last chapter that it kept its pledges under the pact) and fears a new regional arms race (both US allies in the vanguard) are debatable, at the least.

A detailed and informative account undoubtedly, it however needs to be read with some circumspection from roughly midway and especially as regards the conclusions.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in <mailto:vikas.d@ians.in>)

–IANS

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