Jay Solomon’s “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East” spans more than two decades of conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the book opens and closes with the Americans hopelessly outplayed by an enemy they do not understand.
No one will walk away from “The Iran Wars” with much optimism: It is a succession of stories of missed opportunities, American cultural myopia, and politically-motivated mistakes, almost all of which turn out to benefit one of the most dangerous regimes on earth.
Solomon, a foreign affairs and national security reporter at the Wall Street Journal, picks up the story of Iranian-American relations shortly after 9/11. The tragedy of the terrorist attacks opened up greater possibilities for Washington to shore up alliances and face down U.S. enemies, but the Bush administration, drunk on righteous anger, blew many of those opportunities, despite some early successes.
In Afghanistan, for example, the Bush White House made it clear that it would tolerate no interference from the Iranians. The warning worked, at least for a time. As Solomon recounts, former CIA officer Henry Crumpton later said: “We knew the Iranians were scared shitless of us” in Afghanistan. But Bush’s initial steadfastness gave way, as Solomon notes, to “incoherence” after 9/11, with Bush’s White House seeking Iranian cooperation on stabilizing Afghanistan while preparing for a long-term conflict with Tehran.
Moreover, the Bush White House was unprepared and unwilling to stop the growth of Iranian influence in post-invasion Iraq. To put it more accurately, the Bush administration was pretty much unprepared for everything in post-invasion Iraq, and the growth of Iranian influence was just one of the many problems left to fester after toppling Saddam. There are many examples of the Bush White House’s post-9/11 tunnel-vision, and the inability to cope with the growth of Iranian power—as well as an accelerating nuclear program—was among of them.
One interesting question from Solomon’s recap of the Bush years is whether the one-two punch of toppling Saddam and then increasing harsh sanctions on Iran could have persuaded Tehran to give up a nuclear program. It’s possible, as Solomon implies, that the Bush administration was the victim of its own success and didn’t know it. When the Iranians pulled back on their nuclear work after the second Gulf War, was it because they feared being next on Bush’s counter-proliferation hit-list?
We’ll never know, because the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) decided that Iran had, in fact, abandoned its nuclear program. This, as Solomon rightly points out, defanged any possible rationale for military action against Iran—and the Iranians knew it.
If the NIE really did declare victory too early—and Solomon claims Bush only released it because it would have been leaked anyway—then it was a huge mistake, because it effectively removed any salutary effect on Iran that might have been gained from the invasion of Iraq. Once hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office and accelerated the Iranian program after 2009, the “validity of the  NIE continued to be whittled away,” but it was too late.
Compounding the Errors
Bush’s errors were compounded and expanded when Barack Obama took office, and most of “The Iran Wars” is a detailed depiction of the feckless combination of grandiosity and credulity that Obama and his team brought to American foreign policy. Obama’s supporters have doggedly defended the Iran nuclear deal as merely the nimble reaction of a flexible, pragmatic administration to an opportunity opened by the election of a new leader in Iran. As Solomon’s book makes clear, this is not even remotely accurate.
The fact of the matter, as Solomon shows, is that the Obama administration had something like a grand strategy in mind, and it was awful. From the first days in office, Obama and his team obsessively pursued better relations with Iran not to secure a nuclear deal, but as part of a larger effort to weave Iran back in to the international community and entice Tehran to play a more positive role in the affairs of the Middle East:
The White House believed ending Iran’s nuclear threat could open up a pathway for Washington and Tehran to cooperate on stabilizing combustible countries in the Mideast, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and later Syria. Rapprochement could also help build bridge to the wider Muslim world.
Obama, foolishly, believed he could abandon Bush’s “black and white view of the world” and engage with America’s enemies. Iran was first on the list.
Not everyone in the Obama administration was certain this was a good idea. Ironically, Hillary Clinton—who as Obama’s top diplomat and now a presidential candidate has had to bear the brunt of criticisms of Obama’s policy in Iran—counseled deep caution. Clinton and Obama had already clashed on the 2008 campaign trail, with Clinton referring to Obama’s position on Iran as “naïve.” Inside the administration, Clinton warned the Obama team of her husband’s experiences in the 1990s, and referred to the Iranians as “notoriously compulsive liars.”
When a Clinton thinks you have trouble with the truth, that’s saying something. None of that, however, stopped trusted Clinton advisor Jake Sullivan from joining the negotiating team for a nuclear deal with Iran. Sullivan and other American diplomats emerge from Solomon’s account as generally sensible and cautious participants in dealing with the Iranians.
Except for one: John Kerry.
The Syrian Dictator’s Man In Washington
Kerry, more than anyone, perhaps even more than Obama himself, emerges from Solomon’s pages as a hopelessly confused leader. Eager to make his mark as a peacemaker, Kerry managed to annoy both the Bush and Obama administrations in different ways, first as a senator interloping in foreign policy in 2006, and then as a secretary of state prone to giving confident, if unauthorized assurances to U.S. opponents.
Worse, Kerry was completely bamboozled by Bashar Assad, whom Kerry believed was someone he could deal with because Assad was secular and did not show any obvious affection for Al Qaeda. As Solomon notes, “Kerry was emerging as the Syrian dictator’s man in Washington,” and to this day, Kerry believes that “there was a moment when Assad could have been turned from his alliance with Iran.”
This, of course, is ridiculous. Solomon gently suggests that Kerry’s beliefs show “a troubling lack of judgment” on Kerry’s part. Those who voted against him in 2004, however, would counter that Solomon’s account reveals Kerry to be exactly who his critics thought he was.
Betrayed by Assad later, Kerry became an angry voice in 2013 defending an attack on Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. This is an interesting moment in the book, because Solomon makes clear that Obama had every intention of striking Syria. Why didn’t it happen? Obama claimed he needed congressional approval, but this, as Solomon points out (and as anyone else who has spent more than ten minutes in Washington knows) was a ruse.
Obama, Solomon writes, “initially gave strong assurances to its Mideast allies and the rebels that the United States would strike Syria’s air force and missile batteries as part of a limited campaign to cripple Assad’s war machine.” Syrian rebels eagerly awaited these strikes, which never came. Instead, according to Solomon, U.S. officials privately said “the president was never 100 committed to hitting Assad,” and the White House “inexplicably” backed off its commitment to action.
Held Hostage By the Iran Deal
From the rest of Solomon’s narrative, however, there’s nothing inexplicable about it. As Solomon’s account makes clear (and as Solomon himself later reiterated to MSNBC), Obama had been warned by the Iranians that they would brook no attacks on their allies if Washington wanted to continue its dealings with Tehran. All of American foreign policy in the region, in effect, was hostage
to Obama’s stubborn obsession to get a deal with Iran.
And what a deal it was. Solomon caps the book with an account of the diplomacy leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a glorious mess of an agreement in which, as Solomon writes, “Iran pocketed the carrots dangled” by Washington while giving little in return. A European diplomat noted with dismay that Obama’s team was too invested in the goal of a deal itself, and that “the Iranians had boxed us in. The Americans had ensnared themselves in the process.”
Solomon also recounts the scorched earth campaign Obama’s supporters waged on behalf of the deal, including the machinations of deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. The White House “weeded out nuance in its messaging when selling the deal,” Solomon writes, arguing that the only alternative to the JCPOA was a war—one that Obama’s critics and supporters both knew the president would never have allowed—with Iran.
“I loved it,” Solomon reports Rhodes later saying of the debate. “I thought it was healthy…Maybe we didn’t change minds on the other side, but we answered their questions.” This is utter mendacity, of course. Questions were not answered so much as shouted down in a flurry of dishonest data and false choices.
For example, Solomon recounts the leak, reported by the AP’s George Jahn, of a side deal to allow the Iranians to engage in what amounted to “self-inspection” at their Parchin military site:
Supporters of the White House, including in the non-proliferation community, charged that the document was forged and that Jahn had no journalistic ethics. Weeks later the [IAEA] announced that the major points raised in the AP’s story were accurate.
I wrote on this blowup at the time, and found the smears against Jahn astounding. More damning, Solomon later interviewed the IAEA director, Yukiya Amano, who later visited Parchin under the ridiculous conditions on which the Iranians insisted. Solomon asked about tests done on samples of material from the site.
“The samples…the samples,” Amano replied cryptically, before pausing for thirty seconds of silence. “The samples did not support [the] Iranian story. The Iranians weren’t telling us everything in this regard.”
Indeed. Of course, the “it’s this or war” advocates of the Iran deal swore that Amano’s visit was a success, and that claims of self-inspection were nonsense. Amano, obviously, is not so sure.
The entire matter is now moot, but Obama’s supporters would claim that the deal has averted, at least for now, further progress on the Iranian nuclear program. This is short-sighted, because that halt will last only as long as the Iranians want it to. The Obama administration, as Solomon reminds us, has taken a huge gamble, hoping that the current Iranian regime cannot outlive the terms of the JCPOA.
Meanwhile, Syrian, Russian, and Iranian behavior continue, in Solomon’s words, to “challenge” the administration. In October 2016, French President Francois Hollande said that later Russian aggression could be attributed to the West, led by Obama, ducking a response on both Assad’s gassing of his own people and the Russian invasion of Crimea. Except to academic specialists who refuse to believe in such things as reputation and credibility, this is a surprise to exactly no one (with the possible exception of Barack Obama and John Kerry.)
There is much more to the book, including a good recounting of the activity of General Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian intelligence chieftain whom Solomon notes U.S. officials likened to “Karla,” the Soviet spymaster in John LeCarre’s books. (Commanders like David Petraeus had a personal hatred for him after Iranian sponsored attacks on U.S. troops.) Soleimani hovers like a dark presence throughout “The Iran Wars,” always outmaneuvering his opponents to this day.
A New Chapter?
The book moves with great speed and efficiency across a great landscape, but there are also some grating moments in “The Iran Wars,” especially when Solomon lets us know how anguished he is about his own important role as a journalist as the center of world-shaking events.
“I felt I was being forced into the role of a diplomatic intermediary between Washington and Damascus,” he tells us with great reluctance. He then says that “a colleague” told him that interviewing Assad was like “interviewing Adolf Hitler in 1939 on the eve of World War II.” A better sense of proportion suggests that the only thing that’s like interviewing Hitler in 1939 is interviewing Hitler in 1939.
There’s also a strange and jarring slap at Senator Tom Cotton in the midst of everything. Calling Cotton a “little-known southern senator,” Solomon writes that Cotton “directed” 46 Republicans to sign a letter undermining Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. I am a supporter of executive prerogative in foreign affairs, and I didn’t like the Cotton letter. But Tom Cotton is not “little-known;” he’s a rising star in the Republican majority. He’s also a junior senator who cannot “direct” anyone to sign anything, much less four dozen of his senior colleagues, and Solomon surely knows it.
Despite these rare off-key moments, “The Iran Wars” is a compelling read. For those who find the labyrinthine turns of Middle Eastern politics nearly incomprehensible—which is to say, almost everyone—this book is indispensable. Solomon provides enough of an overview to get a general reader up to speed without drowning in detail, but he also provides enough of the tick-tock of detailed negotiations that specialists in foreign policy will have a plenty to consider. It is an excellent example of how journalists can report and educate at the same time, with a fluency difficult to find in books on such complex subjects.
In the end, Solomon repeats the comments of an Israeli official whose views serve to sum up “The Iran Wars”: “The [Obama] White House has bet the farm on reaching an accommodation with the Iranians. But they never truly seemed to understand who were they were dealing with.” This could well be said of almost every American administration that has gone up against the Islamic autocrats in Tehran, and Solomon closes the book by warning that “the Iran wars could just be entering a new chapter.”
We can only hope that it is not actually the prologue to World War III.