The Twilight War

Title:                      The Twilight War

Author:                 David Crist

Crist, David (2012). The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran. New York: Penguin Press

LCCN:    2011050573

E183.8.I55 C75 2012


  • Map of Iran — “A Little King in Your Heart” — “A New Grand Strategy” — Barbed Wire Bob — A Den of Spies — “A Fig Leaf of Neutrality” — Sharon’s Grand Design — A Spectacular Action — The American Hamlet — Arms for the Ayatollah — Sleepy Hollow — A Ring on the American Finger — The Wake-up Call — The Invisible Hand of God — A Window of Opportunity — The Night Stalkers — A Very Close Call — No Higher Honor — Goodbye Captain Nasty — The Terrible Climax — Goodwill Begets Goodwill — War or Peace — An Atrocity — An Axis of Evil — Defeat or Victory — The Freedom Agenda — A Quasi War.


Date Posted:      November 10, 2015

Reviewed by Hayden Peake[1]

The mention of Iran today brings to mind its nuclear enrichment program, Western sanctions, the antics of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Stuxnet, the cyberwarfare weapon. These issues have increased tensions between Iran and the United States, which have existed since the Iranian revolution in 1979. In The Twilight War, David Crist, a Defense Department historian with a PhD in Middle East history and former Marine intelligence officer who served in the Middle East, examines the history of the entire postrevolutionary period with a view to understanding the bilateral relationship and the efforts of both sides “to bridge their differences.” (p. 572)

Crist notes that after the 1979 revolution, the United States only gradually realized its Cold War policies toward prerevolutionary Iran no longer applied. He cites a CIA officer’s summation: “We now had a plan to defend those who don’t want to be defended against those who are not going to attack.” (p. 81) New plans were required. Crist describes how they were developed and applied at both the strategic and tactical levels. And, as a subtheme, he explains the supporting role of the intelligence agencies.

Many of the events Crist covers—the hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra affair, the Iran-Iraq War, and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and the Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia–will be familiar to most readers. Others—for example, Iran’s ship-mining operations and the actions in Iraq of its Quds force, the extraterritorial operations unit of the Revolutionary Guard—have received less media attention. Of particular interest are the shooting engagements between US units and Iranian naval, air, and ground forces in the Persian Gulf during and after the Iran-Iraq War {1980-88). These Crist describes in vivid detail from two perspectives. The first is that of the participants themselves—the pilots, ship crews, and Special Forces units involved. The second considers the command structure—civilian and military—at CENTCOM and in Washington. Crist reveals an illustrative bit of spiteful intra-Navy flag officer rivalry during the 1980s that involved his father, Marine Corps Gen. George Crist, then the commander of CENTCOM. But the book’s primary emphasis is on the prickly military issues and the foreign policy aspects of these engagements.

With regard to US intelligence and Iran in the postrevolutionary era, Crist begins the story with a chapter titled “A Den of Spies.” Here we read of CIA efforts to rebuild its spy networks in the 1980s despite Director of Central Intelligence Casey’s primary concern with the Soviet threat. The focus was on agent recruitment and handling, and the results were mixed. Crist notes that “the agents did provide useful information that helped Washington undermine Iran’s military adventures.” (p. 76) One agent reported an attempt by Iran to purchase Exocet missiles. Another provided coordinates for command and control facilities. And Reza Kahlili, a member of the Revolutionary Guard, alerted the CIA to a planned Iranian attack in Saudi Arabia that was brutally thwarted.

On the negative side, after a failed recruitment attempt was reported to the MOIS—Ministry of Intelligence and Security—most of the agents were arrested and, by 1989, executed. Thus Crist concludes, the “final act of the Reagan Iranian saga turned into one of the biggest disasters in the history of American intelligence.” (p. 373) Crist describes attempts made during subsequent administrations to neutralize the MOIS in Iran, the contribution of defectors, and the struggle by Special Forces units to shut down the Quds Force operations. (p. 536)

In the end, Crist concludes that despite attempts by both sides to “bridge their differences … distrust permeates the relationship. Three decades of twilight war have hardened both sides.” (p. 572) Crist provides a fine account of US Iranian relations since 1979, but he holds out little hope of a solution any time soon.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 1, Spring/Summer 2013, pp. 115-116). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

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