Book Reviews

A Costly Pause in a Troubled Relationship

By Steve Slick
Monday, October 31, 2016, 7:30 AM

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A review of Jay Solomon's The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East (Random House 2016).

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President Obama’s legacy in foreign affairs will certainly be both mixed and vigorously contested, through at least the term of his successor. This legacy will be shaped in considerable part, however, by decisions that Iran’s clerical rulers take over coming years on matters covered by the agreement they reached with the U.S. and its partners in 2015—the much-debated, still controversial agreement aimed (from the U.S. view) at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

While Iran’s decisions concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as the 2015 agreement is called—will be the ones that matter most in the long term, the short-term fate of the JCPOA seems likely to depend (apparently together with that of many other American foreign affairs commitments) on the outcome of the upcoming presidential contest. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has endorsed the JCPOA while expressing skepticism about Iranian motives and resolving to confront Iran’s troublesome (non-nuclear) behavior. Donald Trump, for his part, has said the deal was an incompetently negotiated “disaster” that he would rework as president.

The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and The Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East, by the Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign correspondent, Jay Solomon, is an ambitious early effort to write a history of U.S. policy toward Iran in the decade leading up to last summer’s nuclear deal. The book’s publisher raised expectations by promising a narrative “rife with revelations” and inviting comparisons to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, both masterful accounts of the rise of Sunni extremism and al-Qaeda and America’s pre-9/11 counterterrorism policies, respectively.

There are, in fact, few blockbuster revelations in The Iran Wars, but this history is nonetheless well researched, instructive, and consistently engaging. The author builds on years of journalistic reporting from the region to assemble a generally reliable account of a highly eventful decade in U.S.-Iranian dealings. The Iran Wars should serve well as a baseline for measuring versions of these same events in the memoirs and insider accounts that will follow the upcoming change in administrations.

The Iran Wars is at its most effective when describing and analyzing the Obama administration’s diplomatic engagements with Iranian counterparts in the years, months, days, and hours before the JCPOA was completed. It also includes an important explanation of how (principally) the Treasury Department developed and enforced a suite of economic sanctions that ultimately brought Iran to negotiate. Since much of the pertinent information remains classified, the narrative is relatively less complete and insightful regarding the military and intelligence actions that also shaped the diplomatic climate. To be sure, because of the need for continued access and vigilance as well as a readiness to deal with Iranian misconduct, it is in fact reassuring that most of these activities remain outside the public domain. These gaps will ultimately be filled in as official records are declassified—or perhaps sooner if better-informed participants break their silence.

The Iran Wars is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Readers without the benefit of a timeline or pre-existing expertise with this rather complicated topic may therefore occasionally find it challenging to place discrete events into context within the book’s thematic chapters, given the dynamic and multi-faceted U.S.-Iran relationship across the key years. Early chapters briskly recount the most relevant history, introduce key personalities and institutions on both sides, and fix Iran squarely at the center of today’s volatile, fracturing Middle East. 

As for the charge of bias threaded through several reviews of The Iran Wars (e.g., Elaine Sciolino's Washington Post review), one answer is that the book’s criticisms are not all directed at the Obama administration. For example, “The Missed Chance” (Chapter 2) provides implicit criticism of the Bush administration’s refusal to follow up on Iran’s offer of cooperation in rebuilding Afghanistan after Iranian negotiators had participated constructively in the “Bonn Process,” which shaped the first post-Taliban government in Kabul. Similarly, “The Shia Crescent” (Chapter 3) describes inattention by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad as Iranian-backed militias gained influence in southern Iraq, and also provides a critical evaluation of the Bush administration’s excessive caution in restraining U.S. commanders who were anxious to impose a cost on Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces that were training “special groups” to kill U.S. soldiers with shaped explosive charges and other specialized weapons.

Not all of the book’s criticisms are equally valid, however. In “The Persian Domino” (Chapter 1), for example, Solomon asserts that Bush administration debates over Iran policy “played out inside Washington’s intelligence services,” and repeats the discredited charge that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program (which described an earlier Iranian decision to suspend “weaponization” research) was an inappropriate effort to shape U.S. policy. It was not. While the NIE’s declassification and public release had a clear political impact—principally that of weakening the resolve of U.S. allies for tougher action against Iran’s nuclear program—the underlying intelligence judgment was accurate and the decision to release it publicly was made at the White House and not by intelligence professionals.

That Iran ever even entered into serious talks with the P5+1 on its nuclear activities is testament to a well-coordinated policy that involved every element of modern American power: military, intelligence, financial, and diplomatic. Remarkably, most elements of this policy transitioned in 2009 without significant change between the outgoing Bush and incoming Obama administrations.  In “The Clenched Fist” (Chapter 7), Solomon details President Obama’s efforts to distinguish his diplomatic approach from that of his predecessor, by dispatching the first of four personal messages directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader. These letters, along with the internal Obama administration deliberations that informed them, revealed the administration’s interwoven goals of slowing Iran’s progress toward the bomb, offering the clerical regime a path to normalized relations, and encouraging democratic forces within the country. While the JCPOA was ultimately marketed to Congress and the public as a pragmatic step designed solely to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, Solomon persuasively demonstrates that the President’s ambitions for this engagement were far more sweeping—and also that these hopes indeed inhibited U.S. responses to Iran’s “Green Revolution” protests in 2009, as well as U.S. responses to the persistently malign actions in the region by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its terrorist proxies.   

“The Rial War” (Chapter 6) and “Black Gold” (Chapter 8) contribute valuable accounts of the creative, persistent, and ultimately successful steps to build leverage by bringing escalating pressure to bear on Iran’s economy. Influential current and former Treasury Department officials have assisted Solomon in explaining how Iran’s government and key industries were isolated from global markets, denied access to essential commercial services, and ultimately deprived of customers for its indispensible export: oil. While statutes, executive orders, and administrative regulations provided the tools, in the final analysis, it was Treasury officials who succeeded in persuading leading Western bankers, insurers, and traders that the “reputational risk” of doing business with Iran would not be offset by potential profits. Together with Juan Zarate’s Treasury Wars, this portion of The Iran Wars should be essential reading for those interested in the emergence of economic coercion as a critical tool of U.S. foreign policy in the traditionally spare middle ground between military action and diplomacy.

Even as Treasury was establishing itself as a central member of the U.S. national security family, however, the federal government’s monopoly on economic coercion—both carrots and sticks—was coming under challenge.  The Iran Wars describes the relentless pursuit of Iranian government assets by a local prosecutor in New York and a private attorney’s equally dogged fight to compensate victims of past Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Solomon highlights the close ties both lawyers maintained with the State of Israel while advancing their cases.

The effectiveness of financial sanctions imposed on Iran has inevitably led to calls for similarly crippling pressure on Russia, North Korea, and other rogues. While there are clearly lessons from the Iran experience that can be profitably applied to other international challenges, there are at least as many factors that are unique to Iran’s case and the nature of the international coalition that was assembled to inflect stress on its economy. Simple solutions to hard foreign policy problems are always an illusion and the utility of economic sanctions must be closely evaluated in each case. It would also be prudent for U.S. policymakers to consider the long-term implications for our own economy and business climate before seeking reflexively to replicate the sanctions that worked so well with Iran and before adding to an already-dense web of U.S. government sanctions and private rights of action and legal judgments.

The Iran Wars culminates in a fast-paced, suspenseful recounting of the negotiations—conducted in different venues, by rotating casts, and with varied outcomes—that led first to an interim agreement and finally to the JCPOA.  “The Road to Vienna” (Chapter 10) introduces the curious role played by the Sultanate of Oman in facilitating secret talks between U.S. and Iranian officials. These “Track II” negotiations were sustained up to the moment of final agreement and afforded both sides a venue to clarify expectations and explore compromises in a manner not possible in more public negotiating rounds that involved no fewer than seven different government delegations and a peripheral ring of international organizations, technical advisors, advocacy groups, and media. The Obama administration elected to keep the Omani channel secret not only from its P5+1 partners but also from Saudi Arabia and Israel. This was notwithstanding repeated assurances to the leaders of both allies that they would be kept fully updated and consulted on the nuclear negotiations with Iran that directly implicated their security interests. 

Secret diplomacy is, of course, not uncommon and may well have been necessary to reach an understanding with Iran. There are, however, real costs in terms of credibility and trust when close allies are deliberately deceived. Much has been made, including in The Iran Wars, of the falling out between the U.S. and Israeli governments over the conduct of the Iranian nuclear talks and the merit of the JCPOA. Concealing the Omani track from the Israelis certainly contributed to Jerusalem’s skepticism over the terms of the final agreement and other possible undocumented assurances that might have been provided to close the deal. In view of Oman’s historically close dealings with both the Israelis and Saudis, it is interesting to speculate whether the Track II talks in Oman were ever, in fact, a secret from our allies. Still, the question remains whether the benefits of direct bilateral talks with Iran outweigh the lost trust and credibility with America’s allies.   

A consistent theme advanced in The Iran Wars is the high costs accepted by the Obama administration in furtherance of its single-minded pursuit of a nuclear deal. In addition to jeopardizing alliance relationships, the book includes many examples where U.S. policy responses to significant events in the Middle East were shaped by a fear that Iran would walk away from the talks. In “The Arab Spring” (Chapter 9), Solomon cites sources on both Iranian and U.S. sides to claim that President Obama’s last-minute decision in 2013 to ignore his own “red-line” on Syria’s chemical weapons use was influenced by an Iranian threat to halt the nuclear negotiations. The book describes how Iranian diplomats conveyed to U.S. counterparts in the secret Omani channel that “support for the negotiations in Tehran would evaporate” if the U.S. attacked Iran’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. The White House denied at the time that U.S. policy on Syria was ever part of the Iranian nuclear talks. Following publication of The Iran Wars, an administration spokesman reiterated that denial, adding that any “reports to the contrary are false.” 

The Iran Wars provides a factual and fair, albeit skeptical, account of the Iranian nuclear negotiations and the deal they produced. The volume is a worthwhile reference for scholars, students, and practitioners interested in America’s troubled relationship with Iran’s clerical regime. Iran’s leaders will determine whether the JCPOA meets the agreement’s narrowly-defined final objective of temporarily regulating the regime’s nuclear program. The Iran Wars makes and supports an argument that this was a modest gain, achieved at considerable cost. The daunting tasks of rehabilitating U.S. alliances in the Middle East and leading collective actions to counter Iran’s support for terrorism, destabilization of states in the region, and suppression of its own people will await the next president. 

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Steve Slick is a clinical professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin. He was a member of CIA’s clandestine service, and served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and the NSC’s Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform. This essay was reviewed and approved by the CIA’s Publications Review Board.

Cite as: Steve Slick, A Costly Pause in a Troubled Relationship, Lawfare (October 31, 2016), at https://lawfareblog.com/costly-pause-troubled-relationship.

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