tv Book TV After Words CSPAN August 5, 2012 9:00pm-10:00pm EDT
man. i read a series of books on religion and 19 reading right now is by david about discussing god with children and how to explain got to children and speaking of my own children doing a lot of reading with my oldest son as he goes through his summer reading list and i like to read with him and discuss the book's and we are currently reading where the red fern grows a classic from the early 60's about a boy a's love of dogs. that will keep him busy. ..
>> host: contemporary u.s. foreign policy, one with of the hardest challenges, i think, for our decision makers is the relationship with iran or the nonrelationship with iran as we might say. i thought we might begin our discussion to just put, explain to our listeners, um, why and how you wrote the book, some of the method logical issues so that we get that straight before we get into some of the vividly-told story t of this 30 years of u.s./iranian engagement from the perspective of our sort of military-to-military interactions. so i wonder if we could just start with tell us why you wrote and book and how you wrote it considering that you are a government historian, but this book was really done in a, through a different methodology. >> guest: right. it was done, the genesis of it
started as a dissertation many years ago back in the '90s on reagan foreign policy and the persian gulf. one of the catalysts for me as far as an interest in the region itself was my father had been the u.s. central command commander from '85-'88 which was the u.s. military command for the middle east. obviously, that sort of spurred an interest even though i was a young lieutenant at the time and my interests were far different than large, geopolitical issues. but when i, after desert storm, went back to graduate school with an interest having served in desert storm with an interest in the middling east, and it got me quite interested in doing a study in the region. so i started with the dissertation, and that sort of kept up. i intended to write a book around, about the time, in fact, i just signed a book contract about two days before 9/11 happened which was going to be a far different book than this. and then after my military
experiences in iraq and afghanistan and as you started seeing the iranian issue in a different light, i started expanding the scope of the book and then spent, oh, a good ten years research and writing this. my wife likes to remind me we haven't had a vacation since 2004, so it was very much every wicking moment of my -- waking moment of my free time. i was at a washington think tank for an expended period of time which gave me the freedom away from the government to write and travel. and the research was quite interesting. if you're familiar with government records and the modern era, they're not in very good shape. most of them are electronic records, a lot of them have not been saved. it's, it really is going out, finding people who still have records, talking to people. obviously, the archives, casper weinberger did me a great service by giving me access to his formerly-restricted papers.
and one of the best sources was a retired admiral i stumbled into who had really detailed presidential and secretary of defense-level meeting notes and some notebooks he had in a crawlspace in his basement. [laughter] and they were really insightful. and then i traveled a lot. i went to south beirut and some back alley safe houses when i was on sabbatical from the government to talk to hezbollah and hamas to try to get as much of their side. i interviewed hundreds of people for this book and plowed through a lot of records. so it really was -- and it wasn't really related to anything i was doing on the government service at the time, which is -- >> host: helpful. >> guest: yeah. i mean, because otherwise there would have been an overlap, but that was not even the case. >> host: and because you're writing about a very contemporary period, the u.s. government official documents, only the very earliest period that you're covering, has been declassified. so did you have to request a lot
of that -- >> guest: i requested documents and work through the normal means that you try to get material released. >> host: yeah. i thought it might also be useful to just reflect a minute or two on the role of the historian, the historian's perspective as compared to a political scientist or, you know, somebody who wants to take a policy analysis perspective. >> guest: uh-huh. >> host: so help us understand what you thought were kind of the boundaries of the stories you were telling, um, and the craft of the historian as compared to some of these other disciplines that also were covering some of the same period of u.s. foreign policy. >> guest: well, i think first and foremost i tried to take as unbiased looked at the story as i could. i didn't have a political agenda. i wasn't trying to make a case that, for example, george w. bush's policies were correct or incorrect. i don't think is a particularly democrat or republican story, i
see it as an american story. there's overarching themes that run across all the administrations which i think are quite fascinating. so what i tried to do is take a look at this in the larger perspective and go back and see how did we get to where we are today, what were the main causes, is there any trends and themes that run through our relationship, um, and with the ultimate goal of trying to write an objective account of what transpired, warts and all on both sides, to better inform the public about why it is we seem to be on almost a collision course with iran. i mean, how did we get here? >> host: uh-huh. >> guest: and the truth is, it lies in the history. we are both captured by our own historical baggage, if you will, of which mostly traces back to 1979. and neither side seems to have gotten over it. >> host: yeah. no, it's interesting because generally we think that americans are less historically
focused than other cultures, that other cultures are always invoking whether it's china or iran or turkey, they're invoking the greatnessover their empires in the past, etc. , and the united states tends to be more future-oriented. but in this particular case you found that the trauma of the hostage crisis and the trauma of the iranian revolution is still very formative in the minds of americans who were responsible for iran policy? >> guest: it is. body ryan crocker told me -- ambassador ryan crocker told me that the iranians are the most historical or the least historical society. in this case certainly the iranians every time we have a negotiation, including the most recent ones and moscow, the iranians bring up a whole litany of historical grievances, so it's always on their mind. whether u.s. policymakers realize it or not, they are too. for the first ten years after the revolution, clearly the hostage issue was formost in american policymakers' mind.
then iran contra happens which sort of colors the relationship for the next 15 years, why are we going to risk an opening to the iranians when we saw what happened to reagan? and over a series of incidents where iran has spurred u.s. efforts to, for a rapprochement, we seem to be captured by it. there's a great example i like to give just on this idea of the more things change, the more they stay the same. a couple of years ago i was down at the centcom headquarters in tampa and talking to general john allen, senior commander in afghanistan, then he was the deputy commander at central command. and we were going over a memo on different u.s. goals and options for iran. and when i read it, i was stunned. and i had to say, general, you know, i can pull out a memo from 1983 that says almost identical,
almost the exact same thing you guys are saying here written by one of your predecessors. and while i think that makes for great relevant history, it doesn't say much for the current state of our affairs. >> host: yeah. just a few maybe small counterpoints, it is interesting to me that some of the hostages, some of the americans who were living in iran at the time of the revolution, they themselves would like us to not be captive by history. they would like us to try to refind some equilibrium or engaging with iranian society. but it's also true, as you say, that from iran contra forward there are sort of subsequent, bruising chapters in u.s./iran relations. so it's not just the '79-'80 period, there's more recent bruises or scars that the two sides are feeling. >> guest: yeah, absolutely. in fact, the way i like to describe it is we built, the u.s. and iran have built a relationship or a house on an unstable foundation of mistrust.
and over the years we sort of added to this distrust with an even less stable house. so i think both sides bear some culpability for perpetuating this problem. >> host: as you did your research, did you try or did you decide that it was kind of outside the boundaries of your research to try to get iranian perspectives? did you try to interview iranians or read their documents? >> guest: i did. i read a number of iranian documents. i interviewed some iranian government officials that were good enough to be available to me. as i said, i interviewed hezbollah, i interviewed hamas representatives, spent eight years living in tehran as their representative to try to get a sense for -- really to try to look at the u.s. through their lens on this issue. it's always the challenge, unfortunately, i can't go to the national archives and pull out their records. world war ii historian has that luxury because all the german and american records are there.
we don't have that. it's always a challenge, but i think i've done as well as you can possibly do as -- at least in this current time. >> host: yeah. i've heard iranian academics say, you know, iran is getting better in terms of having government archives that academics can access, but they probably are a bit envious of what you were able to do in telling the u.s. side of the story. i wanted to compliment you on how vividly some of the stories are told, and i think if hollywood decides to make a movie of the book, you've already done a lot of the work for screenwriters in giving a lot of color and atmospherics. so i wanted to ask you, um, what are your favorite stories from the book? what were the ones that you found the most dramatic not necessarily that the u.s. side comes out as a hero, by just tell me from a pure kind of human interest side what were some of your vignettes or chapters of this story?
>> guest: there's a few that i was personally involved with, but one that always sticks with me -- there's a couple of them, and they're both pretty dramatic. one is the story of a man who's an iranian navy captain. he was a erudite man, made wine in his own basement, had parties where the alcohol flowed freely, and his daughter was addicted to disney movies, particularly cinderella. it was a very western family. he despised the current iranian government, he was a very staunch supporter of the shah. and thought they were essentially trying to take iran back to the stone age and destroy it greatness. he had an 18-year-old son that he was trying to, essentially, get out of the iran/iraq war. he was a conscription and would have ended up in the killing fields around basra. so he goes to turkey to get a visa for his son to emigrate to
hawaii, move to hawaii where they had an aunt who lived so he could go to school in the united states. and unfortunately, in return for the visa for his son, the cia pitches him to work for the cia. it was a pretty robust intelligence collection effort going on by directer casey at the time, director of the cia, and he agrees. he becomes one of the best agents the u.s. has. he's well positioned to provide perhaps the most significant information he provided was a massive attack on saudi arabia the iranians had planned and were in the middle of executing it, and he tips off the cia, allows the u.s. military to take countermeasures. it ends up in a shooting fight, a fire fight in the gulf between u.s. helicopters and iranian small boats that kills seven or eight iranians which causes the iranians to get nervous and pull
back thinking that there'd been a compromise. the significant aspect is they never really got to saudi arabia, so it averted what would have probably led to a civil war. the downside is the iranians immediately suspect somebody has tipped them off, and the captain had been the lead naval planner for this operation. so they traced back, they put a tail on him and discovered that he is the man who compromised them. and just dramatic detail that's recounted in there mostly through the eyes of his daughter who remembers her watching cinderella and complaining because the vcr wasn't working properly. father comes home, he took a bus to work, was sitting there, and all of a sudden a bunch of armed guys show up, ransack the house, haul the father off in an unmarked car to prison. and over the next seven or eight months he's held in solitary confinement. there's a videotape of his
trial/interrogation where he defends himself, said i didn't want compromise the iranian government, you are the people who are the real traitors, and they finally hanged him. and that story always sticks with me because i describe a lot of events in there. i always like to remember this is a very human story. >> host: right. >> guest: and i met his daughter in new york city, and it was just -- it always stuck with me. another story that i think's kind of alonging the same lines is one where, again, united states caught an iranian mine layer laying mines in international waters designed to deliberately target u.s. warships. this is 1987. the u.s. has complete right to engage this target amongst international law and our current rules of engagement. so we open fire. but the problem is there's, again, this is a human stories. the u.s. seals board the ship
the next morning, and one of the seals recounted a story where he's searching one of the iranians, some poor fellow that happened to be dumping garbage at the fantail of the ship when the u.s. opened fire and killed him. probably had no idea -- it was not in the decision process of doing this operation, it was just some sailor who was told to do it and happened to be dumping garbage at the wrong time. but as the guy surgeried his body -- searched his body for intelligence value, he found a photo of the guy's 10-year-old son who was the exact same age as the seal's son. and even 15 years after the event, the seal got very emotional knowing that, you know, someplace in iran there's a son whose father wasn't coming home. >> host: that's a very touching story, and i -- it does lead me to imagine you've been forward deployed in iraq, afghanistan and participated in desert storm. the people in centcom who were deployed in the gulf where iran
looms large, i mean, over the decades as one of the most important threats to not only u.s. military presence in the region, but also to our allies and partners in the gulf countries. um, how much opportunity is there for kind of normal interaction? do military -- i've heard a little bit of naval stories of how there are some very limited protocols of how american or british, you know, allied ships can interact with the iranian ships. so what is it like in terms of the protocols of actual contact military to military? >> it depends. iran has two navies. it has a revolutionary guard corps navy which is part of the revolutionary guard, much more try dealt, much more dedicated to the regime, and they have a regular iranian navy, islamic republic of islam regular navy. it genesis was the u.s. navy. i mean, a lot of their early officers have been trained by
the u.s. navy, and it's only recently -- most have retired, but there's an institutional memory there. the interaction with the regular navy's very professional. it's standard protocol of ships passing, occasionally the iranian ships have even renders honors which is cuts tom when you see -- custom when you see two warships pass. so that's very professional. the revolutionary guard corps navy is a different matter. they're far less disciplined, the commanders are rewarded for showing initiative which is usually aggression. and there's been a number of instances, i mean, back to the 1990s where they've conducted what amounts to mock attacks on u.s. warships transiting either the strait of hormuz or up through the gulf. they'll approach from multiple directions at high speed, turn off at the last minute, occasionally it'll look like they were going to uncover their
guns. there was an incident in 2008 where one passed in front of an american destroyer and dropped what looked like mines or something into the water in front of it. it very nearly led to a shootout. so dealing with them can be a dramatic event. the shooting that happened last week with, i believe it was one of our oilers and what turned out to be a fishing boat that, i think, killed a fisherman is a reflection of the concern we have with these small boats. because it's hard to tell a fisherman or a smuggler until they're right on top of you. >> host: right. and certainly over the years the professional navy has declined in resources, capabilities and the rev guard navy has become the much stronger actor. some people even believe the revolutionary guard are a parallel political structure in iran, so they've -- the pendulum
is swing anything their favor. >> yeah, there's no doubt that the sproam supreme force of -- supreme force of any of, either the army because there's an army equivalent to the revolutionary guard too, the revolutionary guard's the supreme one. their conventional navy, for example, partly because of incidents like the captain's was not trusted as being particularly loyal to the navy, but for years they used to employ a revolutionary guard commander as chief of the naval operations for the navy just to keep an eye on them. and we must be reaching the tipping point where there's virtually nobody left in positions of command that were in the days when the u.s. and iran were close partners and allies. so that generation that were trained in the u.s., loved the american equipment, were very -- that generation must be more or less retired by now. >> guest: they really are. the only place you still see those type of people is maybe in some of the diplomatic corps
where they went to school in the united states, for example. i would say that a lot of the iranian officers still love american equipment. they got an influx of soviet-made equipment after iraq and during desert storm, and they purchased it, and can even then they realize that our equipment even though it's 1970s is still better. >> host: uh-huh. >> guest: which has an impact, i think, on their calculations vis-a-vis the united states military today. but as far as the loyalty of those guys, i think it's pretty well faded. >> host: yeah. we have the same problem which is the generation that had learned farsi and had hoped to be stationed in iran for, in various civilian capacities, those folks have also, you know, most of them have finished their professional careers, and so we really do have a generation of folks who have only understood iran as a very distant target and have not had many opportunities to interact. >> guest: yeah, absolutely. i think that's a great observation. you know, i think ambassador
limbert was one of the guys who was really on active duty in the foreign service who had real experience with iran. >> host: uh-huh. so let's start to talk about some of the other more kinetic stories you have in your book about engagements between u.s. and iranian forces. sometimes one senses that these were not necessarily planned at the highest levels to be provocative, but things happen. miscommunication occurs, or one country is trying to send signals to the other, and it can escalate. in most of your stories it doesn't escalate to some sustained combat, but i think what hovers throughout the book is any one of these episodes could turn into something larger, more lethal where we'd be on a slope to, you know, a more sustained confrontation between the united states and iran. so i was hoping you could just, you know, help us understand a
little bit from the perspective of the u.s. military and people who are deployed, um, let's pick some various points along the continuum to try to understand what the dynamics are like for the u.s. military. so let's take the end of the iran/iraq war. where we had been -- well, let's go back a few years. middle of the 1980s. we see iran very much preoccupied by the iran/iraq war, and the united states kind of intermitt tently gets involved. tries to stay neutral, henry kissinger says there are few wars in history where we want both sides to lose, but this is one of them. we started to tilt towards iraq at various times, but then we have this anomaly which is iran contra which sort of the tail end of the iran/iraq war, we were trying to do some rather complicated dance. so why don't you help us
understand, um, from the perspective of, you know, these, this sort of military narrative how iran contra fit into what had been seen as a kind of growing worry about the capabilities of iran and, you know, that whole decade of the '80s where they were, we were building up some judgments and assumptions about iran as a military actor and did not want iran to become too powerful militarily. >> guest: right. yeah, iran contra's interesting because it comes at -- the time iran contra happens, at least the iranian arms piece of it, happens in the mid 1980s, it was about the time the u.s. makes a transition militarily from worrying about the soviet union as the great threat of invading to iran as an intrinsic threat in its own right. one of the catalysts i describe in the book was when the revolutionary guard boarded the ss president taylor which was a
u.s. commercial ship. which raises all sorts of alarm bells of potential piracy, another hostage crisis, it starts the u.s. military down a whole avenue of military planning that, frankly, 30 years later we're still doing. but at the same time, you have this outreach to, quote, iranian moderates in the government that the white house pursues. and i think to look at iran contra, you have to look at what reagan had been trying to do all along. in 1981 in september there's two documents that reagan approves. one is a national security directive that, essentially, lays out what our policy will be towards iran going forward. and one of the elements of that in addition to containment of the islamic revolution so it doesn't spread to kuwait or saudi arabia is to actively pursue moderates within the government that we might work
with. now, there's a recognition at least in president reagan's mind that iran was too powerful of a country in the cold war or elsewhere to have it, have it not in the u.s. fold. so we have to find a way to work with this new goth, and maybe there's -- government, and maybe there's people who still harbor, as you said earlier, pro-american sentiment. so that's always -- and the other piece is the cia directive which is to try to find these guys, these moderates we could work with. so william casey, the director of the cia, was always pursuing that. so the idea maybe we provided some weapons to, quote, moderates, we would ingratiate ourselves with the government. it was in keeping with what we'd within doing already. but that tension of iran as a threat versus some combination was a big stickler in that, and it's one of the reasons why casper weinberger, the secretary of defense at the time, was so adamant we don't provide the
weapons to iran. he saw this much more as a growing threat and rather than hem then or try to work with them, we needed to contain them. but others in the administration, particularly the white house itself, the national security adviser, didn't discount the potential threat but thought that if we could find the right people to work with and we got better relations, then the threat would startty min,ing. >> host: uh-huh. you've mentioned a little bit this planning idea, and i think it's important to, this sort of two sides of this. one is, you know, planning versus current policy. so when you're a profession bal military -- professional military officer, you spend a good part of your career almost no matter what your assignment is being aware of planning for contingencies, planning for worst case scenarios. but meanwhile, the current policy may not have a very, you know, aggressive component to it, that the current policy may be to avoid conflict or to deescalate tension. but there's always this planning piece. so you have some dramatic
stories about plans that have occurred over the years that if the iranians were witting of those plans, they would likely interpret that the u.s. is at a state of war with iran or that the u.s. perceives that the only way to sort of describe our interaction state to state is warlike. and i think this is a theme that kind of becomes even stronger in more recent years where we now understand that from the supreme leader of iran's perspective the u.s. is, you know, does see this as a relationship that is defined by war. and yet, um, i hope you would agree that we do want to distinguish between planning for worst case scenarioses versus current policy. >> guest: right. >> host: which may be to avoid those worst case scenarios. >> guest: yeah, i agree. the one thing the pentagon does is plan. i mean, that's what they're there for, and i think if they didn't plan for contingencies of
all sorts, iran or elsewhere, they're not doing their job. because if a crisis happens, you just can't make these things up on the fly. you have to have forces in position, you have to have thought through the problem. i don't know as you go through the history, i think very often you find the military officers are the ones who are counseling restraint, that they really don't want to go to war or don't want to escalate crisis. so i think, i think you're absolutely correct. the one problem we always have is the iranians -- and as you said, the iranians don't always interpret what we say correctly or don't interpret what they see correctly is perhaps a better word. a good example of that is 1998. the u.s., saddam hussein kicks out u.n. inspectors in december '98, u.s. moves forces in to, for a retaliatory strike that's called desert fox, part of the
small furry animal plan. and fox was the one that we used this time. but the supreme leader in the iranian government was absolutely convinced that this was aimed at them. >> host: uh-huh. >> guest: that somehow we were gearing up for a major strike in iran. if they had looked at the headlines of the new york times, they would have realized what the u.s. was about, but as somebody said at the time, apparently the supreme leader's subscription had lapsed. [laughter] that misunderstanding and mischaracterization is always there, and there's always a potential for danger there. >> host: absolutely. well, why don't we take a short break, and we'll be back in a minute. >> guest: thank you. >> on the go? "after words" is available via podcast through itunes and xml. visit booktv.org and click podcast on the upper left side of the page. select which podcast you'd like to download, and listen to "after words "while you travel.
>> host: so among the stories you tell are, um, stories that there are debates within the military in addition to between militaries and civilians in our government on, you know, how do manage this iran problem. how do we act in a way that sends clear signals to the iranians about our red lines and our limits without being so confrontational that the only option is to escalate military tensions? i thought your book had some really original material on some of these debates within the military, and i wonder if you could, um, talk to us a little bit about, you know, centcom is out in in the arena, in the theater it, and the folks back in washington are part of a conversation between civilian and military people trying to set the course of u.s. policy. there were a few stories about, you know, when that really creates some friction that i think are quite interesting.
you, you told the story that i think you knew quite vividly from the time that your father served as centcom commander of, um, the late '80s, i believe, between the chairman of the joint chiefs and the admiral that was in the region, um, and at the time -- i think the admiral was responsible for naval forces in the gulf when your father was the centcom commander. help us sort of understand why that story was important to the u.s./iran story you're telling. >> guest: it's a fascinating story, and as you say, it illustrates the fact that there is not a uniform view within the military, let alone the u.s. government, of how to approach iran. the issue was really between -- there was an admiral by the name of james "ace" lyons. he was described to me at the time as the most insubordinate man ever known. but also grudgingly a great
thinker, one of those people who really thinks outside the box, to use an overused metaphor. and, but lyons never had gotten over the bombing of the u.s. marine barracks. he saw -- with very good reason, iran as complicit in that, and we had not responded to it. so he was advocated not only a very strident military policy, but actually military strikes against the iranians. at the time. he was encouraged by admiral krall. they had a long relationship, krall was very political, he used to use lines for a lot of -- lyons for his dirty work or to do things he didn't necessarily want to be associated with. and this was a case where the admiral really encouraged lyons and what he termed a window of opportunity plan which was an august '87, there was a turnover
of aircraft carriers out in the gulf, and lyons wanted to use this plus a battleship that was about to arrive to really punish the iranians. perhaps even use it as a way of ushering in regime change with regime-level targets, not just military. on the other side of this was the centcom commander, my father, and pretty much supported by casper weinberger, very much so, and the civilians in the pentagon, if you will, outside the joint chiefs of staff who thought the answer with the iranians was more of a containment view and that we don't want to escalate this crisis. if they do something, we'll do sort of a restrained measure operation. we want to avoid striking the iranian mainland. but the object of trying to keep this crisis in check so it doesn't go to full-blown war. so we would essentially drive the iranians back by seizing oil platforms and things like that
without escalating the conflict. so if they mine or do something provocative, we'd respond proportional any. -- proportionally. and what happens is a series of events happen, these carrier deployments that lyons does. it eventually gets to the secretary of defense wine -- weinberger's attention who essentially sides with those who thinks lyons has been insubordinate, and he fires him, relieves him. and in the middle of all this, admiral krall who was the guy who had privately encouraged him, and the phone transcripts are quite convincing, encouraged lyons the entire time in a sort of surreptitious military operation doesn't back him up. and he says, i know nothing. and so lyons takes the fall for something the chairman had actually encouraged. >> host: uh-huh, interesting. um, and then, um, so let's
imagine the position of a more lower-ranking military officer in the gulf. >> guest: uh-huh. >> host: if you're serving on one of the ships that's based out of one of the countries in the gulf cooperation council, you understand kind of in the abstract that iran is perhaps the largest threat, largest piece of the threat environment. it's no longer the soviet union or the russians, we're not worried about the chinese at least yet. we might be worried about somali pirates, but in the great scheme of things, iran looms the largest as a possible, you know, military requirement. how does the more junior military personnel, how did they understand u.s. policy? do they -- let's just take a snapshot of something fairly recent. um, do they believe that, you know, if you're deployed for two or three years to the gulf region, do you think that our young military officers, you know, do see iran as the enemy, or how do you think they are
conditioned to understand u.s. policy? and i guess it would also help to understand, you know, how often is somebody who's forward deployed in one of the branches of the armed services, how often do they get briefed on u.s. policy? how do they kind of get the nuances right of when we're supposed to be forward leaning and when we're supposed to be just maintaining and containing? >> guest: well, that's a good question. i'm not sure that sometimes even the senior officers have that same nuanced view. iran is such a difficult problem with, as i described, sort of this relationship between peace and war, between light or darkness. it's not an easy, it's not quite clearly say in the cold war where we knew the soviet union were the adversary, and everybody approached it that way. iran's different. i would say your average sailor, um, probably doesn't have a good view of in this nuanced view. um, a lot of them it's based upon their interaction with the iranians themselves when they pass them on the water which is
in some cases very professional, other cases with the revolutionary guard they're very nervous. it's -- the u.s. military does, i think, a very good job trying to condition ships because we're really talking naval issues are the most likely issue, not army or air force, but ships before they deploy a series of work-ups to kind of put them in this mineset of, okay, is this boat hostile, isn't it hostile? is it a smuggler, is it a revolutionary guard boat? does he really mean -- is he out there to just tweak your nose and not really start a war or not? so we try very hard to get people conditioned to this environment. but it's, it is a tricky situation. there's just no doubt about it. it's -- and with no diplomatic relations. last year -- at least according to press accounts -- the supreme leader rejected an opening of a
hotline between our two navies which would have, perhaps, diffuse this problem if there was an incident, we quickly call a commander and say we didn't -- this is what we saw. >> host: that's what's called the incidence at sea agreement that i know several of the u.s. naval commanders in the region have thought would be a sort of below the threshold of a big political -- >> guest: right. >> host: -- breakthrough, but still something very useful and pragmatic. >> guest: absolutely. and i think if we could get to at least that step, it would help. and, again, it doesn't have anything to do with the grand geostrategic calculations or the way the governments view each other. it's -- we did it with the soviet union when there was tremendous adversary, and it's something navies do. it's wealth in keeping, i think. >> host: the reference to the cold war is useful, and we'll eventually get to this, you know, twilight war, shadow war, cold war, you know, how do we understand this u.s./iran story.
um, the cold war, in some ways i think, is a useful analogy because there's pieces of this relationship that have that kind of coercive, is set the limit, signal each other, don't go any farther, etc. , and yet you can still -- you know, at least in the cold war there was also a political conversation that was going on, a political conversation that didn't suggest we were best friends, that we had very different world views, but we at least had a channel in which we could communicate and try to not misunderstand each other's intentions. and in the cold war i would say that the goal was very much to avoid a catastrophic war, but that certainly this was, you know, framed as we are adversaries, we have very different goals for the international system. the trick with iran is that it's an asymmetric relationship. they're not a peer adversary. they never will be. and they understand that, i think. so, therefore, they are more likely to interpret our intentions as hostile even if we
think we're just managing the problem. they are more likely to perceive it as having disproportionate, adverse effect on them. so, um, so let's fast forward to, you know, iran's nuclear program being now the big threat. a lot of the story in the '80s is kind of naval, the tanker war, it's the sort of secondary effects of the iran/iraq war. it's hostages in lebanon, it's stuff that's fairly locally contained. but over the last decade the buildup has been to something that really has larger geostrategic consequence, iran's nuclear activity. and if i think about it from a u.s. military perspective, we've been talking a lot about the navy. but the preparing or the thinking about or the developing capabilities for a possible requirement that the president would set to set back iran's nuclear activities or to, you know, to prevent them from crossing that line, presumably would entail very different
parts of the u.s. military. can you talk to us about that, of, you know, planning for what are some of the contingencies? right now, you know, our formula is all options are on the table, we want a diplomatic solution, we don't seek -- we hope very much to avoid, at least the president has tried to get that balance right, still believing that iran has the choice to make of politically resolving its dispute with the international community about it nuclear activities. but what about that planning side of, you know, imagining that we're going to have to use other measures? >> guest: well, i think the prevailing view is that hopefully we won't go down that path, that there is time for diplomacy. i think the diplomatic opening the president's done is the correct one. i think iran has a unique ability of taking everything up to the brink and then suddenly reversing course and working a compromise. so i hope that's the answer.
i think the u.s. military's prepared for any contingency, be it iran or elsewhere. there's a robust air defense system in the gulf today with i think the other day there was an announcement of kuwait buying over $4 million of a new patriot air defense system. we just deployed more mine sweepers to the gulf, the largest number since desert storm in the gulf today. and those are not only just aimed at iran, but they're aimed at any possible contingency, iran, elsewhere, al-qaeda, pirates. there's just the one certainty we have in the middle east is you don't know what the next crisis is going to be. so, you know, obviously, i think the military's thought through the iran problem. i think we're probably as smart about militarily about dealing with iran as we have been in 25 years. >> host: uh-huh. >> guest: but it's just not only iran, it's a number of other
potential problems. >> host: right. no, i'm quite with you on how we, you know, the policymakers are framing the period ahead and really the iranians have a choice to make, and there is a solution that would get us to a more, you know, a different outcome. one argument is made that, um, you know, after the wars in iraq and afghanistan it would be hard for us to pull off, you know, a military operation on the scale that iran would require since iran is a country, let's remember, three times the size of iraq, more important in the geopolitics of the region, a very important energy producer, etc., but just as a very practical matter i've assumed that operations with respect to iran's nuclear activities would entail the air force more than the navy or the army. and so that within the military maybe there is, the argument about could we do it and what are our capabilities might be
different than the public conversation, you know, gives the impression sometimes. >> guest: i think if there's a, if there is a conflict of any sort be it miscalculation or otherwise, it's going to be a joint war. i think you'll, you know, we don't fight army/navy/air force anymore, we fight altogether. >> host: uh-huh. >> guest: so i think under any circumstances you're going to see every single element of the four services involved in it. and the synergy we have particularly after ten years of war, um, when it comes to a lot of this, the political in-fighting that was done even in 2002 -- and there's some nasty fights between the air force and army, for example, over how to run things and who's in control -- a lot of those have gone away. so i think we've worked out a lot of the kinks as far as how to fight a modern joint war.
>> host: uh-huh. you mentioned, um, you know, our relations with the gulf countries, and i wonder whether we should spend a little bit of time reflecting on, you know, what are their requirements, security requirements, what are their expectations? you've said that their capabilities to join us, um, if, you know, both in deterring iran and possibly having to go further, um, you know, have improved and have changed over time. um, so i wonder if we should just say a little bit more of how well we can coordinate with the countries of the gcc. in the end, the u.s., the size of the u.s. and the capabilities of the u.s. are just so qualitatively different than both quantitatively and qualitatively different than theirs. but i wonder if you, you know, have the impression a that they would expect to participate or, you know, be a full partner if both, you know, in a deterrent or containment strategy and in a strategy that might require more
forward action. >> guest: well, they obviously have the most online since it's their backyard of any conflict with iran. you raise a good point because one of the enduring constants, if you will, of u.s. foreign policy -- and i think it comes through in this different phases -- is the desire to partner with the gulf cooperation council states. the first incident i ever found of us trying to work with them and trying to forge sort of a cohesive bond was in 1982. the defense the president pushed it very hard. the late '80s we start working on an integrated air defense system, kuwait buys hawk missiles as well as other ones, and it's all primarily aimed at iran at the time for an integrated air defense system many case iran decides to attack one of the gcc states. this comes up again in the late '90s when we -- again, when the iranian threat seems to rise again after kobar towers.
so we start working with the gulf countries again in trying to forge some kind of cohesive bond, and, of course -- >> host: it's back again. >> guest: it's back again. it is, and it really is a partnership. i don't think -- if you look at the very early debates about how u.s. military was going to operate in the middle east back to the carter administration, there's an enduring constant that we can't to this alone. we have to have partners in the region. and it's not only just for basing and access, but it's also we just need their resources. we need their people to help us. >> host: so where does iraq fit in all of this? so here we have iraq somehow between pro-american and pro-iranian or maybe trying to be both, but, you know, iraq was our enemy, it was our friend, it was back and forth, back and forth. iraqis and the gulf countries don't get along well at all. i think they quite profoundly disagree about whether iran is a good guy or a bad guy.
>> guest: right. >> host: so how would you imagine -- but here we've engaged, we've tried to modernize their military, we've made this huge investment in, you know, bricking iraqi institutions -- bringing iraqi institutions back online. how would you imagine the iraqis playing in a contingency with respect to iran? >> guest: that's, that's a completely unanswered question. i think iraq is in a transition period. i think there's hope that eventually, you know, the gulf states will come around. there is this sunni/shia issue which i think is the fundamental divide and their mistrust of iraq. um, but on the other hand iraq is not iran, you know? they are arabs, they're not persians. even in this maliki, prime minister maliki who's been at various times actually somewhat supportive of the iranians, there's a great incident i recount where ryan crocker's sitting down with him, and he said did you, um, and they're
watching, i think, president ahmadinejad, the iranian president, on tv, and he's speaking in many farsi. and he turns, and maliki needs a translator. and maliki spent a lot of time in iran during the iran/iraq war during the '80s. he says you don't know what it's like to be an wrap -- an arab in a persian country. so that tension is there. it's too early to tell how iraq fit into the larger strategic calculus. no, it's interesting. but unfortunately, right now, if we look at the syria crisis the iraqis are orienting themselves along that sectarian fault line more than on the arab versus non-arab fault line. no, that's quite interesting. i wanted to catch up on one story that's more recent. we've talked about the '80s and the '90s, let's do this at the very end of george w. bush's
presidency, this curious incident where some british naval officers were, you know, captured by the irgs forces in the gulf and taken to tehran. and it was such a dramatic moment, um, and, you know, lots of memories of the hostage crisis came back for americans. here are the brits, our closest ally, working with us in coalition in the gulf period. how did that play out in terms of the issues that you talk about, how did the u.s. military rook at that u.s. military versus government back in washington? were there options here that, you know, could that story have gone a different way? was the, you know, an important player in the, in how the crisis got resolved? the brits were released after, i think, a few weeks. >> guest: yeah. that's a very pivotal moment, i
think, in the current thinking about the iranian problem. the incident is there was a british naval boarding party that was inspecting or, essentially, looking for smugglers off the coast of iraq, a longstanding mission that we had been doing for a long time, boarding and looking at ships in the northern gulf. while they were doing this, it was right fairly close to the boundary, the maritime boundary between iran and iraq. in fact, the boundary is a little tough to pin down because it's based upon the entrance of the waterway that divides the two countries, but it shifts over time, you know, it's not a static boundary. >> host: setment -- sediment and everything. >> guest: absolutely. but the british were convinced they were on this side of the invisible line. well, a revolutionary guard commander and a couple of boats on his own initiative, without any orders -- a very aggressive young officer -- comes storming
over while most of the british are still on the ship. he, essentially, instigates the crisis, trains his weapons on them and the british decide rather than risk bloodshed, that they would capitulate. when this incident happens, it comes back to an admiral by the name of cosgrove, vice admiral kevin cosgrove who was the senior american naval commander in bahrain at the time, and he looks at options of things we could do or tracking where these sailors were. they were taken off the boats to a port right on the opposite side of the iran/iraq border, small naval base there, and we're looking to do something about it. and essentially he's told by the british, his deputy is a british naval commander, my instructions are we're not going to escalate this crisis. now, in tehran they were absolutely stunned that all of a sudden the revolutionary guard's reporting they have a host of british sailors and a few
marines captive. and they're not quite sure what to do with it, about whether they should release them or not. they make the decision to bring them to tehran, and all of a sudden they realize this is a great propaganda victory for them, and ahmadinejad parades them around, they tweak the nose of the british back to what they see as colonial interference, etc. , and this is a way of tweaking them. and they play it for everything they can, eventually release them. the lesson the u.s. military had was what happens afterwards. this naval commander who did this without orders is, suddenly goes from the equivalent of a junior officer to a very senior commander. he's now one of the naval district commanders. >> host: on the iranian side. >> guest: on the iranian side. so the lesson the u.s. military learns is these guys reward -- >> host: initiative. >> guest: -- initiative, and this sort of behavior, serious risk taking. if the british had decided to resist, it could have led to a much wider conflict in the
northern gulf. and so it figures into a whole view of the revolutionary guard and maybe these guys are quick to operate without orders, quick to shoot first, ask questions later because the system's rewarding that sort of behavior. >> host: uh-huh. no, i think it's an important story as we see the, as we gather more information and understanding about their behavior, it's harder and harder for us to figure out, you know, where are the points of entry to have a more productive or constructive conversation with the iranians? but i think for the most part we still have to keep trying, you know, we have to keep looking for those opportunities. but as we said earlier, it's about the strengthening role of the irgc. and perhaps a kind of built-in logic of defiance or defying us that is now part of the iranians' mo. in the past we had believed as you said earlier that sometimes
they experiment, they probe, they try to see. but then they will back off. and maybe we can't assume that that is the pattern, you know, for the foreseeable future. i thought we should end with a discussion about, you know, even the title of the book and what's the, you know, what's the -- how do o we wrap up this story and understand its implications for the future? when i first read the book, i sensed that the, you know, every time there's another one of these episodes between the united states and iran it kind of digs the, digs the hole, that there's an enmity here that we can't quite overcome. and i guess reading between the lines i thought that maybe the larger message of the book was there's kind of an inevitability that conflict is the story and that despite efforts to reframe
the relationship, this is where we're heading. but as i hear you talk, i come with a different conclusion, a different view, and this some ways the twilight war not intentional, it's almost by default, it's just a series of layers that move us in this direction. there's policy pushes and pulls to try to, um, change the dynamic of the u.s./iran relationship. but i wanted to get your thoughts on the title itself, whether you think that the twilight war is, you know, has become by default the reality that we have or whether twilight war is a condition that we should, that can be changed and that twilight war is not real war, it's not a declaration of war. we don't, we don't have war aims vis-a-vis iran. and so how you take this story of the first 30 years and kind
of imagine what's the next chapter. now, you're a historian, so i know you probably don't want to go there, but i just want to -- help us think about what twilight war means. is it a permanent condition? is it -- how do we, you know, is it subject to change? >> guest: um, it's -- regardless of how the p5 plus 1 talks come out and the nuclear talks, i see the nuclear issue as a symptom of the problem, not necessarily the problem itself. the problem is really 0 years of -- 30 years of distrust and enmity between the two countries. the iranian revolution stalled one of their pillars of foreign policy of antiamericannism, and the young men who overthrew the shah, a very unpopular american-backed dictator now have gray in their beards, but a lot of their attitudes haven't changed. and as particularly after june of '09 you see a hardening perhaps rise of the
revolutionary guard where a lot of these -- at least at the senior levels, the attitude prevails -- of coalescing. they seem to have been on the rise. so the bottom line is i don't see the ultimate tension between the united states and iran changing anytime while this supreme leader's around. we'll see what happens when the next supreme leader -- i don't see it really changing until this revolutionary generation goes. now having said that, that doesn't mean war. and one of the things i find interesting about the history is the amount of, you know, we talk about how often we move to the darkness or to potential conflict. we've also had a number of opportunities to move to the light. there's been openings in the reagan add m, there's potential -- perhaps one of the better ones was george h.w. bush's administration where it lookede