The Iran Wars, Jay Solomon…
New Light on the Dark Story of the Iran Deal
1. A chat with the author of "The Iran Wars."
SEP 03, 2016 | By LEE SMITH
Jay Solomon, one of America's top national security journalists, has covered Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Over the last few years, he has focused especially on Iran, its larger regional project, and U.S.-Iran relations, including the deal over the regime's nuclear program, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Solomon's stories about Iran continue to lead the news. His report last month showing how the Obama White House shipped $400 million to Iran on wooden pallets at the same time the clerical regime released U.S. hostages strongly suggested the administration paid ransom.
His just-published first book The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East is the fall season's top book on national security and has already hit a number of bestseller lists.
Recently, I sat down with Solomon here in Washington, D.C. to talk about his book, Iran, the Obama administration, and the direction of American foreign policy.
Lee Smith: You made news again recently when you told Andrea Mitchell that had the White House attacked Bashar al-Assad in 2013 when he violated Obama's red line over the use of chemical weapons, the Iranians would have walked out of the nuclear talks. And the administration said it wasn't true.
Jay Solomon: Iranian officials told me that even had the diplomats doing the negotiations wanted to stay in talks, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would have pulled the plug. I don't see how you can make the case that the administration's Syria policy is separate from the nuclear deal. Obama sent a letter to Khamenei saying he wouldn't target Assad. And Pentagon officials told us they were concerned that operations in Syria risked undermining the nuclear negotiations.
LS: You've written the definitive account of a key moment in American foreign policy. When did you first get a sense that Iran was a big issue?
JS: Back in the summer of 2006, when I went to Beirut to report on Israel's month-long conflict with Hezbollah. Up until then, my experience was covering Asia, particularly Indonesia, the two Koreas, and India, and I'd never covered Lebanon or the Middle East before this. There was all this talk about Hezbollah being an independent actor but I was there for six weeks and saw that the Iranian and Syrian influence was real. In Indonesia, I saw that the politics could be very brutal, but it wasn't like here, where there were assassinations. The outside influence was blatant, I thought at first it couldn't be real, but it was. I met with members of Lebanon's [Sunni-majority] Future movement and they told me about all of their people—politicians, police officers, etc.—who were on Syrian hit lists and I thought these guys are being paranoid. But when I came back two years later in 2008, many of the people they said were on the hit list were all dead. 2006 was eye opening—I saw Iran was very much in a regional conflict.
LS: In your book John Kerry says he's certain that without the nuclear deal the United States would have been a war with Iran.
JS: I never saw any indication that either Presidents Bush or Obama were on the verge of ordering military operations against Iran. In a sense, Iraq became a proxy war between Iran and the United States, and the book is critical of Bush's policies on Iraq. But I never got a good explanation from Bush people why they didn't push back harder against Iranian influence in Iraq. The Pentagon clearly saw "ratlines" carrying in supplies and IEDs from Iran. So the idea that Obama administration might have been on the verge of war with Iran never made much sense. The Iranians took 52 Americans hostage in 1979 and killed 241 Marines in 1983 and then Secretary of State George Shultz was pushing for a response to the Iranians. But President Reagan never called for strikes. If the U.S. didn't do anything then, it's unlikely we were going to something militarily now. I think that's largely a myth. The history of U.S.-Iran relations is that all administrations have been very restrained.
LS: What about Israel? Was Jerusalem close to war with Iran at any point?
JS: There was an escalation in 2011. There were a number of attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, and many were assassinated, allegedly by the Israelis. Someone seemed to know exactly what Iran and these scientists were doing. They all allegedly worked on nuclear weapons research and testing at the Parchin military site, south of Tehran. Then the Iranians fought back and ordered a wave of their own plots, in Asia and Europe and even Washington, D.C., where they purportedly wanted to kill the Saudi ambassador. In late 2011, the Israelis conducted a long-range exercise that could only be interpreted as a test run for an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, and the White House got spooked. I believe that's why in 2012 we saw a major push from the administration for engagement. They were scared that if the Israelis attacked, the United States would get dragged in.
LS: You argue in the book that the administration feared the same thing about sanctions.
JS: The book illustrates just out how successful sanctions really were. A lot of people thought they wouldn't work at all; this includes both Republican and Democrats and many in Israel. Many in Congress would say that they forced the White House to impose sanctions, which is true to some extent. But there was a concern voiced even inside the Bush administration that taking Iranian oil off line would cause a spike in global prices and hurt our economic recovery. What both the Bush and Obama administrations did, particularly the Treasury Department, was very impressive in that they hurt Iran without causing this wider oil shock. Remember, that sanctions were only in place for a little more than a year before the negotiations started. The strongest sanctions were all imposed around the same time, around July 2012—the EU oil embargo, sanctions on the central bank of Iran, and banning Iran from the SWIFT banking system.
When Rouhani was elected president in 2013, his people were really nervous. Ahmadinejad's policies had created a huge whole in the banking system, and Rouhani people were worried they wouldn't be able to fix it. Sanctions were biting. And they were only in place a year before the administration started to provide relief—$700 million a month, which is how the White House essentially subsidized Iran's role in negotiations.
I'm still not certain why the White House didn't use the Kirk-Menendez legislation that threatened more Iran sanctions if there was no deal in a year. They could have gone to the Iranians and said, "Hey you have to give me something more here because I have these hardliners at home who won't give me a break." They Iranians played the same game, using Khamenei as the foil.
LS: You spent a lot of time in Asia and you also mentioned that your father, Richard Solomon, was a China expert who Kissinger brought into the State Department when Nixon was opening to Beijing. A lot of supporters of the nuclear deal contend that the White House's outreach to Iran is similar to Nixon and Kissinger's efforts to come to an accommodation with the Chinese.
JS: My father is a China hand and actually wrote about this recently. He'd say that we had real shared interests with China in the 1970s—concerns about the Soviet Union, among other things. It's hard to see where there's similar shared interests with Iran. People say we share an interest in stopping the Islamic State. But I'm not sure Iran sees the threat the same way.
My concern is that the real analogy in Asia could be relations with North Korea, not China. We reached an agreement with North Korea in the 1990s that essentially was a trade of economic incentives for their nuclear program. But the deal never resulted in any real change in the North Korea regime or its stance towards Washington. There was all this euphoria at the time of the Agreed Framework, but it was essentially just a transaction, and both sides eventually opted out. There's a risk the same could happen with the Iran deal.
LS: What do you see as the future of U.S.-Iran relations now?
JS: Rouhani and Zarif want an economic opening, but they're also committed to the revolution, the theocratic system, and the nuclear program. They'd rather do business with the West because China and Russia have lesser technologies. Some Iranians grumble about getting cheated by them. Rouhani might normalize relations with the U.S. if he could. But I think the last thing Khamenei wants is all this Western business and influence in Iran, threatening the revolution. I could see Rouhani getting reelected in 2017. Ahmadinejad mismanaged the economy and united countries against Iran. So if Rouhani helps to relieve outside pressure for another four years, why not?
On the other hand, it seems clear the Iranians are escalating now at the end of Obama's term. Harassing U.S. Navy ships, arresting of dual nationals, testing ballistic missiles, installing the S-300s at Fordow. And there's been little pushback from the administration. The Iranians seem to be setting a firm line out so that whoever comes into the White House next understands that there's a new paradigm.
2.“ Let’s make a bad deal” Omri Ceren
In The Iran Wars, Jay Solomon tells the story of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic from September 11, 2001 until the present, starting with the Bush administration’s devastating use of economic warfare to restrain the regime’s ambitions.
That policy was at first continued by the Obama administration even as the president began implementing his “secret strategy,” to cite the title of Michael Doran’s landmark essay in Mosaic, of letting Tehran take over the Middle East in exchange for pretending to give up its nuclear program. As Omri Ceren writes in his review:
Solomon matter-of-factly describes Barack Obama as obsessed with changing the U.S. position toward Iran, and willing to subordinate much of American foreign policy in service of that goal. Obama started sending secret letters to the head of state, the Ayatollah Khamenei, which recognized the prerogatives of the Islamic Republic and forswore regime change. . . . When nuclear talks seemed to be stumbling, he sent another letter to Khamenei effectively offering Syria as within Iran’s sphere of influence. . . .
But while Obama sought to redirect America’s focus, he did so mostly in the background, and the old policy continued entropically, due largely to the continued insistence of the U.S. Congress that its legislation be heeded. It produced remarkable results. . . . Though it would later claim credit for the [economic] pressure campaign, the Obama administration had fought against sanctions for years.
The Iran Wars highlights how the administration elaborately hid negotiation details from the very beginning. Much of the public drama between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—including the reported walkouts and conflicts—was staged. For several years, the two made a show of conducting negotiations in multilateral forums while Kerry made concessions in private talks that would become the nuclear deal.
In 2013, Kerry and Zarif had ducked into a side room at the United Nations to exchange personal email addresses and mobile numbers, and by 2016 they were chatting multiple times a day. Solomon writes about them taking walks together in between hundreds of hours of negotiations in Vienna, Zurich, New York, Geneva, and Munich. These provided the backdrop to Kerry offering unprecedented concessions. At no point, Solomon points out, has it ever been clear that Zarif actually speaks for the Iranian regime.
From the Wall Street Journal reporter who’s been breaking news on the historic and potentially disastrous Iran nuclear deal comes a deeply reported exploration of the country’s decades-long power struggle with the United States—for readers of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower,The Iran Wars exposes the hidden history of a conflict most Americans don’t even realize is being fought, but whose outcome could have far-reaching geopolitical implications.
For more than a decade, the United States has been engaged in a war with Iran as momentous as any other in the Middle East—a war all the more significant as it has largely been hidden from public view. Through a combination of economic sanctions, global diplomacy, and intelligence work, successive U.S. administrations have struggled to contain Iran’s aspirations to become a nuclear power and dominate the region—what many view as the most serious threat to peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iran has used regional instability to its advantage to undermine America’s interests. The Iran Wars is an absorbing account of a battle waged on many levels—military, financial, and covert.
Jay Solomon’s book is the product of extensive in-depth reporting and interviews with all the key players in the conflict—from high-ranking Iranian officials to Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiating team. With a reporter’s masterly investigative eye and the narrative dexterity of a great historian, Solomon shows how Iran’s nuclear development went unnoticed for years by the international community only to become its top security concern. He catalogs the blunders of both the Bush and Obama administrations as they grappled with how to engage Iran, producing a series of both carrots and sticks. And he takes us inside the hotel suites where the 2015 nuclear agreement was negotiated, offering a frank assessment of the uncertain future of the U.S.-Iran relationship.
This is a book rife with revelations, from the secret communications between the Obama administration and the Iranian government to dispatches from the front lines of the new field of financial warfare. For readers of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, The Iran Wars exposes the hidden history of a conflict most Americans don’t even realize is being fought, but whose outcome could have far-reaching geopolitical implications.
Praise for The Iran Wars
“The use of the word ‘wars,’ plural, in the title of this illuminating book tells the story: U.S.-Iranian relations have been troubled for many years. This deeply researched account of negotiations and their implications makes an important contribution to understanding the short- and long-term consequences of how we manage this difficult relationship.”—George P. Shultz, former secretary of state
“An illuminating, deeply reported account from one of the best journalists writing about the Middle East today. Jay Solomon’s The Iran Wars offers a front-row view of the spy games, assassinations, political intrigue and high-stakes diplomacy that have defined relations with one of America’s most cunning and dangerous foes.”—Joby Warrick, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
“A thorough yet concise survey of Iran’s buildup of nuclear technology since the 1980s, its troubling exporting of Shiite insurgency in countries around it, and the changing American reaction. Wall Street Journal chief foreign affairs correspondent [Jay] Solomon offers an evenhanded look at the backdoor schemes involving the building of Iran’s nuclear weapons and the world players involved in and against its machinations.”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
4. Editorial Reviews
Publishers Weekly 08/22/2016
Solomon, the Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, offers a timely, challenging account of the sanctions and secret negotiations that led to the July 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the UN. Candid interviews with major figures such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad add to Solomon’s rich analysis.
For over a decade, the Bush and Obama administrations struggled with little success to contain Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East and access to nuclear power. To achieve its goals, the U.S. cut deals with Russia and China and damaged relations with allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Solomon remains skeptical that détente with Iran is the right solution. What he calls Obama’s defining achievement in foreign policy is also, by his lights, “among the riskiest bets made by a U.S. president in modern history.” As terms of the agreement lapse during the coming decade, he believes that the likelihood of a catastrophic Middle East arms race will grow. Iranian intransigence remains strong, and the country is using regional instability, notably in Syria, to undermine America’s interests.
Solomon’s dense, informed behind-the-scenes report will gratify readers with deep interest in Mideast affairs. Casual readers, however, will find the story line too daunting to benefit from Solomon’s insights.
“Library Journal 01/01/2016
Chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Solomon shows that the United States and Iran have been at war for decades—though certainly not all the blows have been military. America has used diplomacy, intelligence, economic sanctions, and assassinations to undermine Iran, while Iran has used the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to counter the U.S. presence in the Middle East, even as it built a nuclear arsenal that brought those sanctions raining down. Solomon has the contacts East and West to tell this story.
Kirkus Review [ expanded]
A thorough yet concise survey of Iran’s buildup of nuclear technology since the 1980s, its troubling exporting of Shiite insurgency in countries around it, and the changing American reaction.
Wall Street Journal chief foreign affairs correspondent Solomon offers an evenhanded look at the backdoor schemes involving the building of Iran’s nuclear weapons and the world players involved in and against its machinations.
The culmination of a nuclear treaty between Iran and the U.S. by Secretary of State John Kerry and team in July 2015 (and the lifting of sanctions against Iran) proves anticlimactic as a drastic change of course since the George W. Bush administration—as Solomon notes, he is unsure of Iran’s willingness to stick to the agreements.
Mistrust on both sides has plagued the relationship since the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Iran is still smarting from American influence in the region and resentful that the Persian empire has been “wronged and persecuted throughout its history, particularly by its Arab neighbors in collusion with the West.” Ayatollah Khomeini’s military command, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and lethal intelligence unit, the Quds Force, were created to export the revolution and aid its allies in the region, what became known as the “axis of resistance”: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime.
With care and precision, Solomon tracks Iran’s buildup of nuclear capability and the complicated cast of characters involved. Under presidents Bush and Obama, the U.S., as a staunch ally of Israel and eventual supporter of the rebels attempting to topple the Assad regime, has considered Iran its largest national security crisis and worked assiduously behind the scenes to garner world support for hefty economic sanctions. Further complicating matters are Iran’s ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.