Jay Solomon, The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East, New York: Random House, 2016, 336 + xi pp., ISBN 978-0-8129-9364-6
Jay Solomon, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, has written a detailed diplomatic history of the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative – the Iran Nuclear Deal, completed in the summer of 2015. In The Iran Wars, Solomon shows that the reason for Obama administration’s urgency in striking a deal with Iran was not so much to frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions but to avoid war, almost at any cost. Shortly after taking office in 2009, Obama began his outreach to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Obama sent at least four letters to Khamenei, called for better relations in speeches and national addresses to the Iranian people, and communicated to Tehran via third-party countries that the United States was not seeking regime change in Iran.” (8) In 2011, when radical firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president of Iran, Obama sent then-Senator John Kerry to conduct secret talks with Iran in the Persian Gulf state of Oman. In 2006, when Ahmadinejad was president, Iran’s accelerated nuclear activity led the Bush administration to propose the first of four rounds of new sanctions on Iran which were passed by the UN Security Council. One of the strong points of The Iran Wars is Solomon’s detailed description of how the Obama administration built on the foundation laid by Bush in order to ratchet up financial sanctions against Iran (142-167). It was not so much because Obama understood the gravity of the Iranian threat, but because President Obama was almost desperate to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. He also was under continuous pressure from Congress and wanted to bring Iran to the negotiating table.
In his secret talks in Oman in 2011, Kerry told the Iranians that Obama was willing to allow Iran to maintain its capacity to enrich uranium. The Iranians thus received the most important concession even before negotiations had begun (243). The election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and his massive public relations campaign to improve Iran’s image made it easier for Obama to convince a skeptical US Congress and American public of the necessity of the deal with Iran. For he could now claim that the deal would empower so-called “moderates” within the regime (296), despite the fact that his outreach began long before Rouhani’s election and, as Solomon points out, real power in Iran belongs to the Supreme Leader Khamenei (15).
It emerges that, from the outset, Kerry and Obama were engaged in massive deception, pursuing a two-track strategy. Officially, Wendy Sherman led the US delegation to the Geneva nuclear talks with Iran and the “P5+1,” i.e., the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. “But behind the scenes, and away from the prying eyes of the global media, the secret Oman channel was also hard at work. The Iranians and the Americans believed the best way to reach a deal was without the complications of the P5+1” (255-6). According to Solomon, in Geneva, “France had been taking a particularly hard line in the talks, hewing to the position that Iran must not be allowed to maintain any of the infrastructure it had developed to produce nuclear fuel.” (257) On November 8, 2013, the delegates from Iran and the US arrived in Geneva and presented a draft agreement to the rest of the P5+1. Expecting to begin deliberations, the other powers suddenly realized that “an accord had been nearly completed behind their backs and that the goalposts had been shifted. Many of the P5+1’s most stringent demands were not addressed. And there were clear indications that Iran would be allowed to maintain much of its nuclear infrastructure…” (257). The French were outraged. The leader of the French delegation, Laurent Fabius, stated publicly: “One wants a deal…but not a sucker’s deal” (257). Kerry and Obama were livid and eventually forced France into compliance with American policy. The outlines of the final deal were becoming clearer. “Tehran would likely retain much of its nuclear capacity, as well as the missiles to deliver warheads. Iran would remain a latent nuclear weapons state, which would significantly alter the balance of power in the Middle East.” (258)
Solomon shows that Obama’s eagerness to strike a deal with Iran affected US policy across the region. For example, Obama deliberately refrained from supporting Iranian anti-government protesters in 2009 because he wanted to win the good will of the Iranian regime. This was in stark contrast to his rapid abrupt desertion of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt two years later (184-5). Likewise, Obama backed down from enforcing his own “red line” after the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people in Syria in 2013 because Iran “made it clear to the American delegation that the nuclear negotiations would be halted if the United States went ahead with its attack on Assad.” (229) A side-effect of US engagement with the Iranian regime has been giving Iran a free hand to strengthen its control the “Shiite crescent” which extends from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, to the growing alarm of the Sunni Arab regimes that had been aligned with the United States.
The Iran Wars effectively exposes and criticizes the remarkable naiveté of US policy makers in their approach to the Middle East. Solomon shows how the Bush administration failed to anticipate and respond to Iran’s rising influence in Afghanistan and Iraq after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and of Saddam Hussein in 2003 (29-53). He also documents John Kerry’s bizarre insistence that Bashar Assad was in fact a benign “reformer,” when the brutality of his reign in Syria was apparent to other observers: “Kerry’s enthrallment with Assad, even as Syria devolved into war, showed a troubling lack of judgment and raised questions about his ability to read the intentions of world leaders.” (101) The same might be said of Kerry’s boss in the White House.
The book is marred by some puzzling omissions. The author notes the Iranian claim that Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa or religious ruling against nuclear weapons (122), but does not inform his readers that no such fatwa exists. This is a proven piece of disinformation by Iran’s leaders. He also cites Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s statement that, with Rouhani’s accession to power, “the Ahmadinejad era – marked by the leader’s Holocaust denial and threats to Israel – was over.” (249) However, Solomon does not inform the reader that extreme antisemitism and threats to destroy Israel are pervasive at all levels of the regime and continue to this day. In general, more background on the ideology and structure of the Iranian regime would have been helpful. That being said, The Iran Wars is a well-written, revealing and thorough account of a vitally important piece of recent history and provides answers to many baffling questions about American policy toward Iran during the presidency of Barak Obama.