The Foreign Service Journal - March 2017
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MARCH 2017


In the same

prologue, he uses a

phrase beloved of

those promoting

endless American-

Iranian hostility,

writing about

“Iranian behavior” as though

Iranians were some sort of unruly children

or animals.

Solomon correctly notes that Obama’s

outreach efforts originated in his long

Democratic primary campaign against

Hillary Clinton in 2008. In those debates

Obama declared that, as president, he

would engage with America’s adversaries,

including Iran. He took harsh criticism for

his stance fromboth Clinton and, during

the general election campaign, from Sena-

tor JohnMcCain (R-Ariz.), whose position

seemed to be that Iran was irredeemably

evil. How, his opponents asked, can you

engage with

those people


Despite these attacks, Obama won the

White House and stuck to his efforts to

endmore than 30 years of futility with the

Islamic Republic. For four years, however,

his efforts went nowhere. His quoting

Persian poetry (Sa’adi) and his talk of

engagement “based onmutual interest

andmutual respect” caught the Iranians


To an avowed and threatening enemy

they knewwell how to respond; but they

were paralyzed when an American presi-

dent spoke to them as Obama did. Inmy

own scattered conversations with Iranian

officials during 2009 and 2010, they essen-

tially had nothing to say.

On the U.S. side, the president found

A Useful Guide to a

Rogue’s Gallery

The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank

Battles, and the Secret Deals That

Reshaped the Middle East

Jay Solomon, Random House, 2016,

$28/ hardcover, $13.99/Kindle, 336 pages.

Reviewed By John Limbert

Jay Solomon’s title recalls Herodotus’


The PersianWars,


reminds us that Persia/Iran has fascinated

both friends and enemies for more than

twomillennia. In his account, Solomon

traces the political maneuvers of the

Islamic Republic and the administration of

Barack Obama that led to the signing of the

nuclear agreement (the “Joint Compre-

hensive Plan of Action”) in July 2015.

Now that the agreement, and the whole

process of American-Iranian relations,

has an uncertain future in the new Trump

administration, this book is especially


Solomon is a most conscientious jour-

nalist, and he builds a compelling story

fromnumerous interviews with officials

and analysts, and frommedia reports and

articles. His telling is by necessity “Amero-

centric,” andmost of his views of Iran are

through non-Iranian lenses.

As befits a writer for the conservative

Wall Street Journal

, the author shows

considerable skepticism about Iranian

intentions and about President Obama’s

stated goal of changing the longstanding

hostility betweenWashington and Tehran

into something more productive.

Solomon’s choice of language tells

us where he stands. In the prologue,

for example, he tells us that “President

Obama, fromhis first days in office,

pursued an opening to Iran and Supreme

Leader Ali Khamene’i with an


commitment” (my emphasis).


that, by himself, he could not change

35 years of exchanging threats, insults

and accusations. Although he spoke

eloquently about the pointless “satisfying

purity of indignation,” he found himself

working with both Americans and Irani-

ans who did not share his vision and who

simply did not know how to change what

they had been doing for so long.

They knew well how to bash; many in

Washington and Tehran had built their

careers on bashing. What no one knew

how to do—or what no one had the cour-

age to do—was something different that

might send the relationship on a new

path that could serve the interests of both

sides. In Washington, new ideas were

regularly shot down by the fearful ones

who occupied what became known as

“Dithering Heights.”

What broke the four-year stalemate and

set the United States and Iran on the road

to nuclear agreement? Solomon credits the

economic hardships fromnew interna-

tional sanctions imposed on Iran after

2010. He also credits Omani mediation,

the new Iranian administration of Hassan

Rouhani elected in 2013, and the American

concession to allow Iran to enrich uranium

on its own soil.

At least as important as the above,

however, was the persistence and forbear-

ance of American officials during the

sterile exchanges of 2009-2013. When the

Iranians haggled endlessly over the time

and place of future meetings; when their

representatives ran away frommeetings

with American counterparts; and when

their negotiating consisted of long-winded

statements of maximalist positions, the

Solomon’s work is a timely reminder that wrong-headed ideas

and those who propagate them never go away.