The one urgent point readers need to know about this book is that, by accident or design, it serves as a history of Iranian-US relations from the point of view of the US Armed Forces. If one accepts the book as a narrative strictly from that perspective, it has real merit. However, as an accurate description of individual events, it leaves much to be desired. To begin with, it is very mixed in quality. If, for some reason, Col. Crist had ended the book after p.415 with a pithy epilogue, it would be a lot more valuable. The sources are a lot firmer, and the scholarship is more solid. It seems clear to me that his direct, interpersonal interviews with US service personnel were the greatest strength of the book. After p.416, his personal research was superseded by unreliable sources.
Crist usually strives to be fair; he often describes US officials as mistaking their own diktats as "relations"; Iranian officials unfortunate enough to be involved in efforts by the US State Department at "dialogue" are subjected to demands for total submission (and Crist is right). Likewise, violent actions against US military personnel are bad news, but frequently legitimate guerrilla tactics against a secret belligerent; in the US news media, all such combat is spoken of as terrorism. This is important because the US government would become an active participant in the Iran-Iraq War, supporting the aggressor. The Iranian security establishment had very compelling justifications for attacking US assets where possible.
(An example of the latter: in 1983, the US embassy in Beirut and then a barracks for US marines were attacked by bombers possibly linked to Iran's Guards Corps. At the time, the US government had become a combatant in the Lebanese Civil War, yet the marines were led to believe they were peacekeepers.(1))
Problems in the scholarship arise in Crist's choice of secondary sources, such as what he used to put together a narrative of the early phase of the Lebanese Civil War. It's a fiendishly complex war, and explaining it is hard. But Crist jumps through the first five years, to when Syria's Hafez al-Assad became an adversary of Western intervention. Overlooked is the phase when Syria invaded to staunch al-Fatah's conquest of Lebanon (1976), and support a peace process among the religious groups(2).
Also overlooked is the great doubt on the part of US military investigators that any of the events took place remotely in a manner described by Crist. He routinely describes in novelistic detail planning and execution of acts by named parties, then mentions in a endnote that in fact this is all conjecture (e.g. 133-135, and endnote 33 for that chapter) (3). On pp.516-520, there is a very detailed passage--again, in uncharacteristically good prose--describing with complete certitude how Iranian agents infiltrated the Iraqi militia, armed anti-US insurgents, and even directed operations against US military personnel/interests. Endnote 7 for this chapter attributes most of the narrative to Felter & Fishman, "Iranian Strategy in Iraq"(2008). I found this document online, and--like Crist--highly recommend it to anyone interested. It is quite detailed, although its chapter on lethal aid to the anti-US resistance in Iraq is mostly extracts of allegations and rebuttals by Baghdad, Washington, and Tehran(4), and does not support Crist's account.
Another source used by Crist (cited, p.519) was S. Azad, "The Qods Force--Godfather of al-Qaida?" hosted by website "News Blaze." The article was purported to have been written in 2007, but I quickly traced it to a book published in 1993 by an obscure publisher of lifestyle books.(5) It is often mentioned that Iranian society is opaque, so usually reliable sources are not available. But in that case, conjecture and raw allegation should not be treated as established fact. This obviously applies to Crist's odious inferences about the Iranian motives--for example, on pp.394-395, he quotes Hamas Rapporteur Osama Hamdan claiming that Iranians never cared about the Palestinians but merely saw them as a convenient cause to beat the USA with. If Mr. Hamdan really thinks that, I feel sorry for him but he's wrong. The lot of the Palestinians is horrible, and invalidates absolutely any moral position Washington makes about its role in the region. Simply saying that the Iranians don't REALLY care about this is not a serious argument.
After the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, the book changes tone a great deal. The role of Iran as adversary is overshadowed by that of scapegoat. Poorly-substantiated rumor and efforts by the CPA to defend its disastrous performance in Iraq replace the author's own interviews with historical actors. Events become overburdened by rationalizations, and Crist is too removed from anything real. Instead, he becomes a skeptical rapporteur for the US military command, rather than an historian.
(1) October 1983 Marine Barracks Bombing, Beirut: a common allegation made of Hezbollah is that it carried out this bombing, that killed 241 US Marines. The same day a barracks of French peacekeepers were attacked. In both cases, the USG/GoFr were carrying out conflicting roles, a point Crist mentions. An account of the Pentagon's report on the 23 October bombing ("Report of the DoD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act") does not include a single mention of any entity known as Hizbullah or Hezbollah, but of course this does not preclude the existence of groups that would become Hizbullah in 1985 (the year it came into existence). The report does mention (p.63) that the explosives used were commonly available all over Lebanon, and later forensic studies--as opposed to polemics--do not invoke any "proto-Hezbollah."
See, for example, Major John J. Ziegler III, "From Beirut to Khobar Towers: Improving the Combating Terrorism Program," Research Report, Air Command & Staff College, Air University (April 1998). Despite the antagonistic relationship of Tehran and Washington at the time, the report never fingers Iran.
(2) Charles Winslow, Lebanon: War and Politics in a Fragmented Society, Routledge (1996), pp. 198ff or p.281. Initially, the Assad regime in Lebanon was very cooperative with Western interests, and only veered away when it became clear Washington was insisting on a totally unrealistic outcome. At that point, Damascus was obligated to shore up its credibility among Arab nationalists.
Crist repeatedly ignores the urgent constraints faced by Arab & Iranian policy makers. He depicts the Kuwaiti authorities as sleazy for trying to get somebody--anybody--to defend their access to the Strait of Hormuz in the early days of the "Tanker War" (initially, Washington refused and the Kuwaitis turned to Moscow.) Crist regards this as a form of treachery; most people would regard it as the bare minimum of self-preservation.
(3) The passage in Crist describing the planning and execution of the 1983 Beirut International Airport Bombing is extremely plausible--in fact, Crist's usually terrible prose style abruptly improves. But then, after rattling off names and places, endnote 33 begins, "The identity of the men who carried out the operation remains unclear." In other words, the detail makes it look as though Crist is certain, but in fact he knows LESS about this matter than he does about other events.
(4) Felter & Fishman, pp.73-80, describe the evidence for Iranian lethal aid to the insurgency. This boils down to supplying Shi'a militia with machined paraboloid disks used in the production of explosively formed projectiles (EFPs). These are purported to be beyond the capabilities of any group in Iraq (although the extraordinary precision Crist--not Felter & Fishman--imputes to their usage DOES require capabilities that are almost as demanding as their manufacture). While I remain skeptical of the claim that no militant group in Iraq could have produced the EFP plates--see Fred Burton,"The Imminent Spread of EFPs," Stratfor (11 April 2007)--Felton & Fishman pretty much confine their allegations to this in particular.
The Badr Brigade is the military wing of the Iraqi Shi'a movement formerly known as SCIRI (now ISCI); it was created by Iraqi Shi'a living in Iran prior to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The Quds Force is a branch of the Iranian Armed Services responsible for cultivating "firm power" (Crist likens it to "a blend of U.S. Special Forces and the Peace Corps").
(5) Crist's endnote cites the website "News Blaze" and the article date of 2007. It was originally published in Mohammad Mohaddessin (editor), Islamic Fundamentalism: The New Global Threat, Seven Locks Press (1993), p.102. This anthology was republished in 2003 with the new chapter title, although the article never mentions al-Qaida, or even comes close.