'Twilight War' Is Strictly for Wonks; Author Overwhelms Readers with Arcane Details of the History of U.S.-Iran Relations; NONFICTION; BOOKS

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Given the grim headlines these days about Iran and its nuclear program, we're due for a look back at the touchy relationship between that country and the United States.

Historian David Crist has stepped forth with "The Twilight War," subtitled, "The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran."

If you're a colonel on a planning staff in the Pentagon, or a deputy assistant secretary of state with a portfolio for the Middle East, or a key underling with the National Security Council, Crist's volume deserves a slot in your bookcase.

But if you're simply an American who'd like to know more about this case of international bad blood, you'll have to wait for some other historian. Crist seems to have written his book for wonks. It drowns readers with arcane details and overwhelms them with a cast big enough for a Cecil B. DeMille epic, all unrolled in relentlessly chronological order.

"The Twilight War" reads like The New York Times or The Washington Post, with journalistic emphasis on incremental happenings instead of The Big Picture. Some years back, an academic and military historian named James L. Stokesbury wrote a series of books whose titles began "A Short History Of" - for example, "A Short History of World War II." The books won praise for the author's skill in describing history tersely, clearly and colorfully. Alas, none of those terms fits Crist's book.

Oh sure, Crist will surprise you with some nuggets from his tireless research. Most of us remember fuming at the French when France closed its air space to U.S. warplanes attacking Libya in 1986. But Crist says the French were merely responding to a slap from the United States three years earlier, when the Americans gracelessly backed out of a joint air strike with the French against Lebanese terrorists.

And early in the book, Crist quotes from a State Department report on the challenge of negotiating with a nation as different from us as Iran: "Our character, our society are based on optimism - a long history of strength and success, the possibility of equality, the protection of institutions, enshrined in a constitution, the belief in our ability to control our own destiny. …