Those Who Compare the Iran Deal to Munich Are Right—but Not in the Way They Think

“Israel’s fundamental problem is that Iran is inevitably the regional hegemon once freed of the sanctions regime.”

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announcing the Munich agreement with Hitler's Germany, in 1938 (Wikimedia)

Let’s get back to the Iran debate. The tried-and-true analogy, for people opposed to the deal, is of course the Munich agreement of 1938. The comparison works because it suggests that the enemy is implacably evil: Nazi Germany then, Iran now. And it works because it also suggests that people who consider themselves peacemakers are dupes: Chamberlain then, Kerry and Obama now. Google “Iran deal Munich” and you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t buy the comparison, for reasons advanced here and running through the many posts collected here. But I now offer comments from two readers who suggest twists.

First, from Robert Levine, a lawyer musician in Wisconsin, with a suggestion of how the Munich analogy should be applied:

Those who have compared the deal to Munich, while wrong, do have one point: the situation is indeed rather similar to Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and the problem is unsolvable in the same way.

I don’t know if you have ever read the English historian AJP Taylor. I discovered him many years ago with his most controversial book, The Origins of the Second World War (which appears to have been continuously in print since its publication in 1961).

Taylor was an Oxford historian who became a "talking head" on the BBC. Among other things, he was a first-class writer: likely one of the best writers ever to write history in English, in fact. [JF note: I agree.]…  Origins was the first post-war attempt at a revisionist history of the inter-war period, and was controversial in large part both because he spread the blame for the war pretty widely and because he described Hitler, as far as his foreign policy goals went, as no worse than any other German leader—although that was not meant as a compliment to the others.

His fundamental point was that the other European powers were grappling with an unchangeable reality: that Germany was bound, after WW I, once again to become the leading power in Europe, simply due to economics and demographics, whether or not Hitler had come on the scene. Their failure to deal with the aftermath of the war and the Versailles Treaty, and their failure to choose between appeasement and resistance in dealing with Hitler, was what led to the outbreak of war in 1939—which, of course, was not the war which it became after Hitler invaded Russia and Japan attacked the US.

One could view the Middle East landscape in similar terms; Israel's fundamental problem, in terms of Iran, is that Iran is inevitably the regional hegemon, once freed of the sanctions regime. But, if Iran gives up pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is free from sanctions. So Israel either has an Iran with nukes or an Iran that is powerful regionally in every other way. Bismarck might have been able to thread that needle; Bibi certainly can’t.

In this picture, Israel is France; secure militarily from the natural hegemony (notwithstanding the events of May 1940, which were a massive failure of leadership and not a reflection on France’s inherent military position) but unable to stop Germany/Iran’s hegemony. France’s attempted solution was to string out the Versailles Treaty in such a way as to cripple Germany’s return to hegemony by various diplomatic tricks and maneuvers, very much as Bibi is doing now by trying to derail the Iran deal (or as those who suggest a weakened Iran with a few nukes might be the best outcome are implicitly suggesting). It didn’t work because it couldn’t work over the long term.

In fact, Israel’s position is worse than France’s, because Iran, unlike Germany, doesn’t have to deal with its natural competitor for regional hegemony, Iraq. It’s rather as if, after WW I, England and France had invaded the Soviet Union and left it in permanent chaos (and indeed England tried to do just that). Germany always had to look over its shoulder before operating against the Western powers; we solved that problem for Iran with the invasion of Iraq and destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The irony is that Israel was instrumental in the rise of Iran as regional hegemon.

Next is Donald Pryce, an emeritus professor of history at the University of South Dakota. He says I was wrong to refer off-handedly to “anti-Semitic rhetoric” from the Iranian government. He says that the exhaustively debated distinction between “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Zionism” is important in this case:

Referring to Peter Beinart’s article, you wrote, “Iran and Hitler’s Reich have exactly one point in common: their anti-Semitic rhetoric.” Mr. Beinart, however, made no such claim but asserted that actions rather than rhetoric are what matters…  Mr.  Beinart pointed out that the Jewish community [in Iran] is allowed to worship as it chooses and raise its children in the faith. The Jewish community seems not to be subject to persecution...

I do not entirely agree with Mr. Beinart, though, because mindset matters, and Iranians, significantly, do not have the Nazi mindset. The ayatollahs, whatever they get wrong, are not, like Hitler, subject to the simple minded egomaniacal self-aggrandizement of the loser and the outcast. Their rhetoric that I have seen is anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic, an important distinction.

Indeed, Iranian Jews are not entirely free, but, as Mr. Beinart did not need to mention, Iran is not a free country. Jews even enjoy a few privileges denied to Muslim Iranians, including use of alcohol, for what that is worth. Several Jews have been imprisoned for supporting Israel. Many an Iranian has been executed for less.

Iranians from Khamenei on down, oppose Zionism and the state of Israel while asserting that they do not oppose Jews and do respect Judaism. In this regard, Iranians follow the traditions of early Islam that was open to other cultures, not the destructive fundamentalism of more recent reaction such as Wahhabism. The distinction is important. Explicitly, Iranians oppose Israel for what it has done and what it does, especially to Palestinians. Racism to the Nazi degree seems all but completely alien to Iranian thinking.

It is in Benjamin Netanyahu’s interest not to draw distinctions. His supporters and collaborators as well as Americans opposed to the nuclear deal think as he does, seeing every disagreement with Mr. Netanyahu as anti-Semitism and an existential threat not just to Israel but to Jews…. One wonders how Mr. Netanyahu can depict Iran as the inevitable and perpetual enemy of Israel and the Jews while seeking cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

Though Iran does not oppose Jews for what they will not change, their identity, it opposes Israel for what it does, something that is subject to change.

What Israel does is what Mr. Netanyahu is bent on continuing. Continuing means continual conflict and continual claims on the support of the United States. It means “proffering the failures of the past as the solutions of our future” to quote a brilliant letter by one of your readers.

Thanks to them both, and to the many other readers who have written in. As always, judge for yourself how these arguments affect the case for and against the JCPOA agreement with Iran (“the deal,” which remains likely to survive the congressional attempt to block it) and longer-term prospects in the region.