Commentary Magazine


Topic: Munich agreement

Iran Deal and Munich: A Fair Comparison?

Since Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama announced the nuclear deal with Iran on Saturday, outrage over what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly termed a “historic mistake” has been intense, especially among supporters of Israel. That has led some observers to invoke comparisons with the 1938 Munich agreement in which the Western powers betrayed Czechoslovakia in an attempt to appease Adolf Hitler’s Germany. While invective along these lines has been flying around the Internet and Twitter, the question of whether Munich should be mentioned in the same breath as the agreement signed this past weekend in Geneva was discussed this morning by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal. According to Stephens, the deal Obama is claiming as a triumph for diplomacy is “worse than Munich.”

Is he right? There are those who will claim it is impossible to compare any event with one that is associated with the Holocaust and still win an argument. But whether you think the deal is as bad as Stephens thinks or whether the price of a mistake with Iran is as costly as the West’s miscalculations about Hitler, the real answer depends on whether Iran betrays Obama.

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Since Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama announced the nuclear deal with Iran on Saturday, outrage over what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly termed a “historic mistake” has been intense, especially among supporters of Israel. That has led some observers to invoke comparisons with the 1938 Munich agreement in which the Western powers betrayed Czechoslovakia in an attempt to appease Adolf Hitler’s Germany. While invective along these lines has been flying around the Internet and Twitter, the question of whether Munich should be mentioned in the same breath as the agreement signed this past weekend in Geneva was discussed this morning by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal. According to Stephens, the deal Obama is claiming as a triumph for diplomacy is “worse than Munich.”

Is he right? There are those who will claim it is impossible to compare any event with one that is associated with the Holocaust and still win an argument. But whether you think the deal is as bad as Stephens thinks or whether the price of a mistake with Iran is as costly as the West’s miscalculations about Hitler, the real answer depends on whether Iran betrays Obama.

As to the merits of the Iran deal, the facts are very much with Stephens in terms of the feckless nature of this diplomatic endeavor. The agreement loosened sanctions and handed over billions in frozen cash to the Islamist regime while tacitly legitimizing the Iranian nuclear program and its drive for a weapon even as it claims to do the opposite. While administration supporters can claim that the sanctions relief involves a fraction of the existing restrictions, neither can they claim that Iran’s supposed concessions do anything to roll back the nuclear progress Tehran has made in the last five years. Instead of making the world, and even Israel, safer, as Obama and Kerry have insisted, it makes it more likely that Iran will get a nuclear deal in the long run as well as heightening the chances of a Middle East arms race involving Saudi Arabia and new outbreaks of violence involving current and perhaps future Iranian allies like Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

While there is no direct analogy between Britain and France’s decision to carve up the Czechoslovak homeland in order to appease Germany’s territorial demands, should Iran get a nuclear weapon the comparison with Munich may be apt. While one can make an argument that the Iranian regime isn’t crazy enough to actually use a nuke on Israel, given the genocidal threats they’ve made against the Jewish state, dismissing their desire to perpetrate a second Holocaust after some of their leaders have spent years denying the first one, should Iran go nuclear in the future, the deal will be thought of as being as every bit as much of a betrayal of Israel as Munich.

Stephens also makes an important point when he speaks of Obama’s desire for détente with Iran as being far less defensible than British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s decision to trust “Herr Hitler.” Britain and France were weak in 1938. It can, as Stephens points out, be argued that delaying the war with Germany by a year, during which Britain built up its military forces, hurt Hitler even if it did result in the annihilation of the Czechs. Though appeasers might have been justified in thinking they had no better option in 1938 than to give in to Hitler, there is no comparable excuse available for Obama and Kerry. Iran is weaker than the West and its economy is, thanks to the sanctions that Obama opposed and delayed implementing, in tatters. Yet, the U.S. negotiated with Iran as if it was the weaker party. Like Chamberlain and French President Edouard Daladier, Obama sued the ayatollahs for peace while saying that the only alternative to appeasement was war. Though no one wants a war with Iran, the alternative was to toughen the sanctions and to increase pressure on Iran and to, at least, demand that it begin dismantling the nuclear program. Like the appeasers of 1938 who thought Hitler couldn’t be persuaded to back down and therefore must be given what he asked for, Obama gave in to Iranian demands because they insisted on them.

Iran is not the hegemonic power that Nazi Germany was. Nor can it attack the West on equal or superior military terms as Germany did. But the assumption that Iran has no capability or desire to commit genocide is merely a matter of faith. Once they get a nuke, and it can be argued that the Iran deal is a bridge to a containment policy rather than one aimed at prevention, genocide or at least a war with incalculable consequences becomes a possibility.

But as bad as the Iran deal was, the real analogy to Munich is the way in which Obama and Kerry not only ignored the concerns of the nations endangered by an Iranian nuke—Israel and Saudi Arabia—but also excluded them from the negotiations. Like the Czechs who were told by Chamberlain that they had no choice but to accept the dismemberment of their country, Israel and the Saudis have been callously told they can either like the deal or lump it.

Yet the problem for many people with any Munich problem is not so much the differences between the two situations but with the entire idea of appropriating any event that is part of the World War Two timeline to describe another conflict. It is an iron rule of debate that the first person to invoke the Holocaust usually loses and in the eyes of some any talk about Munich is always going to be viewed as over the top no matter how strong the analogy might be.

That may be so, but the flipside of this argument is that the problem with the Iran deal is not what it means for the world today but what will follow from it. Opponents of the appeasers of 1938 like Winston Churchill were unable to convince grateful Britons who were overjoyed that war had been averted no matter what the cost to listen to their warnings. They could point to the probable consequences, but until Hitler marched into Prague and then invaded Poland despite promising Chamberlain that he wouldn’t, it was just talk. So, too, are the critics of appeasing Iran powerless to do much to stop Obama’s policy until the Iranians prove them right.

Until that happens, Obama’s defenders can accuse Stephens and others like him of hyperbole and hysteria. But once Iran cheats on the deal and uses its weak terms to get closer to its nuclear ambition, they will sound a lot more credible even to liberals who are trying their best to ignore this debate. At that point, as the world trembles before a nuclear-armed state sponsor of terror run by Islamist fanatics, Stephens’s suggestion that Obama and Kerry are the same as the appeasers of Hitler, “minus the umbrellas,” will seem tame.

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