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Forever “Munich”

November 27, 2013

Here we go again. American pundits of the neocon variety are denouncing the new Iranian nuclear deal as “another Munich” if not actually “worse than Munich.” Every few years, American op-ed writers of a certain ideological predilection – often neocon, sometimes neolib, it’s always neo-something – get themselves into a lather about a new “Munich.”

By which they do not mean a nice city that serves as the capital of Bavaria and has great pretzels plus the Oktoberfest. No, they are referring to the infamous September 1938 agreement, brokered by London and Paris, that gave the majority-German regions of western Czechoslovakia to Hitler in exchange for avoiding a European war that Hitler had threatened over Bohemia. A war which Europe got a year later over Poland, not Czechoslovakia.

I’m a historian, so I care about historical analogies, especially when they are misused for political effect. Actual historians have debated the Munich agreement since the ink was barely dry and the initial verdict, that it represented a hazardous sellout by the British especially, has been challenged by revisionists (which, by the way, is entirely legitimate historical term, as long as “Holocaust” isn’t attached to it) who note that the British military was profoundly unready for war in autumn 1938, and the extra year that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain bought at Munich made a big difference when the war actually came.

But I’m not here to have that debate, as interesting as it may be. Instead, my purpose today is to explain how awful an analogy “Munich” is to apply to the new, temporary deal between the major powers and Iran over its budding nuclear program. The analogy posits Israel as a new Czechoslovakia, being sold down the river by faithless friends to the Nazis who, here, are the Iranians.

This analogy has a bit of superficial plausibility, since the Islamic Republic of Iran is notorious for its vehement opposition to Israel and Zionism. Even though its current president, unlike his predecessor, isn’t hosting Holocaust denial conferences anymore, nobody can doubt just how much Tehran despises Israel. Hitler despised the Czechs too, and did away with their state as quickly as he could.

But Czechoslovakia was low-hanging fruit for Berlin because, notwithstanding the fact that its military had made some serious preparations for war, helped by the fact that Bohemia had the Skoda Works, one of the finest heavy industrial firms in Europe, Prague’s forces really had little chance to stand up to the Wehrmacht and winAs created by the victorious Allies in 1918, Czechoslovakia had more Germans than Slovaks, and few of them would fight for a Czech-dominated state, while some formed an active Fifth Column. Plus not many Slovaks were willing to die for Prague either. The Czechoslovak military looked impressive on paper but its ability to resist a German invasion for long was limited. To top it off, the Czech leadership – unlike Poland’s which a year later would stand up to Hitler, against even worse odds, and pay the price – lacked courage and conviction. It’s not surprising that London and Paris were unwilling to go to the wall for leaders in Prague who were quaking in fear already.

So, in military terms is Israel in 2013 like Czechoslovakia in 1938? In fact, the contrast could not be more stark. In purely conventional terms, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has never been stronger compared to its adversaries across the Middle East. Iran is a weakling in conventional forces, while its asymmetric threats, though impressive, can be effectively countered by Israel if they want to. An existential threat they are not. Moreover, Tehran’s Hizballah cut-outs are busy with the Syrian war right now and don’t pose much of a threat to Israel as long as that conflict endures.

The nuclear issue must be mentioned. Israel sits atop a nuclear arsenal that is large by anyone’s standards and simply vast by regional ones. None believe Israel has much less than a hundred nuclear warheads, and many think the number is several times that many: a round figure around 200 is a safe guess. Plus the IDF possesses a full nuclear triad with air-dropped bombs, ballistic missiles, and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles launched from submarines which give Israel a serious second-strike capability. And whether you buy the notion of the so-called Samson Option or not, no serious analyst doubts that Israel would go nuclear in extremis. Had Czechoslovakia’s military position been anything resembling Israel’s today, there would have been no need for a Munich agreement in the first place, as Prague would have defeated any German move handily, all by itself.

This is not meant to downplay the threat of the Iranian bomb, which is real. The mullah regime, besotted with a vehemently hateful ideology, remains an enemy of the West, not just Israel, and every measure short of war that can delay its reaching weaponization of anything nuclear is good and necessary. But it merits noting that the current agreement is temporary and really constitutes a deal to arrange a more permanent deal, as all sides have admitted. So let’s give diplomacy a chance here, as pretty much everyone outside Likudnik circles in Israel and abroad wants.

Besides, it’s important to note that diplomacy combined with what I term “special war” have actually done a pretty commendable job to date at keeping Tehran away from the nuclear threshold. Concerns about Iran joining the nuclear weapons club were acute in Washington, DC, a full fifteen years ago, and I recall sitting in briefings back in the late 1990s that confidently warned that Tehran was but months away from having The Bomb. Which is pretty much where they are today.

That there has been less Iranian progress towards its nuclear arsenal, despite the fact that the regime is ardently in favor of getting The Bomb (no matter what they say in public), is a testament to the power of Western diplomatic pressure combined with sanctions, occasional military threats, plus effective covert action of various kinds. So let’s keep all that up and try to get Tehran to agree to a permanent deal that will prevent the regime from getting much closer to nuclear weaponization than they are at present.

I’m not necessarily confident we can get there within six months, but I am quite confident that the regional military calculus won’t change soon either. I am, however, sure that the “Munich” analogy bears absolutely no resemblance to what is going on in the Middle East now, and ought to be shelved, perhaps permanently. Operation PERSIAN FREEDOM is not on the table, no matter what overheated pundits tell you, so let the diplomats and spies do what they do and win their quiet victories over Tehran.

17 Comments
  1. Steve permalink

    As a historian with a background at alphabet agencies, why don’t you mention that the USA and Israel put and / or kept the shah in power, who had a truly brutal secret police, the sort that would knock the teeth out of citizens with political philosophies of their own, put electrodes on genitals etc, provided that is that they let them out of prison alive?

    This presumably explains some of the animosities that otherwise seem a character flaw.

    Is good history not impartial, sine ira et studio?

    • The Tsar was unpleasant sometimes too, did that justify Bolshevik mass crimes and aggression?

      • Steve permalink

        No. Explanations and justifications are not the same.

        When bad behavior stems from legitimate grievances, there generally are different (and more pleasant) remedies than otherwise.

        Which is why I think it is pertinent.

  2. From a British perspective I’m not sure that we were “profoundly unready” in 1938, rearmament being underway, but we were certainly unready. You may have seen this article by Niall Ferguson a few years back http://nymag.com/news/features/22787/ – your post made me search for it and the remarks on the second page may be of interest. It’s Chapter 10 of his “War of the World” published in 2006 which the game didn’t stand up.

    • Niall Ferguson is an economic, not military, historian, so you look foolish citing him here. Military historians, who have published extensively on this, know that between Oct 1938 and late 1939, the British forces made significant strides particularly in air defense (RAF, Army AD units, radar) that mattered a great deal in the summer of 1940. I’m sure you’ve heard about that little story ….

  3. Irina Tsukerman permalink

    Very thought-provoking post. Thank you for historical clarifications, and excellent point on Israel being, thankfully, in a much better position than Czechoslovakia back in the day.

    Couple of points:

    1. Israel’s preparation does not negate the argument that Iran’s actions towards attaining nuclear weapons can, and very likely will, start a nuclear race in the Middle East – not exactly a desirable outcome.
    2. Your emphasis on diplomacy fails to account for the current Iranian regime being cunning and untrustworthy. They use diplomacy towards their own ends. So far, they finagled $9 billion out of this 6-month deal, part of which will likely go towards weapon development and part to buy off the population and take the onus off any regime criticism. What has the West gotten out of this deal other than a promise to continue talking while Iran continues to enrich Iranian?
    3. Netanyahu, whatever you may think of his handling of this deal, made an excellent point, in that Iran has plenty of natural gas and oil. Why DO they so desperately need nuclear energy?

    • You points are all fair ones, but it’s important to keep in mind that if we actually trusted Iran the way that, say, the US trusts Britain or France, what need would there be for a formal international agreement of any kind? No sane person trusts Tehran’s word here, that’s not the real issue.

      IRI wants The Bomb because it clearly understands the lessons of 2002-03, when a regime without nukes (Iraq) was overthrown by the U.S. military, while the other “Axis of Evil” regime with The Bomb (DPRK), was left alone. Pretty obvious, no?

      • Irina Tsukerman permalink

        Well, the real issue is how to make this agreement enforceable and multilateral, rather than being taken for a ride, giving money, cars & validation to Teheran, without getting anything in return.

        At the same time, Iran has been at it even before Iraq, so while the overthrow of Hussein may have given them an additional reason, they also had that interest in regional dominance even before that became an issue. Also, contrast that to Qaddafi’s reaction to Hussein’s overthrow – he actually preferred to become more transparent and give up the weapons he already had rather than pursuing that policy (not that it did it much good with the new administration, but he didn’t know that at the time). Hence, I tend to be more than a little skeptical that Teheran’s stand on the nuclear weapon is largely defensive.

    • Steve permalink

      Netayahu’s point is completely disingenuous, not to say dishonest.

      With the rise in the price of oil it is much cheaper to source electricity from nuclear plants and sell the expensive oil that would otherwise have been burned to get electricity on the world market.

      This is why the UAE, another big oil producer, and presumably others, are building nuclear plants with the goal of sourcing a good part if not as much as possible of their electricity from nuclear.

  4. Michael Denman permalink

    Perhaps as a military historian you could tell us about the 1953-ish activities and operations of Britain and their cousins the US against the duly elected president of Iran and his plan to nationalize the oil industry, which led to his overthrow and installation of The Shah; the birthday of radical Islam, our progeny. We created it, we own it along with the British. To add insult to injury we put the sob up in Santa Barbara on top of a hill overlooking the Pacific.

    It can’t be that hard to imagine that Iran wants a bomb as a deterrent to western aggression. One is all it takes for the deterrent effect. Perhaps this is why the West is so convinced they are looking to build a bomb – existential guilt. They probably are, that doesn’t let us off the hook. As Israel with 200 or so nuclear weapons rattles the saber, again and again, along with NATO and the US, what would any country with a brain do? Context is important when discussing Iran post-1953. Meanwhile, the Wahhabis are keen to import nukes from Pakistan, Iraq has become a terrorist bazzaar and weapons import zone, Afghanistan is going back to the Taliban, and the US is being escorted out to the back alley in the Middle East. No amount of SIGINT will buy or coerce back any credibility.

    The oil executives and US/British politicians will not be the ones to pay the price, we the US citizens will. At your behest I have read more and the first thing I discovered is the Deputy Director of the NSA before Congress explaining why giving NSA collected info to private entities or government agencies likely to give the info to private entities isn’t a good idea. The fact he’s talking about it is defacto evidence it’s already happening. The Defense Department doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to slapping back private entities from raking in the profits. I look forward to your analysis of 1953 and the Seven Sisters..

    • If you’d like bespoke analysis I’m happy to provide you with my standard hourly rate information.

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Why Iran wants The Bomb | The XX Committee
  2. The Iran Deal Is Not Munich, Dammit | BobCesca.com | Liberal Politics Blog and Podcast | We Cover the World
  3. Why Iran Really Wants The Bomb : Ανιχνεύσεις
  4. Honor and the Ukraine Crisis | The XX Committee

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