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Iran, Israel, and America: On Historical Analogies

August 16, 2012

Today, Nicholas Burns, an American diplomat now retired after many years of honorable service to the Republic, published an op-ed in the Boston Globe advocating – you guessed it – diplomacy as the solution to the mounting Iranian nuclear crisis. Whether you find Ambassador Burns’ prescription for the increasingly worrisome stand-off between Israel and Iran persuasive, or not, he makes many thoughtful points which merit pondering.

Along the way he makes several observations which are perhaps more jaw-dropping than he intended. He states: “It is not in America’s interest to remain hostage to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s increasingly swift timetable for action.” A few years ago, before Professors Walt and Mearsheimer lobbed a grenade published their book about The Lobby, statements indicating the Republic is held hostage to Likud and AIPAC, if not necessarily to Israel per se, would have been controversial. Whether or not you agree with Prof. Mearsheimer that Bibi and Barak consider the U.S. political class to be a bunch of “wussies” they can control, I think it’s safe to say that until recently such language would have placed anyone beyond the pale … now, not so much.

Beyond the issue of who’s the tail and who’s the dog in the increasingly messy U.S.-Israel relationship – a question which has taken on more-than-customary urgency given the current Israeli government’s recent public move towards sky-is-falling rhetoric about Iran – there’s the intriguing matter of what historical analogies apply in this knotty case. Amb. Burns notes that Harvard’s Graham Allison has been dining out on his take of the current crisis as “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” As the ambassador adds: “Iran and the United States are like two trains hurtling toward each other on the same track in a breakneck game of diplomatic chicken.”

October 1962 – when Kevin Costner saved the world

Maybe, but I don’t really buy that one. In the first place, we can now state with certainty that the leadership in both DC and Moscow in 1962, whatever their bluster and chest-thumping, never wanted war, much less nuclear war – as we found out when Niki K. cried uncle. The Soviets and Americans were headed by civilian and (mostly) military leaders who were sane and rational actors who understood the consequences of screwing up the Cuba missile thing. I’m not convinced that Tehran’s leadership is equally reality-based, and certainly Israeli agit-prop in recent years has advocated strongly for painting Iran’s top echelon as, not to put an overfine point on it, batsh*t crazy. Not to mention that a few Israeli commentators have recently observed that Bibi, drunk on power and chants of a “second Holocaust,” might not be fully in earth orbit any longer either.

Additionally, in 1962 both the U.S. and the USSR had a good handle on each other’s military capabilities and how they would be used if the balloon went up. Whereas the whole point of the current crisis is that nobody outside Iran has any firm idea of what the mullahs really have, nor how they might want to use it. (And U.S. intelligence doesn’t know either, no matter what Ehud Barak says.)

So is there a good analogy in modern history? I’m afraid there is, and it’s not a happy one. The best analogy, says this historian, for the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the mounting crisis with Iran, goes back a century, to just before Europe went crazy and destroyed itself.

In the years leading to the First World War, Russia developed a cancerous relationship with Serbia, with the latter becoming a troublesome client which occupied Russian attention out of any proportion to Serbia’s actual size, importance, and influence.  While there were genuine ethnic and religious ties between the two countries, they were neither traditional nor natural allies, beyond a mutual loathing for Islam. Russia aided Serbia for decades in its wars – some open, some covert – against the declining Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. By 1913 Serbia had defeated the forces of Islam in its neighborhood, taking over lands which Serbs held to be sacredly theirs (even if inconveniently occupied mostly by non-Serbs who did not want to ruled by Serbs), and it wanted to take the fight to Austria-Hungary, which it viewed as the last obstacle to Serbia’s quasi-religious “place in the sun.”

Latter-day observers tend to think of the Habsburg Empire as a harmless, lumbering state in decline, more famed for waltzes and cakes than aggression, but in the years before 1914, Belgrade saw Austria-Hungary as a dangerous, warlike enemy bent on annihilating Serbia. That none of this was true – outside of occasional Viennese barrack-room fantasy – made no difference. The dangerously loopy head of Serbian intelligence convinced himself and his retinue that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, was the head of the “war party” in Vienna and had to be killed. So they did. This was the origin of the plot which culminated in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. It was the most consquential act of state terrorism in modern history, yet was based on a complete and total misread of Austrian intentions – the ill-fated archduke in fact was the most peace-oriented leader in the empire – which may be instructive about the value of intelligence analysis.

Franz Ferdinand … no, he was not in the band

Unless you’ve been asleep or in a cave for the last 90-plus years, you will know that Serbia’s misguided preventative attack on Austria-Hungary led directly to the First World War and pretty much the collapse of European civilization. Which was emphatically not what Russia wanted. Yet St. Petersburg went along with what Belgrade wanted, tail wagging dog style, down to war. Why?

Part of the problem was effective Serbian lobbying, which won the hearts and, eventually, minds of much of Russia’s political and military elite. There was a genuine soft-spot for the Serbs which Belgrade had cleverly nurtured, bolstered by clerical God-talk of a mystical kind. Morever, Russian policy towards Serbia was disjointed, between diplomats, soldiers, and spies and their different ministries and factions, which Belgrade was able to exploit. For instance, there is evidence that Russian spooks, who admired their gutsy-if-crazy Serb cousins, had a hand in starting and funding the Sarajevo assassination plot – but there’s never been evidence that St. Petersburg, much less the Tsar, approved such dirty work.

The saddest part of all this is that there were always Russians, some quite influential, who were sounding alarm bells, loudly and often, that the Serbs were nothing but trouble and would lead Russia to catastrophe. Sergei Witte, the Tsar’s most esteemed minister, led what one might retrospectively term Russia’s “reality-based community,” and counseled caution in Balkan matters: to no avail. Witte once called the Serbs “a race of Balkan brigands” who, he said, would eventually get the thrashing by Vienna they had long deserved. Yet cooler heads did not prevail, and Russia, rather than restraining her hot-headed ally-cum-protege, did the opposite when the July crisis came, with terrible consequences for themselves and all Europe.

I’m really hoping the current three-sided crisis like Iran ends just like the Cuban Missile Crisis – happily and quietly. But I have my doubts, and when those doubts are darkest I think of the tangled relationship between Serbia and Russia before 1914.

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