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 win. As 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.