Iran and the lessons of Chamberlain's appeasement

The appeasement policies of the 1930s were wildly popular at the time and for much the same reasons as appeasment of Syria and Iran are popular today. But the outcome was disaster

Chamberlain waves his paper agreement after Munich
Michael Curtis
On 2 October 2013 08:01

The democratic countries of the world today may be heading towards a recurrence of a policy of appeasement -- concessions made to an enemy or potential enemy in order to avoid a conflict or resort to hostilities. The memory of the supine pessimistic behavior of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain needs to be remembered.

It was he who submitted to and acquiesced in a policy that turned out to be disastrous, bringing war not peace. The historic date was September 29, 1938 in Munich when Chamberlain accepted Adolf Hitler’s demand that Nazi Germany would occupy the Sudetenland, part of the independent state of Czechoslovakia.

The insatiable Hitler followed this in March 1939 by taking over all of the country, which then ceased to exist. The British appeasement policy may have been popular in Britain and France, countries whose populations were not eager to go to war, but the end the result was war in increasingly unfavorable circumstances and with greater casualties. Appeasement had made the world less safe.

Post-revisionist writers have suggested that a justification for Chamberlain’s capitulation towards the Nazis between 1937 and 1939 was that he, a sincere if misguided individual, had no alternative. Today, a similar argument for non-action is being made regarding the attitude of Western countries, including the United States, towards the menace of Iran.

It takes the form not so much of a lack of an alternative, but of the need for extended negotiations with a regime unwilling to fulfill its international obligations. The international community as a whole is refusing to acknowledge and meet the threat of a radical Islamic state.

Since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979, the Iranian leaders have made no secret of their attitude to the State of Israel. Before then, relations, during the Pahlavi dynasty, between Israel and Iran had been cordial, even close at times. Iran had been the second Muslim country, after Turkey, to recognize Israel as a sovereign state, and had supplied Israel with oil and entered into a number of joint projects. For its part, Israel viewed Iran as a friendly, Muslim, non-Arab power.

When Ayatollah Khomeini took power in February 1979 he cut off all official relations with Israel which he called an enemy of Islam and a little Satan, a friend of the Great Satan, the United States. The present supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has restated this opinion with even stronger language. He sees Israel as a cancerous tumor in the heart of the Islamic world. He believes that the “fake Zionist regime will disappear from the landscape of geography.”

Once again, Israel is the political canary of the world, warning of the danger to other countries. It is aware of the reluctance of so many countries to accept the realities of Iranian behavior, and that they prefer to accept the “pledge” of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Iran would never build nuclear weapons and his statement that its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful purposes.

Everybody has recognized that Rouhani has presented the Iranian case in a more agreeable fashion than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose diatribes against Israel and his assurance that the Holocaust never happened suggested a problem of mental stability.

Nevertheless, Rouhani’s softer tone and conciliatory words do not disguise the reality that Iran is on the path to and may soon be in possession of nuclear weapons that might eliminate the “tumor” of Israel. He stated to the UN General Assembly that Iran was ready to enter without delay into talks abut its nuclear program.

Desirable though peaceful resolution and diplomatic negotiations are to defuse or solve a political crisis they need to be put in context. The real decision makers in Iran are the supreme leader, the Ayatollah and the Guardian Council. In fact, they chose Rouhani to run for the position of President, largely because they needed a conciliatory individual to help reduce or remove the economic sanctions on Iran that are hurting the country by reducing oil revenues, by increasing inflation, and increasing unemployment. 

It is clear that Iran will continue to control its nuclear program unless it is prevented by Western actions; at the moment this means maintaining the sanctions against it. The crucial question remains whether the United States and/or Israel will use military force to prevent the production of a nuclear bomb.

Iran, like others in the international community, is conscious of President Obama’s irresolution in acting on his self-declared red lines over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and his reluctance to use military force by accepting the diplomatic formula proposed by Russia.

Yet, the President ought now to be conscious of the dangers of Iranian policy. It has already shown its manipulation of Shiite minorities in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Yemen to foment trouble and to try to destabilize the Gulf States. Iran is competing with Saudi Arabia, not only as part of the rivalry in the Islamic world between itself as Shiite leader and Saudi Arabia as Sunni leader, but also for control of the Strait of Hormuz which accounts for the export of about 20 per cent of all oil traded worldwide.

It has provided support and weapons to the Assad regime in Syria, and to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is the prominent Muslim power in the Middle East.

At a moment when the Arab states have been weakened as a result of the turmoil after the “Arab spring,” when Egypt is incapable of action, when Turkey has become more insular, the international community must be prepared to take action and prevent the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran capable of committing a new genocide.

Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in political science at Rutgers University. Curtis, the author of 30 books, is widely respected as an authority on the Middle East

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