Critics of the Iran deal have trotted out the Munich analogy before, but it doesn't work for the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations.
Of all the hyperbolic reactions to the Iranian nuclear deal recently concluded in Geneva by the so-called P5+1 group of nations (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany), perhaps none was more florid than that offered by William Kristol, founder and editor of the neoconservative journal, the Weekly Standard. In an online editorial and an accompanying blog post, Kristol compared Barack Obama to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who famously flew to Munich and sold out Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in 1938, declaring upon his return to British soil that he had achieved “peace in our time.” Along the way, Kristol also compared current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Winston Churchill and, curiously, Abraham Lincoln. “Lincoln knew as well as anyone that speech has to be supported by deeds,” Kristol wrote. “Benjamin Netanyahu understands this. Jewish history, and not just Jewish history, teaches this lesson. Netanyahu may well judge that he has to act to stop the Iranian regime from getting nuclear weapons. If he does, then Israel will fight. And Israel will be right.” Former US Ambassador John Bolton, also writing in the Weekly Standard, called the deal “an abject surrender” that amounted to the Western powers ganging up on Israel.
The reaction from Netanyahu himself was just barely less apocalyptic. “What was achieved last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement, it is a historic mistake,” he said in an official statement, adding that the deal “threatens many countries and of course Israel among them.” For its part, the government of Saudi Arabia, which has been nearly as vociferous as Israel in its opposition to the Iranian nuclear program, reacted with cautious optimism, saying only that “this agreement could be a first step towards a comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear program, if there are good intentions.” Ironically, the Saudi line mirrored the one taken by Israel’s internal peace movement, as represented by the newspaper Haaretz, which noted that the Geneva pact “is an event that does not end with the signing itself, since the agreement is the start of a long, complex process whose purpose is to uproot the Iranian nuclear program and stop the Islamic Republic’s dash to nuclear weapons.”
This perspective, that the Geneva agreement is the start of a process rather than the conclusion of one, is simply closer to the truth than claims of “surrender” and “appeasement.” The pact is an interim agreement, with a term of only six months. During those six months, the P5+1 countries have agreed to ease sanctions on Iran in a limited number of areas that that will result in the restoration of about $7 billion in revenue to Iran. The easing of sanctions does not include the banking and crude oil sectors. In return, Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium beyond five percent, the degree required for nuclear power – ninety percent enrichment is required for nuclear weapons – and either convert back or render unsuitable for further use all its uranium that has already been enriched beyond five percent. Iran must also mothball the high-tech centrifuges that allow advanced enrichment, and cease construction on any new facilities. Finally, Iran must allow daily access to its facilities and records by international inspectors.
This entire deal is aimed at concluding a final, permanent agreement in the spring of next year. Both supporters and detractors have claimed that it is “historic,” with good reason: for the first time the Islamic Republic has agreed to enter into a diplomatic process aimed at both ensuring that Iran has access to nuclear power and preventing its acquisition of nuclear weapons. As importantly, the willingness of Iran’s leadership to engage with the P5+1 group may signal an eventual thawing of relations with the West and the restoration of Iran to its proper role among the community of nations, which of course should be the goal of anyone who longs for genuine peace in the Middle East.
Critics like Kristol, Bolton, and even Netanyahu claim that Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime of Bashir al-Assad make it an unworthy partner in any diplomatic agreement, and that the modulation of Iran’s rhetoric in the months since President Hassan Rouhani took over from the malevolent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is just a ruse. Underneath, they insist, Iran’s leadership is as committed as ever to gaining the ability to blackmail the Middle East with nuclear weapons and even to initiating a second Holocaust of the Jewish people.
There is no question that Iran is a pariah state – a sponsor of terrorism – and that some figures in the Iranian leadership might long for the destruction of Israel. But negotiation with bad actors is an inescapable element of diplomacy. In the years prior to normalizing its relations with the rest of the world, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) sponsored terrorist groups, guerrilla movements and bloody regimes in Asia and elsewhere. The Russian Federation, in its earlier 70-year incarnation as the Soviet Union, did the same throughout the world, including Europe. And yet, an earlier generation of American leaders didn’t disparage negotiation with China and Russia on a range of issues, from ping-pong to strategic arms reductions. Even today, China remains a major funder of Hamas, occupies Tibet, and is the North Korean regime’s sole international sponsor. Russia is Syria’s major arms supplier, and Moscow maintains murky connections with insurgencies across the globe. And of course, the United States itself gave Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban their start in Afghanistan, and we even sponsor terrorist groups inside Iran today. Should the United States, Russia, and China refuse to negotiate with each other because of their shared history? If not, then why should we collectively refuse to negotiate with Iran?
Diplomacy isn’t a question of which nation is the purest; it is a question of who is willing to submit to the reciprocal obligations imposed by established agreements. Perhaps that’s why Israel, which is itself a nuclear power, is one of only four UN member nations to have never signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. By definition, any international treaty is concluded between parties with conflicting interests. Signing an agreement isn’t tantamount to granting an imprimatur on a regime’s record or ideology; it merely establishes a methodology for ensuring that competing interests don’t devolve into war. That’s what the Geneva deal with Iran does. Despite what the critics claim, it doesn’t rely on trust, and it doesn’t require the United States to approve of anything Iran says or does.
Is Iran secretly committed to acquiring and deploying nuclear weapons, in spite of its willingness to sign this agreement? Is it truly intent on visiting a second Holocaust on the Jewish people despite the change in rhetoric? For that matter, is the Iran deal simply an attempt by the Obama Administration to change the subject in the wake of its disastrous Obamacare rollout? It is impossible to give an answer to any of those questions; diplomacy isn’t an exercise in mind-reading. But it is helpful to recall that the critics of the Iran deal have trotted out the Munich analogy before. Ho Chi Minh was Hitler in the 1950s. The Soviet Union was an “evil empire” like Nazi Germany in the 1980s. Saddam Hussein was Hitler twice, first in 1991 then again in 2003. Vladimir Putin was Hitler in 2008 when he briefly invaded Georgia. Muammar Gaddafi was Hitler in 2011. Bashir al-Assad was Hitler just six months ago. The lesson of Munich 1938 is not that we should never negotiate with evil people; it’s that when we do, we should craft agreements that are limited, well defined, and verifiable. What Chamberlain wrought in Munich was none of those things, and the analogy to the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations fails.
It is true that war is sometimes unavoidable, but as Catholics we are compelled to acknowledge that war is always a tragedy to be avoided if at all possible. Blessed Pope John Paul II, who personally experienced the aftermath of failed diplomacy in the 1930’s, took a different lesson from his experience of World War II. “The twentieth century bequeaths to us above all else a warning,” he wrote. “Wars are often the cause of further wars because they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice, and trample upon people’s dignity and rights. Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore, in addition to causing horrendous damage, they prove ultimately futile. War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.”