I’ve been looking a lot at that photo of Neville Chamberlain, taken on September 30, 1938, at Heston Aerodrome, the precursor to today’s Heathrow. You know the one. Britain’s then-prime minister in his usual winged-collar getup, holding aloft a sheet of unfolded paper, a triumphant look-what-I-have kind of expression on his face.
He had just returned from Munich where, along with France’s Édouard Daladier and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, he signed an agreement with Germany’s Adolf Hitler allowing the Führer to annex those portions of Czechoslovakia with high concentrations of ethnic Germans without going to war.
The sheet of paper in his hand was not a copy of the Munich pact but a letter he had drawn up before he flew back to Heston (kind of an afterthought, really), which bore both his and Hitler’s signatures.
It said, in part: “We regard the agreement... as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.”
Later that day, he said the Munich pact and the letter had led him to “believe it is peace for our time.”
I’ve been looking at that photo because it’s almost too easy to compare Munich to Vienna, where representatives of the chief world powers signed an agreement with Tehran on July 14 concerning its nuclear development program.
On one side you have Iran, whose hunger for regional hegemony has never been much of a secret. It is led by mullahs who preach an extremist brand of Islam. They boast about their moral and monetary support for brutal neighbors and proxies and gleefully speak of the distaste they have for much of the West. They are not exactly appealing figures, at least to the Western mind.
On the other side you have countries like the US, Britain, France and Germany, none of which has much stomach for war. Then there is Russia, which, like Italy prior to World War II, cannot be said to be entirely altruistic in its approach to much of anything. As for China, find me 10 experts who can agree on what its leaders are thinking at any given moment.
The one thing the leaders of all these countries have in common, however, is an overarching desire to get back to doing business or buying oil. And Iran can provide plenty of both.
The final parallel to 1938 is the countries that stand to lose the most. In a chilling throwback to Munich and the predicament of Czechoslovakia, Israel and the Middle East’s Sunni-dominated states had no real say in the goings-on in Vienna, Lausanne or wherever else the negotiating was done once the US created its back channel with Iran a little over two years ago.
It’s not nice being left uninvited, especially when it’s you who might end up being dinner.
I’M SURE that somewhere, at some point in history, someone said the world is complicated. One might doubt this, though, judging by what people are saying on both sides of the divide about the Vienna agreement.
“This deal will make America and the world safer and more secure” (US President Barack Obama, July 18, in his weekly videotaped address to the nation).
“The deal… paves the way for Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons, perhaps in a decade… and much sooner if it decides to violate it, as it tends to do [with such agreements]” (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 19, during the government’s weekly cabinet meeting).
Both men have agendas. But both are right. It’s that glass again. Half empty? Half full? It’s like what prime minister Ariel Sharon used to say: What you see from here, you don’t see from there.
When it comes to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, the deal indeed leaves all of us safer and more secure than no deal at all – at least a little, and certainly for now, perhaps even in the long run.
Two points to Obama.
But there are loopholes: less-than-hermetic verification procedures, an infrastructure left intact, and sunset clauses that would gratify anyone with a reasonable degree of patience. And overall, considering the sanctions relief, there is all that money that will be pouring into Iran’s numerous “foreign aid” programs – and for this, there will be no verification process at all.
I know it makes me feel uneasy.
Two points to Netanyahu.
MOST THINGS in life are a calculated risk. Take flying. You look out the window and wonder what’s keeping you aloft. And if you take time to think about it, there is a mighty long list of things that can go wrong on the most pleasant of days. Landing gear that refuses to come down. A compressor blade crack that leads to what accident investigators like to call a “catastrophic failure.”
A short circuit that fills the cabin with smoke. A gazillion liters of high-octane aviation fuel just centimeters away.
A suicidal co-pilot.
Am I making you feel uneasy? Perhaps.
But you’ll suck it up, buy a ticket, show your boarding pass and take your seat, because you have to go places and time is short.
It’s the same with Vienna. It’s a done deal. The odds that Congress will be able to undo it are longer than Donald Trump’s chances of moving into the White House. Besides, even if AIPAC can rope in enough Senate and House votes to overcome an expected veto, the others on the P5+1 have already gleefully caved in. And the UN, where the sanctions all began? It’s already seen the agreement as a green light to rescind them when the time comes.
So the thing to do now is suck it up and decide how we’re going to live with it.
Perhaps we should grab those goodies Obama is said to be dangling in front of us to make us feel better. Yes, it’s true what Netanyahu told an American TV network earlier this week: “If this deal is supposed to make Israel and our Arab neighbors safer, why should we be compensated with anything?”
You go, Bibi! Play hard to get! Up the ante! Go for, say, an additional squadron of F-35s, a couple of submarines, further development of the Arrow and Iron Dome antimissile defense systems, and maybe a few more bunker- buster bombs. (Just kidding about the last one – but don’t forget Jonathan Pollard.) Of course, done deal or not, there are a few things we have to deal with here at home, starting with the way we relate to our allies. That means fewer provocations, a smarter approach to peace, and cooling the creeping legislation aimed at throttling our democracy. And stop calling everyone who stands in our way an anti-Semite. It’s getting old.
Maybe this way we’ll start getting invitations more often, and not just end up on the menu.
Perhaps the most important thing to do, though, is stop dwelling on that groupshot taken at the end of the Vienna marathon.
And while we’re at it, we should put away the photo of a starry-eyed Chamberlain holding aloft that sheet of paper.
Both are now history. We shouldn’t forget, but we shouldn’t obsess, either.
We have to go on. And we have to be smart about it, starting right now.