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Clouds of Munich hang over Iran debate
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Clouds of Munich hang over Iran debate

A little-noted anniversary occurred last week — the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement between Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and France. The agreement, dated Sept. 29, 1938, was signed by Hitler, Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain, and Edouard Daladier.

The agreement dismantled Czechoslovakia, giving Hitler the prize he sought: the Sudetenland, a German-speaking area of the country. The Sudetenland was of strategic importance because most of Czechoslovakia’s border defenses were situated there, as well as many of its banks and heavy industry. The pact gave Germany de facto control over the rest of Czechoslovakia, as long as Hitler promised to go no further. When President Roosevelt heard that the Munich conference had been scheduled, he telegraphed Chamberlain, “Good man.”

An important party was missing from the Munich conference — Czechoslovakia itself. The betrayed Czechs and Slovaks called the agreement the Munich Diktat. They also called it the Munich Betrayal because the military alliance that Czechoslovakia had with Britain and France was worthless.

Within six months of the pact’s signing, Czechoslovakia was no more. In October 1938, Germany occupied the Sudetenland, and Poland, a non-signatory, annexed Zaolzie, an area with a Polish plurality. In November, Hungary occupied the southern third of Slovakia and southern Carpathian Ruthenia, which had Hungarian minorities, and in March 1938 annexed Carpathia.

In March 1939, Germany invaded the remaining Czech territories and established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia with a puppet government, with the remainder of what was pre-Munich Czechoslovakia becoming Slovakia, with a pro-Hitler Catholic-fascist government.

The protagonist of this tragedy was the umbrella-carrying Chamberlain, whose abandonment of an ally in exchange for “peace for our time” became the very symbol of appeasement, the diplomatic policy of making concessions in order to avoid a threatened conflict.

Chamberlain’s conduct at Munich (he went to Hitler and not vice versa, although Britain was believed to be the world’s leading power) garnered not Hitler’s respect, but his contempt. Hitler had been heard saying: “If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers.” In one speech, Hitler said, “Thank God we have no umbrella politicians in this country.”

Defending the Munich Agreement, in a speech to the House of Commons on Oct. 10, 1938, Chamberlain said, “We should seek by all means in our power to avoid war, by analyzing possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will. I cannot believe that such a program would be rejected by the people of this country, even if it does mean the establishment of personal contact with the dictators.”

The opposite view was presciently voiced by Winston Churchill addressing Chamberlain in the House of Commons: “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonour. They chose dishonour. They will have war.”

Much the same argument is raging over how to approach the Iranian nuclear program now that Iran has a “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani. There are some analogies that can be drawn, with Iran and Rouhani playing the role of Germany and Hitler, the United States and President Obama playing the role of Britain and Chamberlain, and Israel playing the role of Czechoslovakia.

When Rouhani made his long-anticipated speech to the UN he proclaimed that Iran posed “absolutely no threat to the world,” but the sanctions imposed on Iran have crippled its economy and are “intrinsically inhumane” and “violent — pure and simple.”

He insisted that Iran’s atomic energy program is “exclusively peaceful” and that he is ready to engage “immediately in time-bound and results-oriented” talks with the West but expects to be treated with “mutual respect” by the United States. Hitler could have uttered similar words to induce Chamberlain to enter into the Munich Agreement.

There was hype that Obama and Rouhani would meet at the UN. In the end, Rouhani snubbed Obama, not once, but three times: He did not attend Obama’s General Assembly speech, he was a no-show at an Obama-hosted luncheon for world leaders, and he refused to meet for the anticipated photo-op handshake. A few days later, Obama got a consolation prize: an Obama-placed phone call to Rouhani.

Rouhani has a history of playing the West. Speaking of his role in 2003-05 as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, he said, “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the nuclear conversion facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.” Why should things be different now?

Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program are to resume next week. Like Hitler’s position on the Sudetenland, is Iran’s position nonnegotiable? Rouhani says, “Iran’s enrichment right is not negotiable but we must enter into talks to see what would the other side propose to us about the details.” His foreign minister and negotiator says, “The previous plan given to Iran belongs to history….” Rouhani’s boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, after Rouhani’s UN speech, called the United States arrogant, dishonest, untrustworthy, and controlled by Zionists.

Will the U.S. negotiators deal with Iran with honor or will they give us “peace for our time”?

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