Barack Obama is not Neville Chamberlain
And it is willfully ignorant to suggest that he is
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that we have secured a long-lasting peace with Iran, or that Tehran's deeply troubling bad behavior in the Middle East will be modified.
We all know the framework nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran is far from perfect — when you're sitting at the table with the Russians, Chinese, French, and Iranians, how could it be? — but it has bought something quite valuable: time. And now, the underlying, fundamental question — does the deal dampen the prospect of war itself? — must be answered, ever so cautiously, yes.
Predictably, hawkish critics have been quick to accuse President Obama over the last several months (before the agreement was even reached) of selling out Israel with these Iran negotiations, with comparisons writ large to Neville Chamberlain, the feckless British prime minister who threw the Sudetenland (a portion of sovereign Czechoslovakia) to the wolves to appease Hitler in 1938 (the French were in on the sellout as well). It is "peace in our time," Chamberlain proclaimed, waving a piece of paper to prove it.
But wolves are always hungry. Six months after the Munich deal, Hitler gobbled up the rest of Czechoslovakia as well — before rolling into Poland six months after that. The second World War was on, and Chamberlain would go down in history as a naif, a coward, or both.
Unprepared and anxious to avoid war, British and French demands during the Czech crisis were directed not at the source of the problem — Hitler — but at his intended victim, the Czechs. The Germans were never asked to disarm or even scale back their growing military machine. The true appeasement of Munich was the feeding of the wolf with the naive belief that it would not wish to feed again.
Hitler emerged from Munich stronger, having won everything he desired and giving up nothing to Chamberlain. Have the Iranians emerged stronger from Lausanne? No.
Iran is giving up 68 percent of its nuclear centrifuges for at least a decade. Tehran has agreed to not enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent purity — enough to produce electricity but nowhere near the level needed for nuclear weapons — for 15 years. Its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium —10,000 kiliograms — will be cut 97 percent. The once-secret enrichment plant at Fordo — discovered by American intelligence in 2009 — will be converted to a "research center." A heavy water reactor at Arak — theoretically capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium — will be redesigned and rebuilt to prevent this.
Can Iran be trusted to actually do all this? Not on your life. For more than a quarter-century, Iran has lied about and hidden virtually every part of its nuclear program from the rest of the world. It has threatened to destroy Israel. To this day, it continues to support terror groups like Hezbollah and murderous regimes like Syria. Iran has since 1984 been considered by the U.S. to be a state sponsor of terrorism.
This is why as part of the Lausanne framework, the U.S. and its allies have demanded regular and intrusive access for international inspectors — not just of Iran's nuclear facilities, but of their supply chains. And it's why the sanctions that have crippled a broad swath of the Iranian economy will remain in place and be lifted gradually and only when the U.S. and others are satisfied that their demands are being met. Beyond this intrusive on-ground presence, U.S. ELINT (electronic intelligence gathering) and other measures will be stepped up to provide extra layers of scrutiny.
The WWII appeasement comparisons lobbed by Obama's critics would only be remotely accurate if Chamberlain and France's Édouard Daladier told Hitler in 1938 that he needed to dismantle two-thirds of the Wehrmacht to prove his intentions benign, or that Allied inspectors must be allowed into German armament factories in the Ruhr to ensure no further production of Panzers.
Obama, German Chancellor Merkel, French President Hollande (whose position on Iran has been toughest of all) and Britain's outgoing Prime Minister Cameron know better. "Distrust but verify" is the phrase you hear in the West Wing — better than Reagan's "trust but verify," which he used with a far bigger and more dangerous enemy, the Soviet Union, back in the 1980s.
Is Obama Neville Chamberlain because he hasn't insisted on the complete fantasy of total disarmament from Iran? Of course not. Iran isn't a vanquished power, like Germany or Japan in 1945, when we had total command of the strategic situation and could dictate terms to a T. Diplomacy and arms reduction is a process of gradualism, with each side — wary and distrusting — cautiously taking interim steps and searching for common ground. The last four decades of relations between Washington and Moscow — frosty, warmer, and now frosty again — have been defined by competition, distrust, misunderstandings, and a series of gradual arms reductions pacts.
Has Obama sold out Israel as Chamberlain did Czechoslovakia? Of course not. Obama has stepped up funding of Iron Dome, the missile defense system that saved lives during last year's war with Hamas. He quietly gave Benjamin Netanyahu bunker buster bombs — a request rejected by the Bush administration out of fear that Israel was sending U.S. military technology to China. "Even some of the hawks from the George W. Bush administration grudgingly give Obama credit for behind-the-scenes progress," says former Reagan foreign policy advisor Elliott Abrams. And Ehud Barak — Netanyahu's former defense minister and a former prime minister himself, tells CNN, "I should tell you honestly that this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security is more than anything that I can remember in the past."
No one says this deal is perfect. And given Iran's history of lying and cheating, no one says we've achieved "peace in our time." But if Iran cheats, as Obama said last week in the Rose Garden, "the world will know it. If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it…with this deal, Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world." Hardly an expression of confidence in the mullahs' true intentions.
And hardly a betrayal of our good friends in Israel.