For those who think that history is about the past, consider what's before us today. Iran has agreed to an itsy-bitsy deal that will slow its march toward a possible nuclear weapons program, but Tehran will not, on the basis of its own history, take orders from the West. Israel, in the person of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has emitted an anguished howl that history's most awful crime is about to be repeated. For both countries, the past is not behind them. It's right around the corner.
Iran will never abandon a program that makes it capable of producing a nuclear weapon. The operative word is capable. The proof of that are the countless billions of dollars it has spent -- and lost -- on account of sanctions. The bottom line is that if Iran had wanted a nuclear weapon, it would have a nuclear weapon no matter what. Like North Korea, it would have booted the inspectors and done what it wanted. North Korea wanted a nuke, and lo and behold, it has one. There is precedent here.
There is further precedent to be noted. Iran, for years under the thumb of Britain and its oil companies, cannot abide taking instruction from the haughty Western powers. As every Iranian knows, back in 1953, Britain and the U.S. overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, mainly because he had the effrontery to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. This jaunty operation, directed by the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy Roosevelt's grandson), was seen as a smashing success in Washington and London, but a shamefully ignominious chapter in Tehran. The Iranians never forgot the coup. When radical students took control of the U.S. Embassy and its occupants in 1979, many of them undoubtedly had '53 on their minds.
Israel, too, is animated by the past. Netanyahu may sound shrill and disrespectful of President Obama, but the stench of Auschwitz is always in his nostrils. For him, it's not a lesson. It's the only lesson. In a recent paper, Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, cited yet another historian, the German Karl Bracher, who warned that the mistake made with Hitler was not to take him at his word. "Hitler's contemporaries found his views and threats so removed from reality that no serious person ... could possibly take them seriously as a basis for policy."
Iran, too, has made ugly threats. Just last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described Israel as "the rabid dog of the region." Charming. A former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the actual rabid dog of the region -- was given to denying the Holocaust and even held a dandy jamboree to celebrate what a non-event the murder of 6 million Jews was. As for the state itself, it is a liberal supporter of terrorist groups worldwide. Iran plays dirty.
I appreciate Netanyahu's ire and frustration. One cannot head a Jewish state without feeling the omnipresence of the Holocaust. But Netanyahu's options are limited. Obama will not bomb Iran as a favor to Israel. It's not who he is. Syria proved that, and Israel by itself cannot take out the Iranian nuclear program. It can only set it back some and, in so doing, would probably ignite a regional conflagration. Iran would then redouble its nuclear effort. It will not suffer 1953 twice.
So the deal made at Geneva may not be the best one possible. It may be the only one possible. Iran will never totally dismantle its nuclear program. It might, however, stop things in place, go a bit into reversal and enjoy the benefits -- so far somewhat meager -- of relaxed sanctions. It may even be counting on doing some cheating -- and an indecisive Obama doing nothing about it. His major foreign policy weakness, as Syrian has proved, is his inability to adhere to red lines. But he has to now draw one around Israel. This one has to keep Iran out and Israel in.
Where does this all end? Not, I pray, with an Israeli strike. That would be the bang. The whimper is far to be preferred -- an Iran that matures over time, that has a nuclear program like Japan's (not weaponized) and that -- very important, too -- abandons its support of terrorism. In the meantime, both Iran and Israel will look to America -- the former to test its resolve, the latter to seek assurance. Obama has to keep both in mind. After all, he, too, is dogged by history.
Contact Richard Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org.