Does history show the way on Iran?

What can we learn from the past about Iranian armament and the nuclear issue?


© Shahram Sharif


The verb “to disarm” is irregular in all languages. It has neither first person, nor present, nor past: it is conjugated above all in the future and in the second person. People do not say: “I am disarming”, or “I have disarmed”, but: “You will disarm”. -Édouard Herriot

Herriot wrote this in occasion of the Geneva Disarmament Conference (1932-34), when France and other anti-German nations denied Germany her right to rearm. Germany’s armed forces were limited to 100,000 men by the Treaty of Versailles, and her government was demanding equal rights. France, however, was terrified by the prospect of a strong Germany and opposed German rearmament while refusing to give up her own supremacy. What is funny is that Herriot’s comment was intended to criticize German unwillingness to give up rearmament ambitions, rather than France’s reluctance to reduce her armaments to the level of Germany’s. He was in fact the French Prime Minister, and he was adamant that France should not disarm together with Germany.

We all know how it ended. You may like to apply Herriot’s quote to more recent situations. Just replace Germany with Iran and France with Israel/USA/Europe.

Hegel thought that all history teaches is that it doesn’t teach anything at all. Western and Israeli fears for Iranian rearmament and Iran’s aggressively defensive attitude are elements we often find in recent history. But does that recent history really give us a clue on how to deal with Ahmadinejad?

Ahmadinejad desperately needs the West’s current and future economic sanctions and retaliation threats in order to make his anti-Israeli and anti-Western rhetoric appealing to the people, so that he can make nationalism central to his propaganda. People, historically, seem more willing to accept tyranny when the homeland is thought to be in danger, and Ahmadinejad is fully aware of this. In the tyrants’ eyes, Hitler’s Germany was threatened by France and the Jews, Mussolini’s Italy was threatened by French and British imperial arrogance, Gaddafi’s Libya was threatened by European and American economic imperialism.

Iran’s ambitions confront the West with a dilemma: is Ahmadinejad to be appeased or to be opposed? History may offer many precedents to this situation, yet it is hard for today’s governments to face rearmament coherently, while economic sanctions seem nothing more than a compromise between appeasement and active opposition. History has taught us many things about situations of this nature. Many will say it taught us that appeasing armament-junkies like Hitler will only encourage them to stack up weapons and armies and wage war. Yet, it may be reasonably argued that the same history teaches that Hitler was able to achieve popularity and finally power thanks to the iron fist policies imposed by the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference. But again, if history’s lessons were easy to learn and to interpret, we would live in a much different world.

Is history a bad teacher? No, perhaps we are bad students.


Elio Calcagno is a History and Politics student who has an interest in international relations, politics and history. He writes on topics ranging from Italian foreign policy to the Paris Peace Conference. You can read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter @eliocalcagno