Iran might be many things, but it is not the Soviet Union

Aaron Ellis 9.30am

Some of the worst decisions in history have been influenced by bad historical analogies. In an essay on the part played by such analogies in American foreign policy, Robert Dallek dubbed their malign influence “the tyranny of metaphor”.

“For all their pretensions to shaping history, U.S. presidents are more often its prisoners.”

The tyranny of metaphor is especially strong in this perennial debate over the Iran Problem. Those who want to attack the country often justify their position by comparing its regime to the Nazis.

One commentator noted recently:

“No other historical episode gets mentioned as often by pundits and policy makers in arguing that some menace or supposed menace needs to be confronted firmly. What is drawn from the Nazi analogy is an adage that a threat must be stopped forcefully now to avoid a bigger and costlier fight later.”

The comparison is ridiculous for any number of reasons, but it serves an important purpose: it is an easy-to-grasp analogy that helps coax those unsure about the use of force.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, in an urgent question to William Hague (video), Robert Halfon boldly described Iran as “the new Soviet Union of the Middle East”. Though his subsequent description of Iranian behaviour did not explain the comparison, there are two ways one can interpret it.

A generous interpretation would be that Mr Halfon believes the regime in Tehran is so crooked, contradictory, and such an aberration of Persian history that its eventual collapse is inevitable. It was this prophetic insight about Communism that led to George F Kennan devising the idea of containment, which won the Cold War. If we just applied continuous but restrained pressure, the Soviet regime would either yield to the West or be overthrown by the Russians and other subjected populations themselves. Going to war with the Soviet Union would not only be disastrous, but also unnecessary.

The more likely interpretation is that Mr Halfon genuinely believes that Iran poses the same degree of threat as the Soviet Union did, which is as absurd as thinking it poses the same threat as Nazi Germany.

Both Israel and the United States dwarf Iran militarily, whereas the Soviet Union’s conventional forces dwarfed those of the West years before the Russians successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949.

Iran has only one friend in the Middle East - Syria - and it is unlikely that friendship will continue if the Assad regime falls. Until the final years of the Cold War, Moscow had almost all of Eastern Europe under its thumb and, until the 1960s, the important support of Mao’s China.

If Iran is like the Soviet Union in any way, it is the Soviet Union of 1991, a basket case. The influential commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote earlier this month:

“The real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting.”

I wrote yesterday that the only way we can come to an informed decision about Iran is by raising the standard of the debate. Nik also wrote that a debate of such direct import must take place in the House of Commons before any substantive military move. Thankfully, Parliament was granted a preliminary murmur later yesterday afternoon.

Those who claim to have a solution to the problems posed by Tehran and its nuclear programme should furnish us with a coherent strategy, as well as explaining how to offset the trade-offs and indirect consequences of their preferred policies.

And yesterday highlighted another problem, which perhaps we shall never escape: the use and abuse of history.

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