Historian Jeffrey Herf on Interpreting Iran Through Germany

By | Nov 03, 2015

by Emily Shwake

Jeffrey Herf is a professor of modern European intellectual history at the University of Maryland. He has used his specialization in 20th-century Germany as a context from which to comment on contemporary issues in the Arab world and animosity toward Israel. He writes frequently for The Times of Israel and The American Interest and is an award-winning author. His study, At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989, will be published in the spring. Moment spoke with Herf about contemporary issues in the Middle East and the political denigration Jews around the world face today.

What are your thoughts on the Iran deal?

The Iran deal is based on a policy of hope and change: hope that the Iranian government will abide by its terms and hope that the Iranian government will change. I’ve taken the position that neither of these assumptions is reasonable. The deal, in my view, will not be enforceable because it creates a set of vested interests involving the various P5+1 powers (Britain, France, Russia, Germany, the United States and China) in continuing their economic interests in Iran. I do not think that if the Iranians violate the agreement there will be a snapback of sanctions. There are just too many economic interests involved, so I think that once the economic sanctions are lifted, they are really not going to be reimposed. The further details about the agreement include delays following reports of infractions that can be extended not only for 24 days but also possibly up to another 30 to 45 days. I think that, over time, there will just be very little appetite for reimposing economic sanctions or for the United States Navy and Air Force to destroy the nuclear plants from the air if the Iranians violate the terms of the treaty.

The last point I would make is that the Iranians are Persians. They come from a very old civilization. Unlike American politicians, they do not think in terms of the next four-year election cycle. Even if the Iranians abide by the agreement, that means that Iran will get nuclear weapons, at the latest, 15 years from now. In a civilization that traces its history back 4,000 years, this is nothing. So from my point of view, the Iran deal is a great win for the Iranian government and a significant defeat for the United States. Of course, I hope I am wrong, but I think in this position, hope is not a policy.

How does your academic focus on Germany and the Third Reich affect your interpretation of Iranian policy?

A great deal. The first thing to be said is that Iran is not Germany. [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is not Hitler, the two are not the same, and I’m very aware that it is always possible for historians to make analogies that are mistaken. However, one of the major themes of the historiography of the Nazi regime has to do with the failure of the Western allies and the Soviet Union to take Hitler’s ideas seriously enough. Historians call that underestimation. Hitler and the Nazis were very explicit about what they thought of the Jews. Hitler was so explicit, and his ideas were so ludicrous, that people had difficulty taking him seriously. The Iranians also have ridiculous and ludicrous notions about Israel and the Jews. There is an American hope articulated by the president that bringing Iran into the family of nations would help moderate these deals. Maybe so, but the historical experience—at least, the historical experience that I know very well—indicates that when regimes such as this are successful, it tends to confirm for them what they already believe. Rather than moderating their views, [appeasement] tends to confirm them. So my work as a historian about Nazi ideology, propaganda and policy is important for my pessimism about the Iranian government.

Moving forward, how do you think the United States needs to behave in order to protect itself and Israel?

The president’s pursuit of foreign policy since 2009 is based on the assumption that the United States had made very serious mistakes in Iraq and that these blunders needed to be corrected and a different policy needs to be pursued toward what he called the Muslim world. While the United States remains in the Middle East, there is a perception that the United States has been retreating and withdrawing. The Obama administration took a very different policy toward Israel as well. I think that the result has been a disaster.

The conflicts with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu could have easily been avoided. My view is that the Obama administration holds the bulk of responsibility for the tensions with Israel. In order for a compromise with the Palestinians to come about, the Palestinians must be firmly convinced that the American connection to Israel is unshakeable, rock-solid, and that there is no point in trying to get a better deal by weakening American connections to Israel.

I would call for a course correction that would put more teeth into the Iran deal and would push back against what is now clearly an alliance between Russia, Iran and Syria that is a threat to not only Israel, but our allies as well.

How does your study of Nazi propaganda affect your perception of Western media’s role in anti-Semitism? Do you find undercurrents of racism in Western media? Do you find the overt racism in Iran similar to that of Nazi Germany?

Well, your question touches on several different aspects of anti-Semitism. The Iranian issue is the simplest. The Iranian government is the first government since Nazi Germany that is an openly anti-Semitic government that may get its hands on nuclear weapons. This is an event of profound importance. There is no mystery about it. Mr. Khamenei frequently says outrageous things about the Jews and about Israel. He wants Israel to be gone. Anyone who wants to destroy the state of Israel is, in my view, an anti-Semite. Those that want to criticize aspects of Israeli politics, fine. But to destroy the Jewish state and to not be an anti-Semite makes no sense.

The Arab media has been filled with anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist caricatures for decades and decades. Anti-Semitism is an interpretation of the world that is crazy. It is false. The Jews don’t run the world. There are only about 14 million Jews in a world of seven billion people. If you think that Jews run the world, you are not going to understand the problems of your own country. I think that what you are seeing in the Arab world is that this has finally caught up with the Arabs. The prevalence of anti-Semitism in Arab political culture has made it difficult for Arab leaders to understand their own countries. There are Arab leaders who understand this and we need to give them all the support that we can.

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