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Is History Repeating Itself in Iran?

By Peter Brown

For many years, the late Richard Neustadt and Ernest May taught a course at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School on "the uses of history" so those who aspire to political power could understand the wisdom of governmental decisions.

With anyone who has ever taken a high-school history course, it seems, arguing about whether Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is auditioning to be the next Adolph Hitler, this might be a good time to put their method to work.

The course is summarized in their book Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. Neustadt and May emphasized that history does not necessarily repeat itself. But, they argued, there is symmetry to human behavior that can be useful in understanding matters of state.

The two Harvard professors, however, also warned about the tendency of those in power to bend inexact analogies to suit their purpose.

The Bush administration's argument is that Iran is behaving like Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, before World War II.

Some analogies are obvious:

* There was obviously an anti-Semitic motivation to Germany's actions then to "cleanse" Europe of its Jews, as there is in Iran's stated aim of destroying Israel.

* Also clearly true is that Iran currently lacks the military and economic strength to win a war to accomplish its stated aim, just as Germany in the '30s did not then have the muscle it would later develop.

* And, like Hitler, Ahmadinejad has visions of changing the world map to enhance the power and prestige of the nation he rules, although his ambitions seem limited to the Middle East while the Nazis wanted to rule the world.

Others are just as clearly less exact:

* The region in which Iran is located is considered more backward -- with the exception of its one major resource, oil - than was Europe in the 1930s.

* Hitler did not make his claims based on religious teachings, and therefore had no huge reservoir of potential natural allies in other countries as does Ahmadinejad, who hopes to make his an Islamic crusade.

* In the 1930s, Americans didn't worry about their safety because the Atlantic Ocean offered the needed protection from the Nazi weapons of the time.

* In the post-9/11 world all Westerners, and especially Americans, understand that an Iranian bomb would be a threat to their existence, not just Israel's.

* Hitler did not act through proxies. The Iranian government has helped fund and train anti-Western terrorists. Presumably, that makes the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb more worrisome.

* In the 1930s, Americans believed domestic politics ended at the waters' edge and the two political parties presented a united front to the rest of the world. In the Red State/Blue State America of the 21st century, that is no longer true.

Finally, there are issues on which the aptness of the analogy is open to interpretation, hence the political argument about how to deal with Iran.

We now know that in the late 1930s President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized he eventually would have to go to war with Germany. It is not clear if George W. Bush has reached that point.

In the '30s, England, France and Russia, the European powers of the day most able to stop German expansion, were more concerned with their own internal problems. They sought to ensure peace by not confronting Hitler, even though at that time Germany was not then nearly strong enough.

Unknown at this point is whether the European powers of today, which have been reflexively opposed to using military force in recent years, will be willing to change their tune if they perceive Iranian nukes as a threat to their existence.

Perhaps the largest question is what Israel, likely the initial target of any Iranian aggression, will do. Such a well-armed entity did not exist in Europe in the '30s with the ability to act on its own if need be.

Is history going to repeat itself? You decide.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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