The von Moltke Fallacy and avoiding another World War, with Iran

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Iran has just de facto announced that it does not want a nuclear weapon, at least in this generation, and probably ever. That American and Western hawks can’t see this is a measure of their own blinkered view of reality or their own corruption. Some hawkishness is a business plan; if you use up bombs in an elective war, you have to order more planes, bombs, tanks, etc. from the arms manufacturers who fund your political campaign.

Intentions are underrated. It is a truism in military strategy that you cannot afford to worry about enemy intentions. What you have to worry about is enemy capabilities. The intentions could always turn to the dark side. But if you are prepared for their capabilities, you can withstand an attack.

This way of thinking has a significant drawback, which is that it is easy to attribute to the enemy bad intentions it does not have, and to use technical superiority to launch a preemptive war. France wasn’t in fact planning to attack Germany in the first half of 1914. Some French generals were suspicious of German intentions earlier that year and even thought of shoring up defenses on the Belgian frontier, but that was defensive. In fact, the British assured Kaiser Wilhelm II of French neutrality, and the Kaiser was inclined to accept the assurance.

But Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger and the German high command had begun implementing a Schlieffen Plan for fighting France done up as a contingency in 1905, and in 1914 assumed it was only a matter of time before the budding Austrian-Russian war would draw Russia’s French ally in against Austria’s German ally. They insisted on going ahead. Von Moltke and the other officers thought they were initiating a short preemptive war, whereas they were in fact initiating an act of aggression that would end the German Empire after nearly half a decade of epochal carnage. Putting intentions aside and attending only to strategic and operational issues can be dangerous, since military men and hawkish politicians are suspicious people and see bad intentions everywhere.

The virtue of the Lausanne Plan with regard to Iran, it seems to me, is that it at least latently addresses both issues. Iran is subjecting itself to limitations on centrifuges, limitations on the Arak reactor, and limitations on enriched stockpiles that forestall the construction of a nuclear weapon in a time frame that would matter. The capacity isn’t there in the short term.

But the very willingness of the Iranian regime to put itself under this stringent regime of technical limitations and intrusive inspections can only signal that Tehran has not the slightest desire to weaponize its enrichment program.

We know this from history. When North Korea decided to get a nuclear bomb, it abandoned the 1994 Agreed Framework in 2002, withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, and by 2006 had a bomb. Iran is acting in the opposite way. It is accepting more stringent inspections and massive limitations on equipment.

This agreement does not look like North Korea at all.

It looks like Brazil and Argentina, which had a budding nuclear rivalry in the 1980s under their respective military dictatorships but which, when they transitioned to civilian rule, drew back in horror at the idea of having or using a bomb. They made the Quadripartite Agreement at Guadalajara. Here’s a description of the compliance mechanisms they set up in the early 1990s to ensure that their nuclear programs were peaceful:

” Verification and Compliance: Brazil and Argentina have established the Common System of Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (SCCC) in order to verify that nuclear materials used in all nuclear activities in both countries are not diverted to purposes prohibited by the agreement. The objective of ABACC is to administer and implement the SCCC: to carry out inspections, to designate inspectors, to evaluate inspections, to engage the necessary services to ensure fulfillment of the SCCC objectives, to represent the parties before third parties in connection with the implementation of the SCCC, and to take legal action. The Quadripartite Agreement between the two Governments, the ABACC, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gives the IAEA the responsibility of applying full safeguards in both countries. If a country was found to be in non-compliance, the IAEA would refer the case to the United Nations Security Council.”

Neither country has been found to be in non-compliance.

There will be those who compare Lausanne to Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. That analogy is flawed six ways from Sunday. First of all, poor Chamberlain has been unfairly maligned, since he wasn’t giving in to Germany, he was engaged in a deliberate and deceptive stalling action. Second, he wasn’t putting Germany under inspections or getting it to agree to reduce its armaments by 2/3s! Third, all peace agreements aren’t preludes to war. Most a preludes to peace. I have called the hawks’ fallacy The Crock of ‘Appeasement’.

In short, Lausanne looks more like the Brazilian-Argentinian Guadalajara Agreement or like the 1979 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, both of which have held, than it looks like 1938.

The people who argue for 1938 are unbeknownst to themselves actually stuck in Berlin, August 1914 and are perpetually playing von Moltke. They imagine an attack from a France that has already offered to stay neutral. They imagine a short war. They are intrigued by the possibilities of new military breakthroughs if only a years-old Schlieffen Plan can be implemented. They initiate aggression and genocide in the name of a phantasmic preemption. They act on paranoid hallucinations with real tanks and bombs.

We already let the Neoconservatives play von Moltke in Iraq, arguing preemptive war, Iraqi Baathist bad intentions, secret nuclear weapons programs, etc., etc. After a century, surely von Moltke and preemptive war thinking, which polished off 16 million people and wounded 20 million, should have a worse reputation than they do.

John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif have demonstrated that diplomacy can work, that war is not the only available policy tool or even a very good one, and that we don’t have to fight World War III in the Middle East.


Related video:

CNN: “Kerry: ‘People negotiated hard’ in Iran nuclear…”

23 Responses

  1. There’s are several things worth noting here:

    One is that a good dose of flinty-eyed realism, or call it outright negativity, is essential to survival, when (as Mearsheimer would put it) there is no 911 to rely on.

    Another is that this perspective, in any healthy, mentally balanced organism, has to be keep in its proper place. When paranoia runs amuck and drives actions, it’s visions become self-fulfilling, are self-destructive, and become the very definition of pathological.

    Effective leadership exists to keep things in such a balance and to act in a societies self-interests. Sometimes putative leadership exists only to enrich themselves and forgets this; sometimes they simply become corrupted. Either way, the system is not functioning as it should, when, as in this case, there’s really very little with which to argue against the Lausanne deal as now sketched.

    In fact, in and of itself, the real and compelling need for even having such dramatic negotiations is kind of thin to begin with. Aside, of course, from the need to support and enable some third-parties neurosis, which represents yet another social pathology.

    Even Israel knows this, apart from Bibi’s grandstanding. These comments about the US backing into a war with Iran seem a little over the top: it cannot and won’t (or at least shouldn’t) happen for a very large and one-sided set of very good reasons and realities. And Bibi is not so stupid as not to know the score. So, what’s really going on?

    It’s just politics, as has always been apparent. Bibi has nothing else to sell, so he’s scrapping the bottom of the Fear barrel. And let’s give him credit for understanding how a deal here does stand to set a net paradigm for US relations in the region, which really would be an “existential” threat to Israel’s historical way of doing business. So, what can we expect from him if this deal jells and sticks?

    It strikes me Bibi is setting things up to shake us down for a very big bill, in terms of additional grants and aid, to assuage his many fears and forebodings. In return for his final acquiescence, he might just be angling for his recent remarks made-in-passion to be forgotten, and for a blind-eye to be turned on the NEXT bit of WB territory Israel predictable will be gobbling-up. This is the real game with him.

    Final point, purely domestically: success for Obama here would be a major and far-reaching accomplishment, since it would serve to recast the region in a way such that the I/P conflict might actually be effectively addressed.

    So, is the GOP, and American as a country, ready to not cut off its nose to spite its face, and to let a Black Man have that success?

  2. The historical rhyming with Europe 1914 ought to scare the pants off all us ordinary people. I recall reading that the French generals and politicians also were locked into idiotic perceptions and commitments and plans, like Plan XVII. Brief discussion here: link to

  3. John Kerry did a wonderful job pushing for this deal. He was unrelenting in his pursuit to avoid a war, and getting all parties on the same page. The alternative would be yet another costly war paid for by American lives and resources, which basically is what Netanyahu and his cronies in his cabinet, and the US congress really wants. NO deal is good enough for the war mongers. Iran is looking better today, more cooperative, and easier to deal with, unlike Israel who seems incapable of getting to a peace table to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu looks like a trouble maker, an interfering busybody after his lame efforts to derail the P5 +1 talks with Iran, he is making Israel look more like pariah nation, planning wars with US lives and weapons.

    He has no more credibility in the world, and our congress lemmings look equally bad.

    So how about Dimona and Israel’s secretive nuclear program?
    Israel does not believe in the phrase “example is better than precept”.

    • Liberals can work wonders when they choose to act as liberals, but who will reward them for doing so? Progressives feel entitled to sit on their asses while Democratic presidents carry out their demands, then letting them go down in flames when the right-wing crazies go on the warpath. It’s not like the old days when FDR could push one major initiative after another because he knew an organized Left would get out in the streets and march in support – and an even more radical Far Left would do its job of threatening in the shadows, scaring the oligarchs into submission to the New Deal.

      Instead, Obama is acting to establish his place in history, an ambition that has made many second-term presidents of both parties suddenly get serious about peace.

      • As only the second half of the last term of a president offers that opportunity, to “suddenly get serious” about his place in history, perhaps there should be no second presidential terms, and terms should coincide with those of Congress.

    • Yes, they got it right, and the determined joint effort by Sherman and Kerry was admirable, but as Bill suggests it really solves little regarding the sources of the region’s chronic problems. The substance of the agreement as opposed to what it symbolizes pales in importance next to the fact that it provides context for the denial to Netanyahu of his new war, and for a stare-down Administration victory for Obama/Kerry over the Republican and Israel Lobby war mongers, temporary as they may be.

      What is more important is that President Obama has executed another pivot. He has kicked Mr. Netanyahu to the curb on the literal basis that he is not a partner for peace. That’s even a bit funny. And he has turned to the United Nations and to the Europeans, both of which have stood ready to help for years now, waiting for us to make the decision. American policy regarding Israel is changing. Its timorous qualities are vanishing.

      What is it which the UN and the EU will do which we have not? Everything which the absence of a swarming Israel Lobby makes possible. Like incorporating the French or American Plan for Palestine into a UNSC resolution which sanctifies the Green Line and sets a binding deadline for withdrawal, which resolution will be the basis for EU measures of many kinds including boycotts and even sanctions ala Iran if it is violated.

      In the US, a matter which is completely in the hands of the Administration is the enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act against all senior AIPAC officials and all of its garden variety lobbyists who knock on doors on Capitol Hill. Send them all cease and desist notices effective immediately with a registration deadline 30 days later. Free at last Oh Lord, free at last.

  4. The lack of wisdom and knowledge shown by this current fake-Republican Congress is stunning.

    Our Founders provided a framework of government that clearly separated church and state for very good reasons. Otherwise, silver-haired old men will want to needlessly kill our children in pointless wars over talking snakes, books of ancient myth, magic and imagined preference.

    The continuous blowing the importance of Israel far out of reality worked fine in the last century but Israel has slightly less population than Los Angeles County and talk of significant U.S. military action against Iran by pro-Israel radical religious extremists embedded in Congress who parade themselves as loyal Americans has become more than disquieting and in-fact downright dangerous.

  5. ” . . . that we don’t have to fight World War III in the Middle East.”
    Or, drawing on the thesis of this fine article, “World War I with nuclear weapons”

    I doubt that the “hawkish politicians” or arms merchants, here or abroad, will pay attention to, could grasp if they did pay attention to, or would respond rationally to if they did grasp, the historical information and psychological analysis both so clearly put forth in this article, and both so carefully based on and informed by “wie es eigentlich gewesen”. But there are smart, decent writers, widely read by smart, decent readers, neither writers nor readers having any stake in selling arms or wish for war, whose writing in the run-up to the Lausanne announcement is, in my judgment, in no way informed by “their own corruption” and yet is dangerously informed by a “blinkered view of reality” and — iconically in this subject — wholly uninformed by the knowledge and analysis presented here.

    By what means can those writers / thinkers be made engaged in a genuine consideration, with back and forth comments, questions, and answers, aimed from the side represented by this article not to insult, not to make quick points, not to condescend, but genuinely to engage in a process that, not in all currently “blinkered” good minds, but one can hope in many, could lead to what is, in my view, one of the most essential and laudable achievements of the human self – the act of being able to see, and seeing say, “Ah! I see now that I was in error”.

  6. The Republicans in Congress went way overboard hitching their wagon and future to Bibi Netanyahu, the messianic nutjob. This airtight nuclear deal will force the Republicans in Congress to defeat it with a veto proof majority and convince the public to support a war with Iran. If that doesn’t happen, the Republicans will be soundly defeated in the next election and Hillary Clinton will be elected POTUS. Iran coming in to fight Daesh in Iraq looks like great strategy now.

    Bibi and the Republicans are unable to name even one specific criticism about the centrifuges, 3.67% enriched uranium or the low grade uranium Iran will have left after getting rid of the other 98%. It’s airtight and they know it. Obama punked the whole bunch of ’em.

  7. My first thought about WWI was that our warmongers might learn how a little blunder here and a little bungle there can get a war started so that they might be more careful in their talk and actions. Then I reconsidered. The warmongers and chickenhawks might just study WWI to help in their efforts to get another war going.

    • This got me thinking. Based on Israeli actions historically, and the pride they’ve developed through fond memories of those prior bold actions, it wouldn’t be beyond Bibi etal to contemplate a False Flay provocation of some sort, to scuttle the deal and salvage the status quo.

      All it’d take would be a limited number of “patriots” in the military who were totally committed to his cause and perspective, and a certain boldness (chutzpah). Hardly a tall order, and when designed with appropriate Plausible Deniability in case things went sideways, they might well do it.

      The alternative, given how this deal promises to be strong enough to endure other countermeasures, would indeed be an existential threat to Israel’s current relationship with the US.

      • Israel engaged in a pre-emptive war in 1967 and in a war of aggression in 1956 and also attacked both Syria and Iraq at separate times in a pre-emptive way. We should not be surprised if they do it again.

  8. I just thank the fates that we seem to have a deal and hope it isn’t sabotaged by extremists. I think this war would push Iran and Iraq into the authoritarian bloc of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, making Saudi Arabia and Russia opposing hegemons in a real, high-stakes war in a region lacking natural defenses. The multiplying alliance linkages do carry the stench of 1914. We’re not out of the woods yet.

  9. Something to consider:

    Iran nuclear deal: A powerful Tehran turned into America’s policeman in the Gulf? It could happen: This week’s Lausanne deal could trigger a political earthquake by Robert Fisk – link to

    • Policeman, hardly. But certainly a capacity to act as an ally on issues of mutual interest is enough. Of the many twists to all of this, one I find most interesting is how the Israelis and Saudi relationship will unfold. For one thing, rapprochement between the two will likely set up strong tensions within the Saudi elite.

    • America has too many crazy war mongers with power for Iran to ever fully trust this country. Last week, before the agreement was signed, the NY Times and the Washington Post ran op-eds that claimed bombing Iran was the ONLY way to stop them from building a nuclear bomb.

    • That was the role we wanted them to play when the Shah was in power. It won’t happen any time soon, but with a future moderation of the Iranian regime, a muted friendship is not out of the question. Iran will likely become a regional power whether we like it or not, best to adjust to it and see that our interests are aligned as much as possible. Barbara Slavin’s book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies does a good job of showing how our two nations have come close to a rapprochemont over the last several decades. Robert Fisk is one of the best M.E. correspondents out there and anyone interested should read his books.

  10. The Hawks arent just making a mistake because theyre blinkered, this part of a deliberate agenda. Iran was making better offers for years that the US ignored or, as in the Turkey/ Brazil brokered deal in Obama’s first administration the US actively killed after Iran agreed to the US terms. The “Iranian nuclear threat” has always been just an exaggerated pretext for another agenda of imposing regime change just as “WMDs in Iraq” was a lie and pretext. The IS has had no intention of allowing the issue to be resolved peacefully while the regime is left in power. It remains to be seen if this will change.

  11. Chickenhawk-in-Chief John Bolton has already admitted that bombing Iran would only push their nuclear bomb making capabilities back three to five years. This deal pushes it back at least at least 10-15 (and that’s assuming the Iranians actually want one. I’m inclined to think they don’t).

  12. A former CIA deputy director has opined that the proposed Lausanne agreement is a good one for U.S. interests, delaying significantly Iran’s nuclear weapon capability, while simultaneously asserting that Iran’s agenda is to promote a regional Persian Shi’ite empire:

    link to

  13. I want to address a common misperception about diplomacy and agreements. The right wing has been pushing this myth that we can’t do deals with nations we don’t trust. This is nonsense. Could we trust China when Nixon established relations? After all, China had killed tens of thousands of Americans in the Korean War and had threatened the US repeatedly during the Vietnam War while being the main supplier of North Vietnam during the conflict? Could Israel trust Egypt and Sadat and vice versa after both countries had engaged in unprovoked wars against one another over the span of a half dozen years? And who knows what a nation’s intentions are since they can change from one leader to another? The key to any successful agreement is arriving at an agreement that is in the national interest of the parties to the agreement. If it is their national interest, then trust is not an issue. Not only does Iran want the sanctions lifted, but it should be clear now that they want to join the community of nations. Terrorism can only get you so far and is a sign or weakness. I think their leadership has realized that a thriving economy, peace and patience are the best way to proceed. If Iran develops economically, their resources, population, and location will make them a regional power if they are patient.
    Finally, I want to address the issue of North Korea which conservatives use to show we can’t enter into a workable agreement with Iran. About 10 days ago the Washington Post ran a good fact check on this issue. In short, the agreement was entered into with the Clinton Administration in 1995. In 2001, when Bush took over, shortly thereafter they accused North Korea of violating the agreement by covertly continuing work on a bomb. they said this was based on US intelligence. Considering that the same US intelligence said that there were definitely WMD’s in Iraq, I think we shouldn’t accept this charge at face value. The Bush Administration followed up this charge by cutting off shipments of fuel oil to North Korea, an important part of the agreement. North Korea followed by rejecting the agreement and beginning to work on a bomb full speed, which was completed in 2006. So, it was actually the Bush Administration which took the first concrete step which violated the agreement with North Korea.

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