In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was determined to keep peace between Great Britain and Germany. Dismayed by the carnage of World War I, Chamberlain (along with most of the opinion elite in England) sought peace with honor -- but in any case, peace.
Yes, Chamberlain had watched with growing anxiety as Germany, in defiance of treaties, rearmed, and as the Nazi party engaged in ever more brazen and violent repression of domestic opponents. Germany's alliance with militarist Japan and fascist Spain (1936), followed by the Pact of Steel with fascist Italy and the absorption of Austria in early 1938, increased Downing Street's disquiet. Yet Chamberlain was determined that Hitler should comprehend Britain's peaceful intentions.
Chamberlain pursued back-channel negotiations with Hitler throughout 1938, as the Fuhrer fulminated about repression of ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia. Hitler's aggressive intent was plain. But Britons, Chamberlain said, were not willing to risk war for "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." Britain pressured the Czech government to make concessions to Germany. When Hitler increased his threats, Chamberlain implemented "Plan Z" -- an offer to travel to Germany in person to negotiate with Hitler.
Hitler agreed, and Chamberlain met the dictator at his mountain retreat of Berchtesgaden. A week later, he returned to Germany for a second meeting. This time, Hitler kept his eager visitor waiting for half a day, and then backed away from the agreement he had made the previous week. Still, Hitler hinted that if the Sudetenland was handed over, he would have no other territorial claims in Europe. Chamberlain was excited by this, but upon his return home, he found that his cabinet was less so. Undaunted, he contacted Hitler a third time and requested an invitation to return to Germany.
At Munich, after laborious negotiations among many parties including the Czechs, French and Italians, Chamberlain asked for a private meeting with Hitler. At a tete a tete, Chamberlain pulled from his pocket a three-paragraph codicil to the Munich agreement, declaring that Britain and Germany would never go to war again. Hitler signed it happily. And Chamberlain returned home declaring that he had achieved "peace in our time."
Chamberlain's error, apart from believing that Hitler's word could be trusted, was in assuming that telegraphing his peaceful intent would bring peace. In fact, when dealing with villains and aggressors, signaling peaceful intent is precisely the worst course. It is far better to keep them uncertain and insecure.
From the first days of his presidency, President Obama has pursued a Chamberlainesque policy toward Iran. He began the relationship by assuming the clerical regime's hostility was directed at George W. Bush, not at America. Obama accordingly sent New Year's greetings to the regime (though not to the people) expressing his hopes for a fresh start. He sought face-to-face negotiations with the mullahs. They scorned him. When thousands of Iranians took to the streets en masse following a stolen election, he kept silent, though some chanted, "Obama Obama, you're either with us or with them." Obama's silence spoke volumes, signaling his desire, above all else, for peace. In so doing, like Chamberlain, he conveyed weakness to an aggressor.
So it was no surprise when, after 18 months of failed courtship, Obama's late embrace of sanctions led to a diplomatic dance. Each new round of sanctions (often vitiated by Obama administration waivers) was accompanied by new offers of negotiation by the mullahs. In the seemingly endless P5-plus-1 talks, the Iranians would agree to limits on the enrichment of uranium at one moment only to deny that they had done so a month or a year later. Meanwhile, the centrifuges kept spinning.
Each new agreement to talk was treated by the Obama administration as a great victory -- even when the chief of Iran's nuclear program told the London Arabic newspaper, Al Hayat, that the regime consistently lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Now, with only two weeks to go before an election that could select a less congenial president (from Iran's point of view), and with the Europeans considering a gasoline embargo on the regime, word leaks (though denied by the White House) about a possible secret agreement between Iran and the United States for post-election one-on-one negotiations.
It looks like one more delaying tactic by the mullahs. But it may look to Obama like "Plan Z."