In July 1941, five months before the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt imposed severe economic sanctions on Imperial Japan that effectively cut off 88 percent of its oil imports. Without this petroleum, Japan couldn’t continue its war in China or sustain an occupation of Indochina, which it negotiated with the Vichy France after Nazi Germany defeated and occupied France in 1940.
The cut-off of oil was a critical test for the Japanese regime. It needed to decide quickly whether to bow to U.S. demands that it leave Indo-china and stop its war in China, or send its forces into Southeast Asia and seize the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). That required Japan to neutralize the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, capture the British military stronghold at Singapore and gain control of American bases in the Philippines.
The result? Imperial Japan lunched a surprise carrier air attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7 and a massive land attack into Southeast Asia and the Philippines on Dec. 8. Two months later, Singapore, Britain’s major fortress in East Asia, fell to Japanese troops after they moved through Thailand and Malaya. U.S. forces held out longer in the Philippines but surrendered in May 1942.
» Trump’s sanctions. The Trump administration has imposed economic sanctions on North Korea, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. They are separate from tariffs on China and other trading nations because, unlike sanctions, tariffs can be absorbed by each side. Sanctions inflict great harm on a country’s economic well-being by cutting off needed imports and restricting exports.
Iran is the clearest case of economic harm that severe U.S. sanctions entail in persuading Tehran to change its policies. The Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by five countries to limit Iran’s drive to become a nuclear power. Trump insisted on negotiating a new agreement that cancelled, not limited, Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and international inspections to ensure compliance. The White House also demands that Tehran rein in the Quds Revolutionary Guards Force in Syria that enables strongman Bashar Assad to remain in power. The Guards also support the Shiite faction in Lebanon and stands behind Shiite militias in Baghdad that threaten Iraq’s internal security.
Unlike Japan in 1941, Iran in 2019 is a weak country that can be pressured, to a point, by severe sanctions. But like Tokyo’s government, Iran’s Revolutionary Islamic regime will not submit to U.S. demands without a military show of force. Its threat to Persian Gulf shipping through the Straits of Hormuz is a warning shot of its ability to harm the world’s commerce. Similarly, its drone strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities carry a warning that Iran can cripple a major source of the world’s oil supply.
Will a shooting war in the Gulf result?
Optimists think Iran will eventually negotiate a new nuclear deal that satisfies the U.S. demand that it permanently give up its quest to be a nuclear power. But Tehran will resist pressure to recall the Quds Force from Syria because they responded to the Assad government’s request for help.
Pessimists argue that Iran will not fundamentally change course on nuclear weapons and interventions in Arab countries until its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is replaced by a more flexible leader. Some argue that regime change in Tehran is the best way to bring peace to the Persian Gulf.
» Venezuela’s challenge. This political crisis bears a striking resemblance to Syria, where Iran’s support for Assad helps keep him in power. In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro lost support of his people but retains power through the presence of about 40,000 Cuban civilian and military personnel. Last January, in response to what most observers viewed as a fraudulent presidential election, Juan Guaido, leader of the large majority party in Congress, was elected as new president and received the endorsement of 50 Latin American and European countries and the U.S. Maduro, however, refused to leave office, declared the congressional leaders “traitors” and had them arrested. The Trump administration promptly imposed tough economic sanctions, and thousands of Venezuelans fled to neighboring Colombia and Brazil. The impasse continues.
Barack Obama’s decision in 2012 not to get involved militarily in Syria led to Iran’s and Russia’s major involvement there. Will Trump’s reluctance to use military pressure on Venezuela enable Cuba and Russia to save another beleaguered dictator?
Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville. Contact him at email@example.com