The Skeptics

Iran: Pearl Harbor Redux?

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the air force or the Department of Defense.

Yesterday, Robert Merry drew some provocative parallels between the American approach to negotiations with Iran and the failed diplomacy that preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ostensibly to dissuade the Iranian regime from going nuclear, the Obama administration has ratcheted up the economic pressure. Puzzlingly, however, it has failed to respond to several gestures on the part of the Iranians suggesting they are ready to halt well short of the bomb in exchange for a gradual lifting of the sanctions. It is almost as if the United States will not take “yes” for an answer but is negotiating in bad faith as a way to clear political space for war. The echoes of 1941 are powerful here, Merry suggests. The Roosevelt administration, too, applied crippling sanctions to an adversary, this time the Japanese, ostensibly to halt their expansion into Southeast Asia. And in retrospect it does appear that the United States would accept nothing less than Japan’s humiliation in the form of a withdrawal from China as the price for easing the pressure. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Roosevelt wanted war with Japan. Can the same be said of Obama and Iran?

I am in print arguing that Roosevelt put the United States on a collision course with Japan so as to have a “back door” into the war in Europe, so I put more stock in Merry’s analogy than many others would. I have no trouble believing that a shrewd politician like Obama is capable of maneuvering the United States into a war with Iran, if the stakes warrant it. But is that what is really going on here? In the World War II case, Roosevelt had a powerful rationale for bringing matters to a head with Japan: he needed some way into the larger war against the Axis before Hitler potentially finished off the Russians. Whatever hopes he had for Russian resistance, Roosevelt could hardly count on their holding out beyond the summer of 1942. So he needed to get the American war machine humming sooner rather than later. Is there a comparable time pressure in the Iran case? By all accounts, the Iranians have not even made the decision yet on whether to go for the bomb and are still some way off from a functioning weapon. Moreover, it is not at all clear that a nuclear Iran is the disaster that many hawks have made it out to be. So what exactly is compelling Obama to cut negotiations short, especially when he has all sorts of domestic political incentives to avoid war before the election (a point that Merry concedes)?

My guess is that, if anything, Obama’s intentions are the opposite of what Roosevelt’s were in the fall of 1941. He wants to avoid war with Iran but has to maintain a hard line in the negotiations lest he open himself up to charges of appeasement and create a campaign issue for the Republicans. So the trick is to be just unyielding enough that he insulates himself politically while not bringing on an unwanted war. The problem is that this balancing act will become increasingly unsustainable as additional sanctions come into force and Iran is faced with a stark choice between capitulation, economic ruin and some act of reckless aggression to break the encirclement. Look for the Obama administration to find subtle ways to string out the talks and relieve the pressure on Iran if my interpretation is correct. If the choice has been made to resort to force, though, then expect to see more of the “blameshifting” tactics that Merry references as the Obama administrations prepares the ground for war.