Friday, January 13, 2012

International sanctions 70 years apart

Nobody, least of all the people of Israel, wants to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, but a look at recent events and 20th century history would caution us against backing Iran, or any powerful nation, into a corner. The United States and the European Union are backing harsh restrictions on Iran's ability to transfer money internationally. This could result in Iran being unable to sell its oil on the international market. The move by Western nations is aimed at discouraging Iran's apparent development of nuclear weapons, though Iran insists unconvincingly that it is developing its nuclear power for peaceful purposes only.

In response to the sanctions, Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance point to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Iran claims the strait as its territorial waters, but it is the passageway to ports in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other Persian Gulf nations. Closing the strait, through which passes about 20 percent of the world's petroleum supply, would immediately push oil prices sky-high and could push the world into economic panic. The United States is committed to free navigation through the Strait of Hormuz and has the power to pulverize any attempt by Iran to close the strait, but it would be a very nasty fight.

This standoff is reminiscent of a decision the United States made more than 70 years ago to close off a bellicose nation's access to the world market. The hostile nation then was Japan. In an effort to curb Japanese aggression and its dream of a Pacific empire, the United States cut off supplies of petroleum and rubber to Japan's war machine. Japanese leaders at the time would argue that this action constituted an act of war and forced the Japanese military to make a risky and fateful decision. The Japanese Navy would cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, leaving the Japanese free to capture oil fields and rubber plantations in Malaysia. Japanese strategists misjudged their ability to destroy U.S. naval power and the reaction of the U.S. government to their infamous attack.

Iran in 2012 is not comparable to Japan in 1941, which had a proven army and powerful navy, but in both cases, the nations' leaders feel backed into a corner by international sanctions. Like Japan in 1941, Iran appears to be ready to fight rather than comply with the wishes of the international community. And, as in 1941, the ensuing fight could lead to an international conflagration.

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