When US sanctions were folly

The failure of the American attempt to free the hostages in Tehran leaves few avenues for decisive action still open to the Carter administration. There has been discussion of additional economic pressure on the Iranian government, a naval blockade, or possibly some type of mine-laying operation. These would all be risky business.

There is at least one major precedent in American history which suggests that tightening the economic noose all the way might not only fail to accomplish the objective intended but also produce a reaction detrimental rather than beneficial to the American national interest. Nations pressed to the wall tend to react on the basis of their own internal political dynamics rather than on what our own logic would appear to dictate.

The precedent occurred in 1941. Imperial Japan was four years into its attempt to conquer China, and in late 1940 had occupied northern Indo-China. But Japan produced only 7 percent of its own petroleum requirements and drew 80 percent of its supplies from the United States. The balance came from the Dutch East Indies, most of whose production, however, was going in support of the British war effort.

There was more than enough oil in the Indies to make Japan self-sufficient, and in 1941 petroleum experts in and out of the American government were well aware that an embargo of oil to Japan might trigger an attack on the Indies. The present-day fields in China were then undiscovered.

The American government had embargoed the sale of military equipment, scrap iron, and aviation gasoline to Japan but held out against public pressures for more severe economic sanctions. It was in the national interest to deal with Hitler first and avoid a confrontation in the Pacific for as long as possible.

In July of 1941, however, Japanese troops occupied French-controlled Southern Indo-China. The move was sanctioned by the Vichy French government, but it was viewed in Washington as a prelude to an attack on Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. Patience had run out and the Roosevelt administration cast about for some type of decisive action short of war to express American displeasure.

In this context, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. suggested a freeze on Japanese assets in the United States. For want of a better idea, Roosevelt agreed, and the resulting freeze had the effect of ending all trade with Japan, including trade in petroleum. The record suggests that the American government assumed that Japan had already decided on a move against the Indies but, in fact, that decision had not yet been made.

The Japanese imperial government now saw itself with three options: It could withdraw from Indo-China and China to appease the United States; it could do nothing and watch its 18-month stockpile of petroleum gradually melt away; or it could strike for the Indies, become self-sufficient, and gamble on a Nazi victory or failure of American will to make the resulting war a short one. Given the internal dynamics of Japanese politics in 1941, only the third option was acceptable, and that was the one chosen.

The Japanese Navy had planned for such a contingency for almost a year. In case of war, the major threat to the supply line from the Indies to the home islands would be the American fleet based at Pearl Harbor. The major thrust on December 7, 1941, was at Southeast Asia, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was simply a parallel action designed to cripple the American Navy.

Complete economic sanctions in this case precipitated a confrontation which the Roosevelt administration had wanted to avoid or at least delay as long as possible. The imperial government made its own error, of course, by attacking Pearl Harbor. Nothing could have galvanized American public opinion into action more effectively, and the consequence was a long war fought to the bitter end.

The world has changed since then. West Germany and Japan are now American allies, the United States has become a net importer rather than a net exporter of petroleum, and the politics of the Middle East in 1980 are not the politics of East Asia in 1941. But the precedent suggests caution.

The Iranian reaction to extreme pressure will be based on the political dynamics of the country itself, and not on how we think Iranians should rationally calculate their own self-interest. Given the internal competition for power which has debilitated that country for over a year, it is unlikely that additional pressure will free the hostages. The actual consequences are totally unpredictable, but they could just as easily work against the American national interest as for it.

If the pressure escalated into some type of local armed confrontation, or contributed to the complete breakdown of civil authority within Iran, the chief beneficiary might well be the Soviet Union, which could find opportunity or excuse to intervene at least in the northern provinces.

More important, the Iranians could strike back by attempting to block the Straits of Hormuz. Such a move could disrupt the flow of oil from the entire region, cause serious economic disruption in the West, and provoke an even stronger American response. The analogy to Pearl Harbor would be complete.

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