Will trade sanctions work against Iran, as they did against Japan in 1941?

This is a follow-up to my 25 August post “Proposed legislation prepares the way for war with Iran!  I believe in that post I underestimated the risks inherent in House Concurrant Resolution 362:

Expressing the sense of Congress regarding the threat posed to international peace, stability in the Middle East, and the vital national security interests of the United States by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony, and for other purposes.

That post provides details and background information about this resolution.   Before reading this post, remember the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, another well-meant but poorly written resolution which was interrpeted by Presidents more expansively than Congress intended — providing legal justification for our role in the Vietnam War. 

This post focuses on one clause that looks quite dangerous, esp with tensions already running so high. 

(3) demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia,

  • prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products;
  • imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran;
  • and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program;

Unlike some rather hysterical commentary on the Internet (Google it to see), this resolution not only does not authorize a blockade, it explicitly says

Whereas nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran.

The resolution demands economic sanctions, of the type the UN requested against South Africa during its apartheid days and imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War.  Cutting off Iran’s imports of refined products is a serious measure.  If implemented, this might force Iran to either fold their cards — or strike back hard.

Japan’s response to a similar measure in 1941 was Pearl Harbor.  What might Iran do?  Perhaps threaten conventional war.  Perhaps vastly increase their unconventional and asymmetric efforts, helping Islamic radicals around the world.  Even Sunni terrorists, in a spirit of pan-Islamic brotherhood — “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Foreign adventures — no matter how noble their intent, how pure their motives — often have costs.  America’s ruling elites appear to have forgotten this harsh truth.  Let us hope the cost of their education in these things is not too high, as we will pay it in both money and blood.

Update

After a discussion with Galrahn (of Information Dissemination), here are a few more thoughts.

(1)  The dynamics of this are complex. Not just the initial steps, but how the situation evolves.  Strong moves, like the economic sanctions proposed in this resolution, often leads to cycles of response and counter-response. The text of this resolution needs to be considered not just in terms of today’s situation, but also what might happen over the next several moves.

(2)  Sanctions could restrict Iran’s imports of essential raw materials and esp. manufactured goods, which is what gutted Iraq and damaged both South Africa and the USSR.

(3)  Can we get sufficient international participation in a program of economic sanctions on Iraq?  I find that difficult to imagine, but stranger things have happened.

(4)  Failure of sanctions might lead to calls for more extreme action against Iran.  That’s escalation, a depressingly frequent dynamic in geopolitics.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

My posts about a strike at Iran by the US

  1. 4GW at work in a community near you, 19 October 2007 — Propaganda warming us up for war with Iran.
  2. War with Iran , 9 November 2007 — Why Iran is not necessarily our enemy.
  3. Is Iran dangerous, or a paper tiger? , 13 November 2007
  4. The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State , 10 December 2007
  5. Will we bomb Iran, now that Admiral Fallon is gone? , 17 March 2008
  6. More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran” , 18 March 2008
  7. A militant America, ready for war with Iran , 6 May 2008
  8. Another step towards war with Iran? , 7 May 2008 — About Andrew Cockburn’s article in  Counterpunch.
  9. “War With Iran Might Be Closer Than You Think” , 13 May 2008 — About Philip Giraldi’s 9 May story in The American Conservative (see below).
  10. The most expensive psy-war campaign – ever! , 13 July 2008
  11. ISIS: “Can Military Strikes Destroy Iran’s Gas Centrifuge Program? Probably Not.”, 8 August 2008

Here is the full archive of my posts about a possible strike at Iran by Israel or the US.

15 thoughts on “Will trade sanctions work against Iran, as they did against Japan in 1941?

  1. HR362 is the work of Gary Ackerman, D-AIPAC, and the problem with it is that threatening the people in any country (in this case with shutting off the gasoline supply to Iranians) only increases their sense of nationalism, thereby strengthening their government — the exact opposite of what is intended. Not to mention the international economic turmoil it might cause.

  2. I thought I smelled the hand of AIPAC in this. I dont who else in the world would consider such mob tactics diplomacy.

  3. I think Iran is a long way from having being pushed into a corner for the risk of an armed responds to be high.

    Iran differs from Japan in that they have something the rest of the world wants, oil & gas. For China and India sanctions from the USA & EU could be a godsend. What better way for Chinese/Indian oil companies to get an exclusive foothold in Iran. So let’s see if the rest of the world will go along.

  4. Yes, I can see China hoping for ‘tough’ sanctions , you are right, more money for them.

    AIPAC is all over the place, watching Israeli politicians ducking for cover over Georgia as they realise all to well that Russia can make their lives, very, very, very difficult. Then we have rabid neo-cons and AIPAC backed lumenaries doing this (Lieberman in particular):

    “John McCain’s two most loyal supporters and most influential foreign policy advisers, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, have an Op-Ed in The Wall St. Journal today proclaiming that “Russia’s invasion of Georgia represents the most serious challenge to this political order since Slobodan Milosevic unleashed the demons of ethnic nationalism in the Balkans.”

    Robert Kagan, was in there as well. If they keep this up Israel will close down AIPAC, hopefully roughly. On the plus side, this probably decreases any chance of an attack on Iran. Then again, that might be a way of shoping how ‘tough’ they are.

    But on the resolution, just taking one point: “prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products”, since Iran gets all its refined products from other Middle East countries then:

    (1) The US send in the fleet to physically block movements = war.
    (2) It pushes SA, etc to not export to Iraq = not a chance. You can just see the conversation. US: “stop sending refined fuel to Iran”. SA: “No, we make a lot of money out of that, they are an important neighbour, thay are a lot biggr than we are and we dont want them stirring up problems with our Shiite minority”. US: “do it or we will take actions against you”. SA:”OK, we are now switching all our oil trades to the Euro” … ooops as the dollar becomes worth less than a Confederate one and US soldiers depend on the Red Cross to get them home again.

    If (2) then the US looks even more idiotic and meaningless than it does now and it either does nothing, goes even more broke, or it switches onto (1) then there is war.

    All Govts seem to be composed of idiots, but the current crop of US ones are in a class by themselves. How have they done it .. genetic engineering? A Darpa project to make the ‘super soldier’ gone wrong? “Whoops, that one was stuffed, better send it somewhere it can’t cause too much trouble”. “A metal institution”? “No, Congress and the White House”.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: “All Govts seem to be composed of idiots, but the current crop of US ones are in a class by themselves.”

    Sad but true. A better question imo is why we elected them.

  5. Iran is blockading itself due to underinvestment in its oil sector. The export of American oil technology to Iran is already in effect. That is probably the most effective part of US sanctions.

    This resolution is more along the lines of “we don’t like you so there”.

    BTW AIPAC is wildly popular with a significant fraction of the Right. Since America is a right-center country it is not just the Jewish contingent that supports this sort of thing. To make it out as a Jewish Lobby initiative is to underestimate the level of support and to demonize the most vocal proponents of these ideas without understanding the big picture. I would think such sentiments as expressed here would be beneath the frequenters of this blog. Of course I would be wrong.

    One thing to realize is that Israel is a democratic status quo power and Iran is an undemocratic revolutionary power. With Israel our natural interests coincide. With Iran they are in opposition.

    BTW Iran deserves to be squeezed. Carefully.

    How did we get the Congress we have? It is pretty simple: we have representative government. The only thing I can tell you from observation is that the rest of the world is worse. I see the same thing in business. The level of idiocy is just incredible. And yet on average we are much better than the rest of the world. Scary.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Your last point deserves attention (I have repeatedly made the same point). The proper comparisons of the US political system are with (1) our own standards or (2) others systems in past and present. Comparing us with Heaven, as is so often done in effect, is not helpful. Nice place; but must die in order to get there.

  6. It hardly matters whom we elect, they are all human and thereby susceptible to grants and favors. They need tons of money — the “public” airwaves aren’t free — to run and get re-elected, and who gives them the money, by and large? Not you and me. In a capitalistic society, unless there are controls, and everything’s for sale if the price is right.

    And it’s gone global — we have Georgians at the DNC and Georgian money in McCain’s office. They learned from AIPAC.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: What is your point here?

    “It hardly matters whom we elect, they are all human and thereby susceptible to grants and favors.”

    This sounds something like despair, the unforgivable sin.

  7. Update

    After a discussion with Galrahn (of Information Dissemination), here are a few more thoughts.

    (1) The dynamics of this are complex. Not just the initial steps, but how the situation evolves. Strong moves, like the economic sanctions proposed in this resolution, often leads to cycles of response and counter-response. The text of this resolution needs to be considered not just in terms of today’s situation, but also what might happen over the next several moves.

    (2) Sanctions could restrict Iran’s imports of essential raw materials and esp. manufactured goods, which is what gutted Iraq and damaged both South Africa and the USSR.

    (3) Can we get sufficient international participation in a program of economic sanctions on Iraq? I find that difficult to imagine, but stranger things have happened.

    (4) Failure of sanctions might lead to calls for more extreme action against Iran. That’s escalation, a depressingly frequent dynamic in geopolitics.

  8. HCR 362:
    *Expressing the sense of Congress regarding the threat posed to international peace, stability in the Middle East, and the vital national security interests of the United States by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony, and for other purposes.*

    NOTE: There is a lot of craziness in this bill; I’ve chosen three.

    *Whereas for nearly 20 years, in clear contravention of its explicit obligations under the NPT, Iran operated a covert nuclear program until it was revealed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002*

    NOTE: Here we go again with an “opposition group.” Where’s Mr. Chalabi, of Iraq opposition group fame? Oh yes, he’s in Iran, probably, yukking it up with the real winners of Operation Iraqi Fiasco.

    *Whereas the IAEA has confirmed such illicit covert nuclear activities as the importation of uranium hexafluoride, construction of a uranium enrichment facility, experimentation with plutonium, importation of centrifuge technology, construction of centrifuges, and importation of designs to convert highly enriched uranium gas into metal and shape it into the core of a nuclear weapon*

    “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.” And “importation of designs?”

    NOTE: Let’s try and stop human knowledge transfer; we’ve tried almost everything else.

    *Whereas an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would pose a grave threat to international peace and security by fundamentally altering and destabilizing the strategic balance in the Middle East, and severely undermining the global nonproliferation regime*

    NOTE: Aha, here we have it. A strengthened Iran, to which the new Islamic republic of Iraq contributes, is a threat to “strategic balance in the Middle East.” We mustn’t have that because it violates the Carter Doctrine that posits that the US is the big dog in the ME. etc. etc.

    Source: Govtrack

  9. Sanctions won’t ‘work’ by themselves, altho they are likely to cause economic behavior change (i.e. pain) in many Iranians, who will be told to blame the US (and thus support Iranian nationalism) but who will also be mad at the mullah leaders (and thus support regime change). Which side, nationalism or regime change, gets how much support? Nobody knows.

    Cutting Iranian imports of refined gas would indeed be crippling, and the US being in the Black Sea (to protect Georgia!) also might be very convenient for reducing Russian support to Iran.

    Iran has many Azeris & Armenians & Kurds, as well as Persians — ethnic tensions are likely to be building there. What if Iranian Kurds declare independence and Iraqi Peshmerga go to help out, a la Russia in Georgia? I’m sure wilder thoughts are being thought (by wilder folk?).
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is a complex subject! As Galrahn at Information Dissemination reminds us, the majority of Iran’s oil product imports come via pipeline — not tankers. Will these suppliers cooperate with sanctions?

  10. Any citations on Galrahn’s contention that the majority of Iran’s oil product imports come via pipeline — not tankers?

    I highly doubt this contention. My understanding is that Iran exports, by ship, around 380,000 bpd crude to India with 150,000 to the Reliance refinery in southern India (the fourth largest in the world) and the returning tankers carry gasoline and diesel.

  11. Does anyone have any opinion on this blog entry from the Lewrockwell site?

    Neocon Hope“, Posted by Lew Rockwell on the Lew Rockwell blog on August 27, 2008

    “Writes Anonymous: ‘You might also check to see where our cruise missile subs are. I live in an area where almost all the subs were scrambled a month ago, and rumor has it that they left with orders to ‘clear the racks’ [be prepared to launch all missiles]. Sorry, Anonymous for a reason…'”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I have found that these unsourced rumors are as a class not worth the effort to read, let alone research. They are the chaff on the Internet, obscuring our view.

    This one is low-grade even as such rumors go. I find zero evidence for it.

  12. FM, I’ve actually come round to the Australian way. We have compulsary voting here. Dont vote get fined. When I first arrived I hated it, but it does make representative democracy work a little bit better. It eliminates a lot of election games that you see in the US or UK, it forces everyone, at least once every few years, to think about Govt, taxes, policies, etc. Not perfect by any means (boy have we had some dud Govts, like the latest one the real Dudd … play on his name Rudd).

    But bad as they are they are nothing like the rubbish the US or UK has had to endure in recent years. Occasionally, just occasionally, they actually do some sensible things. Amazing what! Nirvana to you guys in the US, a Govt that sometimes (often just by accident) does the right thing.

  13. Don,

    The numbers are slightly ~65% imported via pipeline (but also tankers) in the Caspian Sea region, ~35% from the south into Bandar Abbas, mostly from India and UAE. I do not have an online source, although I have a hard time believing it wouldn’t exist somewhere I just can’t seen to find it. The Energy Information Agency has some stuff about pipeline swaps, but doesn’t break it down by percentages.

  14. This seems to be the chain of events:
    * NIE report that Iran has no nuclear weapons program (Nov 2007)
    * Herziliya Conference in Israel to discuss alternative action (Feb 2008)
    * HCR362 submitted on AIPAC orders by Gary Ackerman, D-AIPAC (May 2008)

    Ha’aretz news report, Feb 15, 2008
    Seven weeks after they dealt a serious blow to the United States’ plans to use military force against Iran’s nuclear sites, several of the American intelligence officers who were involved in the drafting of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), according to which Iran suspended its secret nuclear military program back in 2003, are due to visit Israel. They will take part in a closed discussion at the Herzliya Conference,. .

    Dr. Shmuel Bar, a researcher at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and one of the discussion’s initiators, believes that the U.S. can still prevent Iran from reaching the next stage in its program of nuclear development. In place of economic sanctions imposed by the UN, which he feels are ineffective, he proposes imposing a naval blockade on all refined petroleum products imported to Iran.

    Dr. Shmuel Bar, a researcher at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and one of the discussion’s initiators, believes that the U.S. can still prevent Iran from reaching the next stage in its program of nuclear development. In place of economic sanctions imposed by the UN, which he feels are ineffective, he proposes imposing a naval blockade on all refined petroleum products imported to Iran.

    Despite being one of the world’s largest manufacturers of crude oil, Iran’s capability for refinement is limited. More than 40 percent of the petroleum products consumed by Iran are produced in refineries located in neighboring countries. The American (and British) fleet could impose a naval blockade and keep oil tankers transporting the refined petroleum products to Iran from entering the Persian Gulf via the Straits of Hormuz.
    http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasen/spages/954411.html

    NOTE: a naval blockade and keep oil tankers transporting the refined petroleum products to Iran from entering the Persian Gulf via the Straits of Hormuz (You don’t have a naval blockade against pipelines.)

    HCR362: prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products

  15. What you have is the blockade of the straits and the bombing of the pipelines. Can’t you see that has been the plan all along? Iran is going DOWN.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe we as yet “have” a blockade, and I do not “see” that this has been the plan all along. The evidence looks thin, absurdly so for a theory about such important matters. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs, as the saying goes.

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