The exercise of comparing international actors having evolved during different periods of time certainly represents a hazardous task. The number of variables differentiating one from the other is so important that the two elements of the comparison itself may appear as too diverse, thus rendering the consideration completely futile. On the other hand, policy makers and analysts do need a certain intellectual framework to elaborate a coherent train of thought which is to be applied in urgent cases.
For this latter reason, the present debate concerning the likelihood of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons has increasingly been focused on comparisons. The threat Tehran would pose to Israel and the region and the measures that should be taken to prevent the Islamic Republic from ever reaching that point of no-return are certainly influenced by the way commentators perceive the Iranian threat. When attempting to consider Iran as either a rational or an irrational actor, the most common examples taken into consideration are the USSR, Maoist China and North Korea. To these arguments, the usual answer shifts from 'none of those acted irrationally so Iran would follow the same path' to 'Iran is exceptional as it maintains a special ideology which none of the following has.'
On a purely material and strategic level, a fourth comparison should be made: the one between Imperial Japan of the 1930s and 1940s and the present revolutionary Islamic regime in Tehran. This question does not solely lie on the fact that Japan shared with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy a state doctrine which to some extent is similar to the one present in today’s Iranian public discourse. The similarities between the two actors are based on a set of four interconnected criteria.
The first principle may be defined as a cult of the nation. Beyond an extremely radical brand of conservatism Shi’ism, President Ahmadinejad and the army are maintaining their base of support through a highly nationalistic discourse. The superiority of the Iranian culture over the rest of the region is at the forefront of every public display of force. Iranian independence is not only linked to a feeling of sovereignty but also to a feeling of superiority which goes hand in hand with the special understanding the leading class has of its religious duties. A similar case can be made for Imperial Japan, where the culture of Bushido and full devotion to the nation led the Japanese people to accept unthinkable sacrifices. This isn’t a case if the Japanese were the first industrialized country to introduce mass suicide attacks in an effort to change the balance of battle and the Iranians were the first to use such techniques in modern combat.
Iranian exercise near Strait of Hormuz (Archive photo: MCT)
The fact that Japan was not a nuclear armed state in the 1940s is not excessively important to this analysis, as, at that period, none of the international players were. What is relevant is to consider how Japan reacted to superior military powers of the epoch, namely the British Empire and the United States. Iran is today facing Israel and the US, states that have the potential to effectively destroy the Islamic Republic vital infrastructures, as Japan was facing its two foes in the 1940s and was ultimately destroyed. The point is that it is not the rational nature of the adversary that interested Japan or does interest Iran, but its effective willingness to put up a fight. Today it is clear that the US will not take action against Tehran's regional expansion and that Israel alone may have limited resources to do so. For this, bite by bite Iran is preparing a military force, conventional and unconventional, which will in a later confrontation provide it with a relative advantage.
The third point may be seen in the sanction regime. As Japan in the 1930s, Iran today plays the card of a marginalized and isolated country. The sanction regime is hurting its economy and commercial capabilities but it is not undermining the true nature of the threat: the regime’s will. In the 1940s a reason for which Japan went to war against the US was to expand and safeguard a sanction-afflicted economy, the exact opposite for which the sanctions were applied. Today’s sanctions against Iran are further stimulating its ultra-radical policies while they aren’t securitizing the region. Without a credible military threat, sanctions may well have the opposite effect.
The last point is the nature of the direct neighbors of both countries. For Japan, China was considered the expansion of its territory, as somehow the Shi’a regions of Iraq are for Iran. The rest of the Pacific Ocean was at that time filled with few areas of true military resistance, as is at the present the Arabian Gulf for Iran. In a drive for regional expansion, either overt or covert, Iran would encounter only the US military assets able to stop it.
Provided that all comparisons engender a number of generalizations and do maintain a degree of superficiality, the one between Imperial Japan and Islamic Iran does have the force to give an important conclusion: even the most rational actors, such as Japan appeared in the 1930s, may embark in utterly irrational state policies in a period in which the perceived balance of power seems to be tilting in their favor. As cited by Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Cordesman stated that the present Iranian crisis presents “the same conditions that helped trigger World War II." In this optic, discord between the US and Israel, along with a prolonged debate over a possible strike and the increased after effects of the sanction regime are bolstering the national-Islamist discourse, the real medium term threat is that Iran embarks on a 21st century Pearl Harbor-like attempt to control the Middle East.
Riccardo Dugulin holds a Master degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. Personal website: www.riccardodugulin.com