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Modus Vivendi with Iran: It’s 1941 All Over Again

Netanyahu is a modern-day Chiang Kai-shek, seeking to be heard over the noises from his enemies and benefactors.

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The "moderate" president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.

The "moderate" president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.



While some in Washington are afflicted by a specific kind of color blindness which renders Red Lines invisible, no such affliction is known to exist in Jerusalem, where the clock keeps ticking. But protracted negotiations, outside pressure and inner squabbles are not new in international conflicts, and the U.S. has experienced them all before. Time is always ticking away and it is ultimately the clock that decides for war or for peace.

Then like now, the U.S. was confronting a regional power that viewed expansionism as its lifeline to long term economic survival and to global ambitions. Then like now, the embargo was working, resulting in dwindling raw resources, and an increasingly grim economic outlook. Then like now, the options were war, continuing embargo, or yielding to America’s demands. Then like now, it boiled down to national pride and a celestially ordained code of honor. Imperial Japan of December 1941 chose war. As the American ambassador to Tokyo at the time, Joseph Grew, put it “Japanese sanity cannot be measured by American standards of logic.”

And this is equally true for Iran today.

Many factors and personalities played a role in the complex, unfolding drama of the last few months of 1941, leading to the Japanese surprise attack on Pear Harbor, on December 7. By the beginning of November, the sides were still far apart and no agreement was in sight. On November 5, Japan’s Prime Minister Tojo Hideki summed up the Imperial Conference: “Two years from now we will have no petroleum for military use. Ships will stop moving. I see no end to difficulties. We can talk about austerity and suffering, but can our people endure such a life for a long time?”

By then the Japanese were left with only two choices: peace with austerity in a world under American domination, or a defeat at war while upholding the honor of the land of the Gods. Of these two choices, war seemed preferable. There was a unanimous agreement that waiting will only worsen Japan’s chances at war and the consensus was that there was no better time for war than right then. Ultimately, what decided the outcome of these few tense months were misjudged intentions, uncompromising positions with no room to wiggle, and time running out.

Time was a key factor. While the U.S. would have preferred to maintain the status quo for a while longer, in order to avoid involvement on two fronts—in Japan’s upper half of the hourglass the sand was running out. By November 24, there was still no diplomatic resolution, and intercepted Japanese communications clearly indicated that Japan was gearing up for war. A day later, on November 25, the U.S. came up with a draft proposal of a temporary, six months “modus vivendi” which included a stop to Japanese troop movements, and resumption of commerce and economic relations.

It was a breakthrough in the gap that separated the sides for a very long time. Significantly, it did not address the sticky issue of Japanese troop withdrawal from China and thus it allowed the more moderate elements in Japan’s leadership a bit of wiggle room in their inner squabbles with the more hawkish members. There were indications that this temporary truce was agreeable to both parties.

It was at this point that Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist leader, entered the scene. Up until then, despite being the injured party and the target of Japan’s aggression for years, he had not taken part in the negotiations. He abrasively and vehemently objected to what he regarded as an American appeasement at the expense of China, and the short lived modus vivendi understanding disintegrated. The next American proposal was a rigid and uncompromising ten point list of demands that were both offensive and unacceptable to the Japanese.

In the absence of resolute principles, historic perspective, and a vision that goes beyond self aggrandizement, failed leadership often resorts to recycling old tricks. The U.S. is now in the process of negotiating another surprisingly similar modus vivendi, a temporary six months agreement, with Iran. The wiggle room that should have been (but was not) offered to Japan is now handed to Iran.

Absurdly, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear to be pressed for time in a setting that has no time constrains. The details of the proposed agreement have not yet been made public, but it is safe to assume that they include matters of commerce and oil, and halting uranium enrichment. Like the modus vivendi of 1941, which avoided the subject of Japanese troop withdrawal from China, this one, too, appears to be steering far away from any dismantling demands on the Iranian nuclear program.

Igal Zuravicky MD FACC

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