Yes, if the state is militarized and the central government is backed to the wall. Consider an example of pre-World War II Japan. American and Japanese militaries prepared for a confrontation throughout the twenties, but real tensions did not start until the 1931 invasion of Manchuria by Japan.  At the outset of U.S.-imposed oil blockade in 1940, Japan estimated that it had a fuel reserve of just under two years.  The Imperial Japanese Navy drafted plans to seize the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) in order to maintain steady supply of oil and its military strength. International organizations like the League of Nations were powerless in curtailing aggression during the thirties. After the initial oil blockade in 1940, each Japanese move was met with yet another U.S. embargo: scrap metal, access to the Panama Canal, and finally, the U.S. froze all Japanese accounts in the US, effectively putting Japan on the collision course with the U.S.

Will the new sanctions imposed on Iran in 2012 lead to a similar show-down between Iran and the United States? Today a military confrontation seems highly likely. However instead of a Pearl Harbor-like attack, we may see a war of proxy agents under the banner of global terrorism or Mid-Eastern strife.  Iran will not challenge U.S. power directly but there are numerous points globally that allow Iran to inflict pain on the United States. Hezbollah in Lebanon may target Israeli and U.S interests, terrorism in any country is an option, attempting a homeland U.S. assault is not unthinkable. Iran is still smarting up from a cyber-attack; it may unleash cyber or biological warfare targeting economic or life lines (such as drinkable water) in an attempt to force the world to ease sanctions on the regime. “Hot” conflict could occur in the Persian Gulf or in any of the neighboring countries.

Sanctions as a weapon have been largely ineffective, especially during the Cold War, when the world was divided into two competing camps. In the current environment, with greater interdependence and multi-polarity, sanctions are even less effective, and they are certainly more difficult to carry out. In his recent book Sanctions as Grand Strategy, Brendan Taylor argues that countries often use sanctions to influence each other and not the targeted nations. Thus, sanctions take on another role – influence.

As a mechanism of influence, sanctions are not a clear input-output system.  In a multipolar world, hungry for natural resources tied to the health of global economic system, sanctions can be subverted.  If using sanctions, as in the case of Japan Pre-World War II may lead to war in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, we should be extremely cautious with this approach.

International sanctions on Iran began in 2006. Some of U.S. sanctions date as far back as the 1979 revolution, when the Islamic Republic of Iran seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran. Starting with the nuclear program that raised the ire of the international community, the world has sought to designate parts of the Iranian economy (such as oil) as supporting global terrorism. Individuals and companies engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction or terrorism are targeted by sanctions. There is also a ban on financial services supporting the development of such programs.

Nevertheless the regime in Teheran did not seem fazed until January 3, 2012, when banking restriction championed by the U.S caused a 12% devaluation of the Iranian currency. Smuggling has increased on everything from food stuffs to nuclear precursor materials forcing the Iranian regime to spend more and to get less.

The paradox of both the pre-World War II Japan and the current Iranian sanctions is that they appear to be working. But does this mean that they will gain the United States a desired outcome?  Sanctions like warfare itself must lead to a clear conclusion.  Clausewitz famous dictum: “war is the continuation of politics by other means” applies to current the situation like no other.

The question that the world community and the U.S. needs to ask itself s is at what point does the regime in Tehran decide that its survival is at stake and turn to any of the above listed warfare options?

Unlike Iraq during Saddam Hussein, demonstrations and revolts have already taken place in Iran, because of western sanction activities.

If sanctions serve as a substitute for war, when stiffer measures may be needed. Will they be sustainable in the current political and fiscal climate?  There are other problems with trade sanctions as well. If the U.S. is to be the leader of free trade are sanctions really the best message, and does this do good/feel good policy achieve the foreign policy goals that the U.S. is embracing? If the U.S. is indeed seeking war, having exhausted other international options, what must or should the final outcome really be?