Wednesday, December 11, 2019


It seems only right as we pass the 78th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that we pause to consider anew the lessons learned on that day. Perhaps the foremost such lesson is why the Japanese attacked. The answer is clear. 

We made them do it.

In the summer of 1941, responding to continued Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia and China, the United States imposed a series of  sanctions against Japan. The sanctions froze Japanese assets within the United States, resulting in the loss of three-quarters of Japan’s overseas trade. They also cut off 80 percent of Japan’s oil imports. Japan’s economy would be crippled, and its navy would continue to sail only as long as the oil on hand lasted. 

In short, the Japanese were faced with a clear, unambiguous choice: Strike and dare to hope for victory; or submit to the inevitable and accept defeat. One-hundred-and-thirty-four days after the imposition of American sanctions, bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor.

The same choice faces the ayatollahs in Tehran today.

Early on in his administration, President Trump abandoned the appeasement policy of Barack Obama and set us on a new course. Sanctions were not simply reinstated, they were intensified and enforced with a vigor never seen before. The results inside Iran and elsewhere in the burgeoning “Shia Empire” have been dramatic and catastrophic.

In Lebanon, a nation dominated by Iran’s terror surrogate, Hezbollah, people are rising up and demanding change. Hezbollah, starved for cash as its patron Iran’s coffers go dry, is struggling to survive.

In Iraq, a nationalist rebellion against Iranian interference in Iraqi politics has erupted. Protesters have burned an Iranian consulate and are demanding that Iran get out of Iraq. Iran finds itself increasingly unable to martial the financial resources required to respond.

Inside Iran, though, the results have been most dramatic. The nation has been rocked by protests. As many as a thousand people may have been killed already by government forces. Tens of thousands have been arrested. And, yet the protests continue and even intensify.

These protests, touched off by economic concerns, are not simply calling for lower gas prices or other financial relief, however. The people chanting in soccer stadiums for the return of the Shah or openly confronting security forces in the streets are after something much more profound. They are demanding an end to the long nightmare of despotic clerical rule. 

For the mad mullahs in Iran, this is an existential crisis. Which brings us to another lesson on Pearl Harbor. We do not choose where and how the enemy strikes, particularly when it is cornered.

Prior to Dec. 7, 1941, any number of American strategic thinkers considered the possibility that the Japanese would strike first and begin a war. An entire American war plan, Plan Orange, was predicated on a scenario in which the American Navy would have to fight its way across the Pacific retaking territory captured by the Japanese. None of these thinkers contemplated, however, that the war would begin in Hawaii with a body blow to our Pacific Fleet.

We must ensure that the same mental “straight-jacket” does not constrain our thinking now.

Offensive action by the Iranians may follow the pattern it has to date and be limited largely to sabotage, and drone attacks colored as the actions of surrogates such as the Houthis. It may not. It may, without warning, escalate dramatically both in the types of targets hit and the weapons used against us.

The headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is located in a sprawling compound in Manama, Bahrain, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. It is a massive complex occupied by thousands of military personnel and an easy target for Iranian drones and missiles. The Iranians have publicly bragged about the fact that they have their missiles trained on at least 21 different U.S. bases in the region. The recent movement of additional Iranian missiles into Iraq has been well documented.

In our current defense posture, how much warning will we receive, if any, of an Iranian attack on Manama? What capabilities if any do we have to respond and prevent a massive loss of life? Will we even know that an attack has been launched before missiles begin to impact and our people begin to die?

Just as likely are massive missile and drone barrages on Saudi cities, the cities of other Gulf nations and oil producing and processing facilities throughout the Middle East. The Iranians already demonstrated this capability in September of this year. That single attack took half Saudi Arabia’s oil production offline. The Iranians have since publicly threatened to strike both Saudi and Emirati population centers.

The Iranians possess literally thousands of short- and medium-range weapons capable of reaching Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations. These include both ballistic and cruise missiles. Iranian missiles used in the attack in September were launched from Khorramshahr Province near the Kuwaiti border. Flight time for an Iranian cruise missile from there to Dhahran is roughly 36 minutes. 

Attacks may come well outside the Middle East as well. Over the last two years, we have arrested three separate deep cover Hezbollah operatives on U.S. soil. These operatives were casing a wide variety of targets, including the Panama Canal in preparation for attacks. In a confrontation centered on energy and oil sales, there is every reason to think the Iranians and their surrogates would interdict shipping, shut the Panama Canal and, if able, attack oil and natural gas pipelines and facilities inside the United States.

As with most surprise attacks, the real failure on Dec. 7, 1941, was one of imagination. We believed ourselves prepared for what was coming. In reality, we were grossly unprepared and caught flat-footed and complacent. The first explosions heralding a Pearl Harbor attack by Iran may be in our heartland, or in Israel, Saudi Arabia or our other allies in the Middle East.

We must be prepared. And the desperate mullahs in Tehran must be warned that our response to a sneak attack will end their dream of world domination forever.

• Sam Faddis is a former CIA operations officer with experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

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