If the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program bear fruit in an actual diplomatic agreement it will be one of the hallmark achievements of Barack Obama's foreign policy, and may well shape the legacy of his administration for good or for ill. Much ink has been spilled arguing for or against the wisdom of the deal as it is taking shape. Since there are no precedents that exactly match the current circumstances confronting U.S. leaders, it is difficult to plumb history for lessons that might apply in this case. I would argue, however, that America's relations with Japan provide a context that might inform current policy toward Iran.
As I have written before, Iran is a state that, given slightly different circumstances, should have emerged from the twentieth century in much the same condition as Japan. Both nations were possessed of the same assets: a well-educated populace, long traditions of central state institutions, and a robust experience of democratic political life. Though Iran is beset by ethnic and linguistic divisions that were not matched in Japan, it also possesses oil reserves and other natural resources that Japan lacks.
The chief factor differentiating Iran's fate from that of Japan was geography. Because Japan is an archipelago separated from the Asian mainland, it was shielded from the worst influences of the Cold War. Iran, contrastingly sandwiched between the Soviet Union and the Anglo-American sphere of influence in Arabia, became a key battleground of ideological war by proxy. The success of the Islamic Revolution is thus due principally to the fact that the Shi'ite clerical establishment was the only institution in Iranian society with sufficient political capital to resist the machinations of the both the Soviet Union and the U.S.
What guidance can the contrasting outcomes in Japan and Iran offer us by way of assessing the current policy initiative? How one answers this question hinges on one's understanding of the role of U.S. power in twentieth century Japan. In 1941 Japan was in the grips of a regime as dysfunctional and malignant as that of Iran's mullahs (perhaps more so). It only became a prosperous, stable democracy in the wake of defeat and occupation.
If one believes that the U.S. broke down the Japanese state and rebuilt it in America's image, then one must be very leery of current diplomacy in Iran, as it embodies compromise and flexibility rather than the forceful assertion of U.S. power. But such an assessment fundamentally misunderstands the nature of U.S. power and its effects, whether in Japan or elsewhere. The postwar reconstruction of Japan did not represent an "Americanization" of Japanese state and society, but a rejection by the Japanese people themselves of the xenophobic militarism of the early Shōwa era (the 1930's) in favor of the liberal cosmopolitanism of late Taishō reign (the 1920's).
The Japanese people did not comply with the policies of the U.S. occupation out of fear or awe of U.S. power, but out of a deep sense of disenchantment with and betrayal by their own leaders. By 1945, every political, religious and civic institution of the Japanese empire had failed the Japanese people, bringing misery and suffering on a scale not experienced since medieval times. The Japanese understood that their misfortune had been avoidable; that it was not the result of Allied aggression but of poor choices by imperial leaders. Since all of the institutions of the imperial order had been radically discredited, the Japanese were ready to facilitate a complete overhaul of their system.
To demonstrate that this is true, one need only look to the empirical evidence of the second Gulf War. American victory over Saddam Hussein's Iraq was much swifter and more unequivocal than that over imperial Japan. If U.S. military power was the key factor underpinning nation "rebuilding," the leverage enjoyed by the U.S. in Iraq should have been many times what it was in Japan. Iraq's actual development demonstrates that the internal dynamics of a nation are much more determinative than external military pressure of its evolution in the wake of a crisis. Iraq could not be made to conform to the Bush administration's plans because the Iraqi people themselves were not (are still not) ready to put their trust in a newly reconstructed order. Though a majority of Iraqis felt sorely oppressed by Saddam Hussein, many Iraqi Sunni Arabs remained loyal supporters of his government, and even those Iraqis who were not continued to have faith in other institutions (Shi'ite or Sunni clerics, tribes, pan-Arabic or Kurdist nationalist movements, etc.) that were opposed to U.S. occupation. The U.S. invasion was thus never well disposed to produce outcomes in Iraq resembling those of late twentieth-century Japan.
How do these lessons apply to Iran? In brief, we are wiser to rely on the internal dynamics of Iranian society to effect change than to try to force change through external pressure. Sanctions have brought Iran to the bargaining table, but if continued they are not likely to compel a fundamental restructuring of Iranian government or policy. The future shape of Iran will be determined by the desires of the Iranian people themselves and the success (or failure) of the regime in Tehran to fulfill them. While it is clear that Ayatollah Khamenei and his government are weakly motivated to conclude a deal with the U.S., it is equally clear that the Iranian people themselves feel very differently. The expressions of glee that have gone out over social media in anticipation of a deal demonstrate that, for many if not most Iranians, the current diplomatic initiative represents the eager hope that they might rejoin the community of nations and reenter commerce with the U.S. and its allies. If Tehran disappoints the Iranian people in this regard they will have a problem on their hands much more urgent than the stress of sanctions.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has not gone the way of the Japanese Empire because it still retains some critical part of the trust of the Iranian people. As the Green Movement of 2009 showed, however, that trust operates within discrete limits. The people of Iran are deeply nationalistic, and they assent to the legitimacy of the mullah regime because it has successfully defended the sovereign autonomy of Iran. However, Iranians are also very cosmopolitan and democratic in outlook. Many would like to see a return to the open and liberal policies of the Mossadegh era in the same way those of the Taishō reign were revived in Japan. If those desires are sufficiently frustrated, change will come to Iran as surely as it did to postwar Japan. For these reasons, the current diplomatic initiative of the Obama White House, despite risks, is nonetheless the wisest course. Though the deal has entailed compromise, if Tehran acts in bad faith or does anything to preclude delivering upon the promise of this initiative to yield the benefits of openness and prosperity for the Iranian people, the mullahs will find that they have bargained for just enough rope with which to hang themselves.