Tokyo has called for engagement, befitting its belief that diplomacy is the best way to address regional problems, as well as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil; at one point in the past, it imported 70 percent of its oil from Iran, and today Japan gets 85 percent of its oil and 28 percent of its natural gas from the Persian Gulf. At the same time, however, Tokyo must be sensitive to US concerns, given the bilateral security alliance and the hostility that has dominated the US-Iran relation since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has amplified tensions in the relationship by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that put limits on Iran’s nuclear program, and then pursuing a “maximum pressure” campaign that puts the squeeze on Iran (and its trading partners) with unilateral sanctions. In recent weeks, the United States has sent military assets, including aircraft carriers and bombers, to the region and warned Tehran that it faces a military response if Iran threatens the US, its assets or partners in the region.
US demands on Iran are extensive, ranging from halting the nuclear program to ending support for forces that Washington claims create instability throughout the Middle East. Many suspect that the US seeks regime change in Tehran and is looking for a pretense to take military action. Trump recently said that while “there’s always a chance” of military action against Iran, “I’d rather not.”
During his visit to Japan last month, Trump welcomed Japanese efforts to mediate between the two countries and last week said that he is ready to talk to Rouhani. While such an encounter seems unlikely, the same could be said for a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: Only months before that materialized last year the two men were exchanging public insults. In this case, however, there is no one who is actively working to bring the two sides together, a role played by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the North Korean example. In fact, many key regional governments prefer to keep Tehran isolated.
Mediation is a high-stakes move for Abe, who could lose face if no meeting with the Iranian leadership materializes or if Trump pulls the rug out from under him with an insulting or provocative statement or tweet. There is speculation that the prime minister has received assurances from both governments that they will not undercut his efforts. Iran’s deputy foreign minister said his government looks forward to the visit – the first by a Japanese prime minister since 1978 – a sign that Tehran will be an accommodating host and avoid embarrassing its guest.
Abe will also benefit from both sides’ desire to tamp down tensions. Both governments have said as much and neither public wants a fight. That gives Abe the opportunity to make the case for direct engagement, but all he can propose are general principles and vouch for the other side’s good will.
He has the support of other governments like that of Russia and the European Union, but he has no leverage to either entice or force Washington or Tehran to negotiate and he faces powerful headwinds from the governments in Israel and Saudi Arabia that prefer that Tehran be isolated.
It is in keeping with Abe’s activist and optimistic diplomacy that he is willing to try. This effort will boost his credibility and gravitas when he convenes the Group of 20 summit in Osaka later this month, help him in elections this summer and allow him to say that he is working to help Trump, his partner and ally. On balance, then, there is every reason to pursue this gambit even while expecting limited results.
Japan has had a generally positive relationship with Iran going back about 70 years, mostly revolving around oil.
In the 1950s, Japanese refiner Idemitsu broke a British oil embargo of Iran and sent a tanker to get a shipload of gasoline and diesel oil.
Thirty years later, during the Iran-Iraq war, Abe‘s father, then-foreign minister Shintaro Abe, visited both countries to try to mediate. A young Shinzo Abe joined him as his secretary.
Broadly speaking, Japan has maintained neutral ties with many Middle Eastern countries because it relies on them for oil.
The above is an excerpt from an editorial in The Japan Times.