Japan's Shinzo Abe wants to hold his own talks with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi
Japan's Shinzo Abe faces a world of trouble from managed trader Donald Trump. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

After weeks of second-guessing, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making an official two-day visit to Tehran this week, meeting both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Given Tokyo’s traditionally cordial ties with Tehran, its special relationship with Washington, and both Russia’s and America’s expressed approval of Abe’s trip – the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister since 1978 – speculations have been rife on how Japan can help Tehran and Washington to mend their differences, thereby contributing to the easing of tensions between the two foes and in the wider region.

There seems to be a consensus that the best Abe can hope for is either to act as a trusted go-between for Iran and the US or to facilitate direct talks by inviting an Iranian delegation to the upcoming Group of Twenty summit in Osaka. Put differently, expectations of an immediate breakthrough as a result of the visit range from low to non-existent.

Given the above, it makes sense to ask why Japan has voluntarily burdened itself with such a task. And the answer, first and foremost, lies in Japan’s concerns with a more hawkish and aggressive China and its near-total dependency on the availability of the United States’ resources for countering and/or containing Beijing.

Tokyo has been concerned with China’s growing assertiveness in its conduct of regional policy evident in its ongoing efforts not only to revitalize its armed forces but also to add new dimensions and depth to its military alliances, holding, for instance, joint exercises with India and Australia. Moreover, it has been active in lobbying the United States to take practical measures in demonstration of its commitment to the maintenance of regional order and security in the Asia-Pacific region. It thus sees the possibility of a war between Iran and the US as a strategic distraction that could only benefit China by leading to yet another lengthy American military quagmire in the Middle East. This, in turn, could distract Washington from paying adequate attention to developments in Tokyo’s back yard while instead provide Beijing with ample room for unrestrained strategic maneuvering in the South China Sea.

Closely entwined is Tokyo’s worries about its energy security and its long-term access to the Iranian energy market, which, as a side effect of US sanctions, has been dominated by Chinese firms over the past couple of years

Closely entwined with the above is Tokyo’s worries about its energy security and its long-term access to the Iranian energy market, which, as a side effect of US sanctions, has been dominated by Chinese firms over the past couple of years.

Here Japan’s apprehension is twofold. On the one hand, close to 85% of Japan’s oil and 28% of its natural gas come from the Persian Gulf, and hence its economy is highly vulnerable to either a sharp price hike or a sudden disruption of supplies caused by a major showdown between Iran and the US. Japan has invested substantial sums of money in both the energy and non-energy sectors of Gulf Cooperation Council states, and therefore its real disquietude is the ease with which Iran could cause chaos and trigger capital flight from the region by targeting strategically exposed cities in the Gulf region via a sustained campaign of missile attacks.

What matters here is not whether or not Iranian missiles can reach their intended targets; it is the act of firing itself, and the ensuing sense of insecurity, that is deemed consequential.

Notwithstanding its reduced presence in, and reliance on, the Iranian energy sector, on the other hand, Iran has always held a special place in Japan’s resource diplomacy, evident in the fact that it imported 70% of its crude from Iran in 1973 and its acquisition of a majority stake in the gigantic Azadegan oilfield in 2004. Starting with the signing of the Iran-Japan Treaty of Commerce and Navigation in 1929, creation of a direct shipping line in 1934, and the establishment of the Iran-Japan Investment Council and Iran-Japan Petrochemical Company in 1968 and 1973 respectively, Japan has always seen in Iran a reliable partner for its energy needs and a profitable market for its consumer goods.

As such, leaving its market in compliance with the US sanctions has never been an easy or popular choice, especially when doing so has enabled its arch-rival, China, to make significant inroads inside the country. With China proving unwilling to side with Tehran as it seeks to reach a trade understanding with US, it is not far-fetched to assume that Abe sees a rare opportunity in Iranian officials’ growing frustration in order to take a jab at Beijing, putting on display its untrustworthiness. Should his gamble pay off, Japan is sure to receive preferential treatment in the post-sanctions era, which it can then utilize, for example, to cement the presence of its preferred financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank at the expense of their Chinese counterparts.

If Prime Minister Abe succeeds in his attempt at bringing American and Iranian officials to the negotiating table, moreover, he will have then managed to elevate Japan’s relations with the US to the next level, in that Tokyo will be considered an indispensable ally in dealing with two strategic adversaries, China and Iran.

Already seen as the partner of choice for Washington in the Asia-Pacific region, Tokyo would be in a much stronger position to influence US decision-making with regard to China and North Korea if it can reduce Beijing’s and Moscow’s grip over Iran and instead bring Tehran closer to the Western, as opposed to the Sino-Russian, axis. It could also use this as a bargaining chip in its current trade talks with the US, while Abe and his party would enjoy a considerable boost in their standing in the upcoming upper-house election.

Since failure would have no tangible bearing on Abe’s political fortunes at home or abroad, one can be certain that he is determined to break the current deadlock and provide leadership in Tehran and Washington with a face-saving alternative to resume direct talks. The good news is that both sides have high trust in Tokyo; Japan’s efforts and stance during the Iran-Iraq War have not been lost on the Iranian elites, while its steadfast support for the United States is highly appreciated within policy circles in Washington.

Still, Abe has no critical leverage over the two sides, and his attempt could well face the same fate as that of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva nearly a decade ago. This is all the more likely since the United States’ demands, as well as those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on Iran are extensive while Russia has a strategic interest in keeping Iran weak and isolated. As Abe embarks upon his much-anticipated trip, then, he is best advised to capitalize on what Japan and Iran already agree on: the undesirability of war.

Nima Khorrami

Nima Khorrami is a research associate at the Arctic Institute.

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