Japan’s relationship with Iran is an important foreign policy matter on which Tokyo differs significantly from its closest ally. Tension between Iran and the United States is running high since last year when President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled his country out of 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran signed with six major powers of the world and re-imposed sanctions. This placed Japan in a difficult situation as Tokyo just resumed oil import from Iran after the treaty was signed and Japanese business were venturing possibilities of investment opportunities in the country. However, Trump not only had taken unilateral decision of going back to earlier position of imposing sanctions on Iran, but also had asked allies to follow the suit. These measures effectively put an end to Japan’s desire to continue importing crude oil from Iran and significantly crippled Iranian economy, forcing Tehran going back to country’s hard line position over nuclear research.
Meanwhile, a number of incidents in May and June this year complicated the situation further and prompted Trump to take additional measures for what he claimed punishing Iran for wrongdoing. All this must be sounding quite familiar to our readers who remember what exactly happened almost a decade and half ago with Iraq. First, you create a smoke screen with the help of the media, quite often by recruiting journalists working for influential print or broadcast media who would report in a convincing way what wrong a targeted enemy had been doing, followed by creating a coalition of like-minded countries before launching the salvo. And once the mission is accomplished and the smoke screen disappears, nothing substantial is usually found and the media end up with an apology for making a big mistake while the governments keep on acting as if everything going as usual; despite the fact that the land where the operation had been carried out continue bleeding miserably for a very long period of time.
This is what exactly happened in Iraq in the recent past and Trump is simply following the textbook example for repeating the same act in Iran. So, subsequently a coalition of like-minded countries too was formed with the declared purpose of protecting the vital sea lanes in the Persian Gulf through which oil shipment of super tankers run. Japan too was asked to join the patrol mission that placed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a tight situation.
Abe did not want to spoil Japan’s relationship with Iran. However, at the same time, he was also unable to ignore Trump’s call at a time when Japan is increasingly becoming suspicious over the resurgence of China’s military might. So, a carefully guided policy was needed and Abe, with the consent of Washington, visited Tehran last June to explore the possibility of a middle ground that would satisfy both sides. But Trump’s hard line standing pushed Iran further to defiance and Tehran subsequently hinted country’s return to nuclear research.
Trump’s call on Japan to join the coalition to safeguard sea passage came amid such confusing situation. For Japan ignoring the call is virtually impossible, and abandoning Iran is also not a good option. So, once again Japan was in search of a face saving way out from the situation and this prompted policymakers in Tokyo to invite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Tokyo for discussion.
Iranian president was in Tokyo during the weekend and his meeting with Abe last Friday was an important event that attracted media attention. Abe briefed Iranian President on Tokyo’s plan to send naval forces to the Middle East for protecting Japanese vassals carrying vital oil supply. Gulf region is the source of nearly 90 percent of Japan’s crude oil import. Rouhani in response expressed his understanding of Japan’s intention to contribute to the regional security.
Japanese side also made it clear that instead of joining the US-led coalition to protect the shipping lane, Tokyo would rather launch its own operation for safeguarding Japanese ships, a plan that coincides with what the Europeans are preparing for. A European operation to ensure safety of shipping in the Gulf region is due to start in January. French government has pushed for a European security alternative after refusing to take part in the US-led mission.
Washington had urged Tokyo to deploy a Self Defense Force unit as part of the coalition that aims at keeping Iranian military forces in check. For Japan this would have been a difficult choice as Tokyo has long been emphasizing on her politically neutral presence in the region and also would have made it difficult to win over Iran’s consent. Abe instead has decided to send an independent mission for gathering information on security in the Middle East. Moreover, Japan’s planned operation is set to cover high seas in the Gulf of Oman, northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, not Strait of Hormuz where Iranian naval force is active. Thus came the Iranian understanding and Japan is now set to send a destroyer and a patrol aircraft after getting the Diet approval.
At the meeting in Tokyo, Abe asked Rouhani to stick to the commitments of 2o15 nuclear agreement. In return, Iranian president requested Abe to continue working with other countries to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive. According to media reports, leaders did not discuss about the possibility of resuming oil import from Iran, an option that Tokyo knows very well would annoyed Washington. However, officials accompanying the Iranian president expressed hope that Japan will resume buying Iranian crude oil bypassing US imposed sanctions. But for Japan this would have run simply too much and Abe knew rightfully where to stop.
(Tokyo, 22 December 2019)