Doubtful whether Japan can bring about rapprochement between US and Iran

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2019/6/2 18:03:40

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to visit Iran in mid June, Asahi Shimbun reported. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said on May 28 at a press briefing that the date of Abe's visit is being coordinated. 

During his recent Japan visit, US President Donald Trump reportedly "supported Abe's idea and suggested the visit happen soon." With this endorsement, Abe can move forward with confidence as a mediator between Washington and Tehran.

It's true that Japan has traditionally kept friendly relations with Iran, although its foreign policy has been affected by the US. 2019 marks the 90th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Tehran. 

In 2010, Iran's Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and delivered a speech calling for a nuclear-free world, which touched many Japanese. After Abe took office in 2012, he communicated with the Iranian head of state at every annual United Nations General Assembly. With a healthy relationship in place, Japan could be the ideal mediator amid US-Iran tensions. 

However, Abe administration's active approach on US-Iran tensions doesn't necessarily mean he intends to truly mediate Washington-Tehran relations, but instead seeks to demonstrate his diplomatic influence. 

There have been two apparent features of Abe's diplomacy. First, Abe proactively paid visits to countries and regions that Japan had previously ignored. For example, in 2015, Abe visited five Central Asian countries, marking the first time a Japanese prime minister visited all the countries in the region. 

In 2016, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Cuba. And in 2017, Abe went to the three Baltic states and three Eastern European countries including Bulgaria, also a first for a Japanese prime minister. 

Abe's visit to Iran will hold great symbolic significance if it actually happens, as it will be the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in more than 40 years. 

Second, Japan has put more efforts in playing the role of mediator between big countries. Amid the trade war between Beijing and Washington, Abe wants to use the opportunity of G20 summit to create space for consultation between the two economies. 

In comparison to previous diplomacy of Japan, Abe is more active. In fact, the recent moves are a demonstration of Abe's "diplomacy with a bird's eye view of the globe," showing the Abe administration, more so than the previous ones, attaches greater importance to diplomacy rather than internal and economic affairs in the traditional sense. 

In addition to showcasing his diplomatic influence, Abe's involvement in US-Iran tensions could be a move to safeguard Japan's interests. Japan depends on the Middle East for its energy resources. 

According to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, about 90 percent of the country's petroleum came from the Middle East in 2017. Of the petroleum Japan imported that year, 32 percent was from Saudi Arabia, 27 percent from the United Arab Emirates, and 15 percent from Iran. 

Meanwhile, the majority of petroleum Japan imported from the Middle East was transported through the Strait of Hormuz, located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Japan's lifeline will be affected if the region is caught in turmoil or the Strait of Hormuz is blocked. 

So, it's clear that Abe's primary purpose would be to safeguard Japan's interests by mediating the US-Iran conflict. Now whether or not Abe can make it is something he probably isn't sure about at the moment.

However, given the outcome of Abe's efforts, Japan's role as a third-party mediator was not ideal. Does the US-Iran issue really need Japan as a mediator? After the Iranian foreign minister's hurried visit to Japan, he went to China, which has more influence in international affairs. 

Besides, just like the North Korean nuclear issue which can only advance through joint efforts from China and South Korea, the US-Iran conflict cannot be solved by Japan alone. Abe's visit to Iran would be welcomed, but it would be unnecessary to place too much hope on Japan to participate in dispute settlements between Washington and Tehran.

The author is an editor at the Global Times and an observer of Japan issues. 


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