Japan’s mission to Iran and a quest for diplomatic success

A year after the administration of Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran, the government in Teheran informed that it is suspending part of its commitments, which includes increasing its supplies of low enriched uranium. The move should not have surprised anyone as it is a clear response to the decision of the U.S. administration to end waivers from sanctions it imposed on Iranian oil imports. In recent weeks not only did the U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea reached the decision to completely halt the Iranian oil imports but other major importers like China followed suit. Other moves like, Washington’s decision to recognize the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization and increase the U.S. military presence in the region pushed Teheran into a confrontational stance which threatens the entire Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in 2015.

In order to salvage the deal at the beginning of May, the European Union leaders informed of their continued support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and their intention to extend financial assistance for the Iranian government in an attempt to convince Teheran to stick to the deal. Unfortunately, the promises of economic compensation did not materialize which led to further isolation of Iran on the international arena. Despite assurances of support coming from Moscow and Beijing, no visible economic assistance is on the way.

After Donald Trump’s visit to Japan in May prime minister Abe Shinzō announced his plan of flying to Teheran and acting as the mediator between the U.S. and Iran. Japan has a long history of friendly relations with the regime. It was the first country which started importing Iranian oil in the 1950s which ended Teheran’s international isolation. Unfortunately for Japanese PM tensions in the region were further escalated by the news of attacks on two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, one of which belonging to a Japanese company. The situation deteriorated even further after recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s airport carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebel groups backed by Iran.

In a joint press conference with the Iranian president, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō warned that unresolved issue can lead to an armed conflict. PM Abe Shinzō assured Hassan Rouhani, that Washington had no intentions of escalating tensions. Iranian president expressed hope that after the end of the economic dispute the security situation in the region should gradually improve. Abe’s meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proved more difficult. Khamenei bluntly refused to meet Donald Trump and reenter nuclear negotiations with the United States. Although the Iranian leader assured Japan that his country had no intention of manufacturing nuclear weapons, one cannot escape the feeling that the Japanese diplomatic mission did not bring satisfactory results. Instead of being the broker of the United States, Abe’s role was limited to the one of a messenger.

Stability in the Middle East is very important for Japan because of its large dependence on the imports of Oil. Japan’s Energy security situation worsened significantly after the government was forced to halt imports of Iranian oil. The situation deteriorated even further after the attacks on tankers carrying Japanese cargo and the resulting increase of the oil prices. Furthermore, threats made by the Iranian government and incidents in the Strait of Hormuz makes Japanese oil shipping companies uneasy. Nearly 80% of Oil and 30% of Natural Gas arriving in Japan goes through the strait.

Although diplomatic mission to Iran did not bring the desired results, the chance of success was very slim from the start. For Prime Minister Abe it means another failure of his international policy which may bear results on his support rates in the country. Despite Abe’s vivid interest in foreign policy recently his administration cannot produce many diplomatic successes. Abe’s visit to Iran was clearly an attempt to play a new role in the alliance with Washington. The idea of Japan acting as the broker between the U.S. and Iran may indicate, that PM Abe realized that his policy towards Washington cannot rely solely on good relations with Donald Trump. Soon after PM’s return from Iran Japanese media informed about a series of tweets made by president Trump criticizing the state of the alliance, which clearly shows the unpredictability of this relationship.

On other diplomatic fronts, the situation does not look better. June G20 summit in Osaka did not bring any breakthrough. Despite improving relations with China and the first visit of Xi Jinping in Japan, the summit was dominated by information on trade talks between Washington and Beijing. PM Abe’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin did not bring news about progress in territorial dispute negotiations. One of the few promising signs during the summit was a picture of PM Abe’s shaking hands with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, which may point to improving tense ties in the near future. Lack of diplomatic success may become a problem before the upcoming upper house elections in Japan. It was probably a reason why Prime Minister Abe did not decide to call snap elections and dissolve the lower house which was expected by many commentators.