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Can Abe prevent a US-Iran war?

June 17, 2019 18:19 IST
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Japan carries none of the historical or religious baggage of other potential mediators, which is why Abe was acceptable to Iran's leaders, points out Dr Rajaram Panda.

IMAGE: Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo with Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photograph: Kind courtesy

In the season of summit diplomacy centering on North Korea that started early last year, Japan, an important stakeholder, felt sidelined.

It is a different matter that none of the summits yielded any positive outcome.

As tensions in the Middle East rose following United States President Donald J Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- the 2015 agreement on Iran's civil nuclear programme between Tehran and a group of six world powers -- and re-imposed US sanctions on Iran, Japan's Prime Minister Abe Shinzo traveled to Tehran from June 12 to 14 to mediate between the US and Iran and ease the stand-off between the two nations.

This is a rare international diplomatic move by a Japanese leader.

In hindsight, the reasons for Abe to break the impasse between the US and Iran could be two-fold: For Japan to regain some space in the international limelight after being sidelined from the summit diplomacy over North Korea, and to realise a summit with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un to address the long pending issue of abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Did Abe achieve any of the above objectives or come closer to what he desired? Yes and No.

Yes, because he had Trump's endorsement to visit Tehran and speak to Iran's leaders.

No, because while Abe was in Tehran, two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, with the US accusing Iran for this and Iran denying any role, thereby escalating the prospect of American military action that could have unintended consequences.

Abe's summit with Kim Jong Un is destined to remain unrealised.


The short term domestic political gain for Abe could be that he scored points for his diplomacy ahead of this summer's house of councilor's election.

But long term gains remained a will-o-the-wisp.

Another consideration that could have weighed on Abe is that he sought to regain his international image after his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2018 failed to make any progress on a peace treaty with Russia and no headway for a solution on the Kurile chain of islands.

By hoping to draw the world's attention to his mediation role in Iran, Abe perhaps wanted to display his diplomatic clout to the international community ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka this month.

Abe's visit to Tehran is the first by an incumbent Japanese prime minister since 1978 when then prime minister Takeo Fukuda visited Iran.

Fukuda's visit occurred not long before the Shah of Iran was toppled by the Islamic Revolution in February 1979.

Since Abe took office in 2012, high profile Japanese visitors to Iran have included ministers and special envoys, as well as Abe's wife Akie and his brother Nobuo Kishi.

Abe's father Abe Shintaro, then Japan's foreign minister, visited Iran in 1983 during a period of heightened concern that the Straits of Hormuz would close because of the Iran-Iraq war.

Abe was his father's personal secretary at that time.

IMAGE: Japan's Prime Minister Abe Shinzo meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Iran. Photograph: Shinzo Abe/Twitter

During his visit last week, Abe met Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani and conveyed the merit of dialogue and that he had Trump's backing for this initiative.

Abe was welcomed by the Tehran leadership that he volunteered to mediate. After all, personal ties and history do play an important role in world diplomacy.

Iran hailed Abe's mediatory efforts to address the US-Iran conflict as a 'turning point'.

The sticking point was that Rouhani categorically said Tehran would not be 'bullied' into negotiations unless there was total respect on the framework of international law, and that the US should lift sanctions against Iran.

Abe's persuasive skill to see the merit of dialogue with room for flexibility did not cut any ice with the Iranian leadership.

Abe is aware that a resource-poor country like Japan is heavily dependent on imports of oil from the Middle East, though crude oil from Iran accounted for just 5.3% of the country's total imports in 2018.

While maintaining ties with Iran, Japan also cut back its oil purchases from the country to 3% of its total oil imports, so that the end of US sanction waivers had relatively little impact on bilateral ties.

Before the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011, nuclear energy accounted for almost a quarter of Japan's total energy needs.

After all 54 nuclear reactors were shut down following the outcry against anything nuclear, Japan has been compelled to diversify its energy sources.

Any disruption in energy supply resulting from any crisis in the Middle East would severely impact Japan's economy.

So, the stakes are high for Abe to protect his country's economic interests, which is also why he volunteered to mediate between the US and Iran.

With the Trump administration unlikely to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, there is no possibility of the US reversing the sanctions on Iranian oil exports imposed in November 2018.

Japanese refiners ceased imports of Iranian oil in March after the expiry of a one-time waiver granted to Tokyo by the Trump administration.

Other countries which received a waiver from the US are China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Abe did not go to Tehran with a list of demands or deliver a message from Washington, but positioned Japan as a neutral intermediary.

What helped Abe was that Japan carries none of the historical or religious baggage of other potential mediators, which is why he was acceptable to Tehran's leaders.

Abe's visit, coming soon after his meeting with Trump in Tokyo, probably meant that the US was keen to use this channel to reach out to Tehran.

But Tokyo's leverage to influence decisions either in Tehran or Washington remains limited.

Notwithstanding the above, Abe scored points in his rare role as international statesman, particularly given Tokyo's disappointing recent diplomatic track record.

As observed by Tetsuro Kato, a political science professor at Waseda University, Abe needed a 'diplomatic stunt'.

There was initial optimism when Abe and Rouhani confirmed that both Iran and the US should avoid a military clash and strive to ease tensions over Tehran's nuclear agreement with world powers.

Abe felt reassured when Rouhani told him that 'Iran does not want war' with the US.

Abe's optimism was backed by Rouhani's assurance that Iran will remain committed to the 2015 nuclear agreement. 'We won't abandon it nor will we pursue nuclear weapons', Iran's president told Japan's prime minister.

At the same time, Rouhani was firm when he said 'Iran won't wage a war on our own, but if the United States does so, we will fight it out.'

Abe's visit to Tehran was indeed Japan's global Middle East moment.

By speaking to all the important players in the region -- Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- this outreach represented a subtle shift in Japan's Middle East diplomacy, that was once the exclusive domain of the great powers.

For Japan, it could have been an opportunity to carve out for itself a role similar to the one Switzerland has been playing in representation for the US in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis, or which Oman recently played during negotiations on the nuclear deal.

IMAGE: US President Donald J Trump with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Since December 2012 when Abe began his second stint as prime minister, he has visited nations and territories in the Middle East -- including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- 18 times and crafted relationships with leaders of nations hostile to Iran.

There was fear that Abe's Iran trip could generate a backlash from Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE and others.

However, Abe telephoned leaders of these nations to obtain their understanding for his visit.

Securing stability in the Middle East is in consonance with Japan's national interest as Japan depends on the Middle East for about 90% of its crude oil imports. A little over 80% of these imports pass through the Straits of Hormuz, the main artery for crude oil transport.

If Iran's ties with the US deteriorate, resulting in a military clash, the prospect of Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz cannot be ruled out.

In that case, it would deliver a stinging blow to Japan's economy.

Given the complexity of the issue, just one visit would not be enough to resolve the problem.

A military confrontation in the region would not be in anyone's interest and all efforts ought to be made to avoid such a possibility.

Japan's interest in Iran is beyond just oil imports.

It has partnered with India in the development of Chabahar port and invested in the southern and Makran regions.

Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has the final say on matters of crucial importance and rarely meets with leaders of foreign countries, so Abe's audience with him speaks of Japan's weight in international diplomacy.

But Iran does not trust Trump. Khamenei said Iran would never repeat the unpleasant experience it had during the talks on the nuclear agreement.

'I do not consider Trump as a person worth exchanging any message with and I have no answer for him nor will I respond to him in the future,' Khamenei told Abe.

Whatever little hope existed for a breakthrough in the impasse were extinguished after the attacks on the oil tankers and with the flurry of accusations and counter accusations.

The prospect of war is higher now than what Abe envisioned when he launched his diplomatic initiative.

Dr Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA, was until recently ICCR India Chair at Reitaku University, Japan.

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