Can Japan mediate the Iran file?

Rania Makram , Tuesday 17 Dec 2019

Rouhani’s visit to Tokyo may signal an imminent breakthrough in negotiations between Tehran and Washington, though rapprochement will hinge on compromise on both sides

Can Japan mediate the Iran file?
Rouhani and Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last June

Amid intensified disputes between the US and Iran, Japan emerged as a new channel for mediation between the two countries. The Iranian nuclear file, Tehran’s role in destabilising its regional neighbours and the absence of direct talks between the two parties allowed Tokyo to become the destination of choice for both Tehran and Washington, embarking on efforts to put out the fire before war breaks out between the two rivals.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was scheduled to land in Japan on 19 December. This is the first Iranian visit in 19 years since former president Mohamed Khatami visited Japan. The present visit comes in response to the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Iran in June 2019. The last time a Japanese official visited Tehran was 41 years ago.

US President Donald Trump visited Tokyo in May. Countries including Iraq, Oman, Switzerland and France have sought to mediate between Washington and Tehran until Japan imposed itself as a reality on the ground.

The scarcity of mutual visits between Tehran and Tokyo imposed a series of preparations to be conducted prior to Rouhani’s visit to Japan. Following Abe’s visit to Iran in May, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi flew to Japan to arrange for Rouhani’s trip.

Rouhani’s visit to Japan derives its importance from several factors. It follows his US counterpart’s visit to Tokyo during which Trump tackled the Iranian nuclear crisis and the worsening dispute over the nuclear agreement concluded in 2015, and the sanctions the US imposed on Iran in May 2018, following Tehran’s retreat on some of its obligations related to the nuclear agreement in response to the failure of European countries to comply with their obligations in the agreement.

The current Japanese-US understanding has contributed to qualifying Tokyo to mediate between the two parties, which the US expressed satisfaction about.

Abe’s visit to Tehran came after mediation with the US when the Japanese prime minister visited Washington a month earlier. The declared goal of the visit is to discuss differences over the Iranian nuclear programme, the escalation of tensions in the region due to Iranian interference in many files and reducing tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Rouhani’s visit comes amid worsening economic conditions due to the US economic sanctions on Iran. The sanctions led Japanese refiners to halt importing oil from Iran. Japan was the fourth largest importer of Iranian oil in Asia. The Iranian regime reduced its social programmes, through which it used to guarantee the loyalty of low-income segments of society. Tehran also announced a host of austerity programmes, which it called “the resistance budget”.

Rouhani’s visit to Japan is expected to include negotiations on the resumption of Japan importing oil from Iran, and increasing trade between the two countries to decrease Iran’s domestic frustrations as a result of the deteriorating economic conditions. Observers believe that Iran is seeking to receive $20 billion from Japan in exchange for oil purchases.

Japan is largely a net importer in its trade relations with Iran. Japanese imports from Iran in 2017 amounted to 400 billion yen, of which more than 98 per cent went to importing crude oil. Rouhani’s visit is an opportunity for Iran to break away from the economic isolation US sanctions imposed, a chance for the Iranian regime to improve its image at home, and to show that it is able to adjust its conditions even amid escalating tensions with the US.

Iran feels comfortable about Japan being a mediator due to the strong relations between the two countries, and the fact that this mediation comes from outside the countries involved in the nuclear agreement, which allows Iran to feel free in negotiations and discuss points of disagreement it shares with the US. The Japanese Foreign Ministry expressed that “Tokyo is the only capital the two sides can talk to openly.”

Chief analyst of Energy Aspects Richard Mallinson opines that Japan focuses on trade and diplomatic relations in the Middle East as a means of being present in the region, rather than resorting to the deployment of military forces. Japan believes this may boost its opportunities with Tehran, and that Iran may regard it as the most neutral among US allies.

Rouhani’s visit is also largely seen as a sign of the success of Abe’s visit to Tehran, which observers believe was a visit to explore how serious Iran is about negotiations to reduce tensions with the US concerning many files. In this context, Rouhani’s visit to Tokyo is likely to succeed in achieving its goals.

Japan seeks to succeed in its mediation with Iran for a number of reasons. First, reducing tensions between the US and Iran, particularly regarding the nuclear file, will allow Japan to resume importing oil in Iran. Tokyo wants to maintain its options open when it comes to importing oil to protect itself against potential disruptions in oil supplies from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. The nuclear agreement provided an opportunity for Japan to buy Iranian oil at a low price.

Consequently, Japan would expand its trade relations with Iran, and compete with China on offers to develop Iran’s infrastructure. Japan hopes not to lose profitable trade deals with Iran in favour of its strategic competitors, such as China.

Second, Japan wants to enhance its international and regional role through the success of this mediation, which includes international superpowers such as the US, and major regional powers such as Iran, especially after Abe achieved little success to reach an agreement with Russia on disputed islands, and to resolve the issue with North Korea concerning kidnapped Japanese citizens.

Third, Japanese mediation efforts between the US and Iran represent an opportunity for Japan to build bridges of cooperation with the US in a manner that ensures it avoids a violent US response to Tokyo’s attempts to break out of the guardianship imposed by the US, and to act pragmatically on many issues away from US interests.

Japan’s success in mediation efforts depends on the willingness of the US and Iran to agree to compromises, and stop the brinkmanship practised by the two sides. This is not going to be easy knowing that the two sides are raising the ceiling of their demands.

Iran wants the US to lift the sanctions imposed after the nuclear agreement, the return of the US as a party to the agreement, and that Washington pays the value of the losses incurred by Tehran as a result of sanctions.

On the other hand, the US has set strict conditions to reach agreement with Iran about the nuclear file. The US wants to conclude a new agreement that includes stopping threats posed by Iran. US State Department Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said “the 12 conditions previously announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo form the basis of this agreement.”

Pompeo’s 12 conditions include Iran’s disclosure of the details of its nuclear programme, allowing perpetual inspection, limiting the proliferation of ballistic missiles and for Iran to cease its support of terrorist organisations and militias in the Middle East.


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