Is Japan the Perfect U.S.-Iran Mediator?

With interests on both sides and its own nuclear complexities, Japan may be in prime position to help Washington and Tehran reach a resolution.

On November 9-10, Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida will travel to Iran to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as well as President Hassan Rouhani to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, among other issues such as the Syrian civil war and counternarcotics. Kishida’s visit will be the fourth high-level exchange between Tokyo and Tehran this fall and will build upon a leaders summit between Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Rouhani last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. During the bilateral meeting, Abe encouraged Rouhani to have flexibility in its P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and noted that the “international expectations are high”. But of greater significance was Abe’s offer to work with Tehran in order to resolve its nuclear standoff with the West.

Rouhani for his part appears receptive to Japan’s involvement on nuclear talks. Indeed, Japan’s desire to play an active role in this dispute is not a new development. The leaders summit was preceded by a high-level visit to Tehran earlier in September by Abe’s special envoy and Vice President of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Masahiko Koumura. During this trip Koumura, a former foreign minister with years of experience on Middle Eastern issues, expressed Japan’s desire to rekindle its historical relationship with Iran, rather than merely calling out Tehran for its intransigence in the nuclear talks. The visit from Koumura seems to have given momentum to Japan-Iran ties, which have been stagnant for years as a result of UNSC sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear program. Indeed, Koumura’s trip began a process of healing after relations hit their nadir when the Japanese Foreign Ministry publicly ridiculed an attempt at rogue diplomacy by former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who traveled to Iran last year. Further inflaming ties were comments by former Japanese officials under the Noda government that Japan should be prepared to potentially deploy the Maritime Self Defense Forces to the Persian Gulf for minesweeping in the event that Iran attempts to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

Japan’s outreach to Iran is significant for several reasons. First, these high-level meetings highlight that both Tehran and Tokyo are keen to have the nuclear issue resolved and to expand bilateral cooperation. The primary goal of course would be to restore their significant bilateral energy trade to pre-sanctions levels when Japan imported nearly 500,000 barrels per day of Iranian crude oil in 2006. The sanctions bite has been significant for both countries. Iran’s economy has languished under the sanctions regime. Meanwhile, Japan has struggled to fully implement the strong US-backed sanctions against Tehran, not least because oil shipments from Iran constitute nearly 9 percent of Japan’s total energy imports. As a result, the US Treasury Department granted Japan a partial waiver on its Iran sanctions provided Tokyo continues to progressively reduce its imports. And these cuts have been dramatic. For example, in 2012, Japan was the fifth largest importer of Iranian crude oil, however, due to economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, exports to Japan fell to 120,000 barrels per day in June 2013 from around 300,000 in 2012.The importance of this trade loss was further magnified by last year’s nuclear crisis at Fukushima, and the reduction of domestic energy sources created by the fallout. Currently all of Japan’s fifty-four nuclear reactors are offline, which leaves Tokyo increasingly dependent on other energy sources.

But restoring the flow of crude from Iran is not the only factor driving Tokyo’s push to engage Tehran. It is not coincidental that Japan’s diplomatic outreach is dovetailing with thawing relations between the US and Iran. Even before Obama’s phone call with Rouhani, Koumura noted that his visit was largely influenced by Washington. Tokyo has obvious motivations for wanting to assume this role as a mediator, aside from its energy concerns. The US has been pushing Japan for years to take a stronger role in the international security realm as a way to reduce its burdens and also in order to strengthen the US-Japan alliance. Washington also rightly believes that Tokyo will promote it interests more so than previous Iran brokers such as Turkey and Brazil.

Japan’s dynamic-regional security environment – highlighted by an aggressive Chinese posture in the East China Sea – has also stepped up Tokyo’s confidence in and dependence on its alliance with Washington. The Abe government is now looking for opportunities to become a respected global player on international-security issues and simultaneously a more trusted ally to the US. Finally, engaging with Iran allows Japan to exploit Beijing’s tacit hedging policies directed towards Tehran. The Abe government recognizes the importance of building relationships across the continent as evidenced by his busy international travel schedule during his first year in office – mostly to states that surround China. But this effort is not purely China-centric. Abe also has been aggressively lobbying countries in the Middle East – as evidenced by visits to Turkey, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia over the past year– to work with Japan’s nuclear industry as they develop plans for their nascent nuclear programs.