In the summit level diplomacy on North Korea that started early last year, Japan, an important stakeholder in the Northeast Asia, was sidelined. It is a different matter that none of the summits yielded any positive outcome. However, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo decided to mediate between the US and Iran. Earlier this month, Abe traveled to Tehran to ease the stand-off between them following President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 2015 agreement on Iran’s civil nuclear program between Tehran and a group of six world powers. The US re-imposed sanctions on Iran, thereby heightening tensions in the Middle East.
In hindsight, the reasons for Abe to break the impasse between the US and Iran could be two-fold: first to regain some repute after being sidelined from the summit diplomacy over North Korea; and second to realize a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un to address the long pending issue of abduction of Japanese nationals by the North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
The question ‘Was Abe able to achieve any of the above objectives or even came closer to what he desired?’ merits assessment. The answer to the first is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Yes, because Abe had tacit approval of President Trump to visit Tehran and engage in a dialogue with the Supreme leader and the President of Iran. No, because even while Abe was in Iran, two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The US did not miss the opportunity to accuse Iran for the attack amid escalation of tensions and a prospect of military action by the US which could result in unintended consequences.
Iran was quick to deny any role in the attack on the tankers (Japan's Kokuka Courageous and Norwegian tanker Front Altair) in the Gulf of Oman despite a video footage showing Iranian forces in a small boat removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the ships. The answer to the second is: a summit with Kim Jung-un is destined to remain as Abe’s long-lasting wish and could very well to remain unrealized.
Another consideration that may have weighed on Abe’s mind is that he ought to regain some of his image after summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2018. He he failed to make any progress on the issue of peace treaty with Russia. Also, no headway was made for a solution on the Kurile chain of islands (Northern Territories).
By hoping to draw the attention of the world on his mediation role and skills in Iran, Abe also wants to display his diplomatic clout to the international community ahead of the summit talks of Group of 20 later this month.
However, Abe’s potential role in international diplomacy is very critical keeping in mind the forthcoming House of Councilor’s election this summer. It is to be seen if such optimism could be translated into electoral success in the House of Councilors.
It may be mentioned that Abe’s visit to Tehran is the first by an incumbent Prime Minister of Japan since 1978 when Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda visited Iran. Fukuda’s 1978 visit happened not long before the Shah of Iran was toppled by the Islamic Revolution. In 1983, Abe’s father Shintaro, then foreign minister, visited Iran. 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.
For this mediatory role, Abe met Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rowhani and conveyed the merit of dialogue and that he had Trump's backing for this initiative. But the attack on the two oil tankers has put an end to Abe’s mediatory role which remains a non-starter and no tangible outcome are in sight.
Was Abe welcome in Tehran? Yes, after all, personal ties and history do play an important role in diplomacy. Tehran leadership welcomed Abe’s attempts to volunteer and mediate and called it a “turning point”. Ironically, Abe's persuasive skill to see the merit of dialogue with room for flexibility did not cut any ice. The sticking point was that Rowhani categorically said that Tehran would not be “bullied” into negotiations unless both sides sit on the table within the framework of international law, and that the US lifts sanctions against Iran.
Before the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, nuclear energy accounted for almost a quarter of Japan's total energy consumption. After all 54 reactors were shut down following outcry against anything nuclear, Japan was compelled to diversify energy sources. Abe is well aware that his country is heavily dependent on imports of oil from the Middle East, though crude oil from Iran accounted for just 5.3 per cent 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 percent of its total oil imports, so the end of U.S. sanction waivers had relatively little impact on bilateral ties.
Any disruption in energy supply resulting from any crisis in the Middle East would severely impact Japan's economy. So, stakes are high for Abe to protect his country's economic interest, which is another reason that he volunteered to mediate between the US and Iran.
Dr. Rajaram Panda is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India, New Delhi.