The Japan Forum on International Relations

September 30,2019

Japan Needs Its Own Diplomacy Towards Iran

Iran is a major power in Middle East, the center of the Ancient Orient, and home to many world heritage sites that are well known to Japanese people. After the Persian Empire, it was ruled by dynasties all we have heard of from the world history class: Achaemenids, Seljuqs, Timurid, Safavids, etc. In Middle East, Japan has maintained a long-time friendly relations with Iran, along with Turkey.

Iran’s relations with the United States got rapidly worsen when Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah KHOMEINI replaced the last monarch of Iran, Pahlavi, which known as Islamic Revolution in 1979. There was also ‘Iran hostage crisis’ that hardliner Islamists took over the US Embassy in Tehran. Due to the circumstances, the symbolic project of Japan and Iran friendship, Iran-Japan Petrochemical Company (IJPC) got stranded. Since then, Regan, Bush, and other US administrations have called Iran as “axis of evil” to show their hostility. Under the observation that Iran is secretly developing and trying to possess nuclear capability, the US and allies had reached to the agreement with Iran on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration, however, withdrew from the JCPOA, under the suspicion that Iran knows the loopholes of the agreement, and is continuing the nuclear development.

The US now does not have to rely on Middle East as much as it used to, in terms of energy imports, due to the increase in domestic shale gas production. This trend became apparent with the Trump administration, as its hardliner approach to the region is seen such as recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In such political context, Prime Minister ABE Shinzo flew to and tried to communicate with Iran, based on the historically friendly relationship of the two countries. Although Supreme Leader Ali KHAMENEI and President Hassan ROUHANI voiced that Iran does not wish for war, the mood was chilled when a Japanese tanker ship was attacked during PM ABE’s stay, by suspectedly Iranian militia.

Regardless of various opinions about PM ABE’s Iran visit, there was no remarkable achievement made, mainly due to the fact that the US itself is not seriously willing to improve the relations with Iran, and Japan is too close to the US. This was a lesson for Japan to reaffirm the difficulty of the situation in Middle East. Meanwhile, the energy condition of Japan is not easy since the Great East Japan that caused nuclear power plant incidents, hence Japan cannot help but continuing to rely on the Middle Eastern oils. The Strait of Hormuz, where the Japanese tanker was attacked, and oil imports to Japan are passing through, is indeed vital for Japan. Therefore, Japan needs to continue its own persistent negotiation with Iran, which faces the Strait of Hormuz, even if that would set aside the alliance with the US.

(This is the English translation of an article written by FUNADA Hajime, Member of the House of Representatives (Liberal Democratic Party), which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on July 3, 2019.)