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U.S. sets negotiating table on Iran for Tokyo, Beijing

by Takashi Kitazume

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The United States wants Japan to join the international effort to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and expects China to play an appropriate role in the issue as a “responsible stakeholder,” American experts told the May 23 trilateral symposium.

But Yukio Okamoto, a former special adviser to the prime minister, said the issue could potentially divide Japan and America.

“I am afraid that the Iran issue will pose a serious problem for Japan’s relations with the U.S.,” he said.

Washington has for years been urging Japan to reconsider its plan to invest in Iran’s Azadegan oil field, saying the deal could undermine international pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The U.S. and some European nations suspect that Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a cover for making nuclear weapons, and have pushed for sanctions if Tehran continues to refuse to stop the program.

Richard Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said Japan should have a seat at the negotiating table on the Iran issue, which is occupied by the five permanent members of United Nations Security Council and Germany.

Michael Green, a senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Iran is “emerging as an issue that the U.S. and Japan have to think hard about,” raising questions about what he called Japan’s “attachment” to the Azadegan project.

Before it takes part in the negotiating process, “people in the Japanese government and academia need to think what tools Japan is going to bring, what strategy Japan is going to bring (to the table) to get Iran to give up nuclear weapons,” Green said. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for power generation.

Noting that nuclear nonproliferation is important, Okamoto said Japan would have to come up with an alternative proposal to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons if it is to oppose limiting commercial ties with Tehran.

But he said the U.S. must be clear in its policy on what to do with countries developing or possessing nuclear weapons — including those that remain outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty framework. The U.S. should also be consistent in its policy on commercial transactions with Iran, he said, charging that it does not pressure investments by European companies in the country.

Among the major powers, China and Russia oppose sanctions on Iran, saying that there is no evidence yet that Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

The six countries have agreed to offer a package of incentives for Iran in exchange for scrapping the uranium-enrichment program. But it is not clear if China and Russia would agree to imposing sanctions — as demanded by the U.S. — if Iran should spurn the latest offer.

Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, argued that being a “responsible stakeholder” does not mean that China should simply follow the U.S. lead on how to deal with Iran.

“I don’t know whether this is simply the Iranian nuclear issue or it is the Iranian issue, or the Middle East issue, or it is the antiterrorism issue,” Wang said, warning that hasty action could be a repeat of the Iraq war, launched on what later turned out to be doubtful “evidence” that Baghdad was building weapons of mass destruction.