Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit Tokyo and meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, amid rising tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program and with severe economic sanctions imposed by the United States.
However, Japan-based experts say Tokyo has little diplomatic leverage to sway either Tehran or Washington and warn that Abe may not achieve substantial progress in the upcoming meeting with Rouhani.
On Dec. 6 in Vienna, Iranian officials threatened to apply in early January new restrictions on visits by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Doing so would be Iran’s fifth step reducing its obligations under a 2015 deal to freeze its nuclear development program.
Since May, Tehran has taken a new step every two months to gradually reduce its commitment to obligations in the 2015 deal. But restricting the monitoring activities of the IAEA could raise the nuclear crisis to another level, warned Yasuyuki Matsunaga, professor of international relations at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
“If you place conditions on the acceptance of IAEA inspectors, that’s no good,” he said.
“The core condition of the deal is that everything will be conducted under IAEA monitoring. If Iran stops fully cooperating with the IAEA, that would effectively undermine the nuclear deal,” he said.
“Japan should tell Iran that it shouldn’t reduce cooperation with IAEA inspections,” he said.
On Monday in Tehran, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi reportedly told Japanese reporters that Iran now hopes “the strong bilateral relationship” between Japan and Iran “will be able to overcome pressure” from the United States.
He also said that Tehran hopes the Japanese government and firms in the nation will resume importing oil from Iran, according to NHK.
But it is unlikely that Japan will be able to defy or bypass U.S.-imposed sanctions and resume importing crude oil from Iran in accordance with Tehran’s apparent wishes, Japan-based experts say.
Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump declared the U.S. would withdraw unilaterally from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, raising tension with the Middle Eastern country in an apparent effort to erase the diplomatic legacies of his predecessor Barack Obama.
Trump has re-introduced powerful economic sanctions against Iran, which have sparked severe inflation and badly affected the Iranian people.
Washington now threatens to punish any firms — including those linked with Japan — that import crude oil from the country, by applying fines and restricting access to the U.S. market.
Earlier this year, Iran, France and several other European countries made efforts to save the nuclear deal by exploring ways to bypass the U.S. sanctions and allow Tehran to earn foreign cash by exporting oil.
But efforts have stalled in the face of the tough stance maintained by the U.S. against Iran.
“Common sense says there is little Japan can do” to defy U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran, Matsunaga said.
“Even Iranian diplomatic experts must know that Japan cannot take any measures that would go against the sanctions,” he said.
Koichiro Tanaka, professor at Keio University and a noted Iran expert in Japan, largely agrees with Matsunaga’s view.
The Abe-Rouhani meeting planned for Friday “will be rather ceremonial,” with little substantial diplomatic development, he said.
“There is no particular agenda for which (Japan) can expect any progress,” Tanaka said, adding that some critics in Iran have even questioned why Rouhani needs to travel to Japan at this time.
Rouhani’s visit is planned to extend for two days after he attends an international conference of Muslim leaders in Malaysia. Abe visited Tehran in June, in an attempt to ease rising military tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
That trip followed Washington’s proposal to create a coalition to safeguard strategic waters near the Strait of Hormuz — a key military choke point — in order to keep the Iranian military force in check.
Another likely topic for discussion in Tokyo is Abe’s plan to dispatch a Self-Defense Force destroyer and patrol plane to the Middle East, from which Japan imports nearly 90 percent of the crude oil it consumes each year.
During the summit meeting in Tokyo, Abe is expected to explain the dispatch plan to Rouhani to seek a green light from Iran for the SDF operation.
Tehran hasn’t shown any strong opposition to Abe’s plan so far, and Rouhani is likely to give it his approval because the areas in which the SDF operation is planned do not include those around the Strait of Hormuz, both Tanaka and Matsunaga said.
“In peacetime, (the planned SDF deployment) would not pose any problems for Iran,” Tanaka said.
Tokyo has been under pressure since the U.S. urged Japan to join its coalition patrol force. Japan has relied heavily on U.S. military forces to maintain peace and stability in the Middle East, but participation in the U.S.-led coalition patrol force against Iran would cause a deterioration in Japan’s ties and even damage the country’s long-established reputation as a politically neutral presence in the region.
Despite being a military ally of the U.S., Japan has maintained a good relationship with Iran for years. In 2017 the country supplied 5.2 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports.
Abe’s plan to resolve this dilemma is to send the SDF unit, on what he says is an “independent” mission for “research and investigation,” to the sea off Oman and Yemen and its surrounding areas, not including the Strait of Hormuz.
However, Tanaka pointed out that the government hasn’t explained to the public yet what response it will take if Iran and the U.S.-led coalition force were to engage in combat in the region.
It is not clear if Japan could maintain neutrality, by taking no action at all, when it has an SDF unit nearby, Tanaka said.
“The government should be well-prepared so that it can explain its position to Iran or the U.S. in such an emergency,” Tanaka said.