National | ANALYSIS

Japan SDF mission in focus after U.S. assassination of top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. assassination Friday of a top Iranian military commander and key player in the country’s proxy conflicts in the Middle East will have grave implications for Japan ahead of a planned dispatch of Self-Defense Forces personnel to the region, according to analysts.

The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who headed Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, is expected to trigger an intense backlash by Tehran against American interests in the region — including, perhaps inadvertently, against U.S. ally Japan.

“The strike on Soleimani adds significant risk to Japan’s plans for an SDF deployment in the region, and likely will need to be re-analyzed in the coming weeks as tensions between Tehran and Washington play out,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

“Tokyo was already wary of the mission’s risks before the killing, but now they have increased tenfold,” Miller added.

The White House said in a statement on its official Twitter account that Soleimani’s killing came “at the direction of the president” and was a “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad.”

“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” it added.

The U.S. Defense Department echoed this, adding in a statement that Soleimani and his Quds Force “were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more” in “orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months,” including the Dec. 27 rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that killed one American contractor.

“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the Pentagon said. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”

It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

U.S. President Donald Trump, himself, had no immediate comment, but tweeted the image of an American flag.

As the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Quds Force members have deployed into Syria’s long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.

Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad.

U.S. officials say the forces under Soleimani — who fought in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war — taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq, a claim that Iran has denied. Soleimani himself is a revered figure among many Iranians, who see him as a selfless hero fighting Iran’s enemies abroad.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S.

Iranian state TV carried a statement by Khamenei also calling Soleimani “the international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death.

While there was no immediate response from the Japanese government over the targeted killing, the stunning news was likely to put Tokyo on edge ahead of a planned deployment of SDF personnel to the region scheduled for early next month.

In June last year, an oil tanker operated by a company based in Japan was damaged in an attack in the Gulf of Oman that the U.S. blamed on Iran. That attack — which Tokyo has said was not conclusively orchestrated by Tehran — occurred while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran for a rare visit to the Islamic Republic by a Japanese leader.

The Middle East is crucial for Japan’s crude oil imports, and the Cabinet late last month formally adopted the plan to deploy the SDF unit for an intelligence-gathering mission in the sea off Yemen and Oman amid rising tensions between U.S. and Iran.

Washington had urged Tokyo to join a U.S.-led coalition patrol force in the Strait of Hormuz, called the International Maritime Security Construct. Tokyo, however, decided to deploy its own “independent” unit to the areas excluding the Strait of Hormuz, seeking to maintain its relatively good relationship with Iran, which had a 5.2 percent share of Japan’s crude oil imports in 2017. Japan was a leading buyer of Iranian oil for decades before U.S.-led sanctions over the country’s nuclear program.

Media reports quoting senior Japanese officials, however, said the SDF unit will “cooperate” with the U.S.-led force and may provide it with intelligence.

“Tokyo needs stability in the region and a steady supply of cheap energy to maintain sustainable economic growth,” Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said of the rationale for the planned deployment.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet in Tokyo on Dec. 20. | VIA REUTERS
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet in Tokyo on Dec. 20. | VIA REUTERS

Japan has actively worked to ease tensions between Iran and the U.S., as seen by Abe’s trip to the Iranian capital — the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister in 41 years — and a reciprocal visit by President Hassan Rouhani to Tokyo last month.

But Soleimani’s killing will put Japan “in a tough position,” said James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Abe will have a tough time defending Trump’s action, but it’s also hard for him to condemn it,” Schoff said. “To the extent that the Middle East becomes more unsettled — maybe even more violent — this endangers Japanese interests in the region and makes the pending SDF dispatch all the more tenuous.”

Schoff said that while it was unclear how severe the unfolding crisis could become, “the Abe administration will urge calm dialogue with its diplomacy … trying to minimize the chances of a new spiral of regional violence that could push Trump to call on friends and allies to stand by him.”

Miller, from the Japan Institute of International Affairs, agreed, saying that much would hinge on what happens next.

“Japan’s broader relations with Iran — which are solid — will be under even more stress depending on the next stages of this brewing conflict,” he said.

But fears were growing after Rouhani vowed Friday that Iran and the “free nations of the region” will take revenge on the United States for the killing.

“There is no doubt that the great nation of Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America,” Rouhani said on the Iranian government website, referring to its allies across the Middle East.

Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank in Canberra, said that Washington and Tehran “are headed towards a major escalatory cycle in the Middle East, as Iran won’t not respond to this attack.”

“They will respond with asymmetric and hybrid operations against the U.S. and its allies in the region, and beyond,” he said.

“For Japan, that means its main focus will be on disruption to oil supplies from the Persian Gulf by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and proxy forces, perhaps attacking Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council oil facilities,” Davis said. “Any significant disruption would weaken Japanese economic security, so that has to be the main concern.”

Information from AP added.