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In relation to Iran, Japan needs to get its priorities straight. Currently, Japan is spending only 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense while living in a dangerous region. It is critical for Japan’s economic and strategic security that the United States remain willing to protect Japan’s sea routes from the Middle East.

And Japan can’t hope to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council if it continues to do oil deals with an Iran obviously bent on acquiring nuclear weapons while thumbing its nose at the international community.

Condoleezza Rice, on her first trip abroad as U.S. secretary of state, made clear that she does not think the Europeans are being tough enough on Iran. The U.S. is certainly getting more serious about warning others that they cannot continue to do business as usual in Iran and expect to do business in America. BP has already pulled out of Iran, no doubt because of the risk to its investments in the U.S. So have a number of other European companies, as well as large U.S. companies such as Halliburton.

Moreover, few in the U.S. Congress will forget that Iran was responsible for the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 U.S. airmen and injured many more. Iran was also behind the Hezbollah bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983, which killed more than 200 marines and others.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi met his Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, in Tokyo on Feb. 9, claiming (as usual) that Iran’s nuclear energy program is entirely peaceful. Yet we know that Pakistan’s leaders, both civil and military, consistently lied to the U.S. and others about Pakistan’s nuclear program. Iran’s case is even more serious, because (unlike Pakistan, India and Israel) Iran has signed and ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Within a few years, it is highly likely that Iran will be able to put a nuclear warhead on its missiles. There is also the palpable risk that Iran might sell fissile material to the many terrorist groups that it sponsors, including Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

Iran would likely use the threat of its nuclear weapons to boost support for Syria and various anti-Israel terrorist groups, as well as to stir up fellow Shiites in Saudi Arabia and in the Persian Gulf States. Bahrain, for example, hosts key U.S. naval facilities in the Gulf, and has a restive Shiite majority with ancient ties to Iran. Shiite-Sunni tensions in Muslim countries such as Pakistan would also be exacerbated.

Saudi Arabia, which helped fund Pakistan’s nuclear program, might well become interested in having Pakistani nuclear weapons based in its territory in order to counter Iran. (This would not be illegal under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as long as the warheads remained under Pakistani control.)

Others, including Egypt, might also start to believe that the possession of nuclear weapons would enhance their security. So there is much at stake in trying to prevent the regime of the hardline mullahs in Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Admittedly, this is not an easy issue for Japan, which imports about 85 percent of its oil from the Middle East. Sixteen percent these imports come from Iran, making Iran Japan’s third-largest supplier after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. So helping to develop Iran’s Azadegan oil field has considerable attraction in Tokyo.

But Japan also has vital interests in seeking to preserve the nonproliferation regime. North Korea has just left the six-party talks, and is flaunting the fact that it has nuclear weapons. So far, both Iran and North Korea have defied the international community and have not been sanctioned. In fact, the Security Council has not even met on these critical issues.

No doubt there is considerable debate on the Iran problem within the Japanese government. But security must be defined more widely than in terms of energy alone. For an archipelagic state such as Japan, optimal security is to be found in alliance with the dominant maritime power. And nothing could be more vital for Japan than ensuring that the U.S. remains willing to underwrite Japan’s nuclear security, as well as its sea routes from the Persian Gulf.

Moreover, strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance is vital to security in East Asia across the board — in dealing with the rapidly growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as well as managing the problems created by China’s growing assertiveness.

Japan cannot allow its oil interests in Iran to trump its vital interests in the U.S. alliance and in nonproliferation.

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