Six months after international sanctions on Iran were lifted following the nuclear deal it struck with major powers last year, Japan should consider more proactive steps to beef up its relations with Tehran, by building on the bilateral investment treaty signed in February to boost economic ties. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tehran has been weighed for months but has yet to take place, reportedly in part due to the lingering sensitivities in the United States over its ties with Iran.
The government should think of closer ties with Iran as Tokyo’s contribution to promoting the major Mideast power’s return to the international community and supporting the moderate regime of President Hassan Rouhani against domestic hardliners. A possible upset in Iranian politics in its presidential race next year could undermine the nuclear deal and add to instability in the region.
When Japan lifted its sanctions along with others following confirmation by the United Nations nuclear watchdog that Tehran had implemented the steps it promised in the July 2015 accord to curtail its nuclear program, Abe said Japan “must not be left behind” as other countries move quickly to improve relations with Iran, citing traditionally friendly bilateral ties, Iran’s rich oil and natural gas reserves and the market potential of the country with nearly 80 million population.
That traditionally friendly ties, however, have long been affected by international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program — which Western powers charged was Tehran’s attempt to build nuclear weapons. Iran became a target of sanctions after its nuclear development activities, including uranium enrichment, became known in 2002, with Japan along with other countries scaling back economic ties such as by restricting oil imports. A major stake that Japan once had in the development project in Azadegan, one of the world’s largest oil fields, was significantly reduced in the 2000s under pressure from the U.S. government until its eventual pullout from the project in 2010.
The nuclear deal concluded with six powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — last year restricts Iran’s nuclear development program and places it under international surveillance for to up to 15 years. In January, the international sanctions were lifted in accordance with the accord after the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran had taken the promised steps to curb its nuclear activities.
Iran is said to have high expectations for fresh investments by Japanese businesses in such fields as industrial infrastructure as well as automobile and parts manufacturing. So far, European and Chinese companies are ahead in the rush to establish the post-sanctions business foothold in Iran. In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping became the first foreign head of state to visit Tehran following the lifting of sanctions. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, in her visit to Iran in May along with more than 200 business leaders, agreed on a range of joint projects including railway, road construction and oil development worth roughly $37 billion.
Abe has indicated his willingness to visit Tehran — which would be the first by a Japanese prime minister since Takeo Fukuda in 1978 — to shore up economic ties and induce more investments by Japanese firms. But a plan being weighed for Abe to travel to Tehran as early as this month has been postponed — reportedly to avoid Tokyo being drawn into U.S. political discussions on its own ties with Iran.
Even after the nuclear deal has been clinched, anti-Iran popular sentiment remains strong within the U.S. — which reflected Tehran’s anti-U.S. posture since the 1979 Islamic Revolution — and a rapid improvement in U.S.-Iran relations is deemed unlikely. The nuclear deal struck by the administration of President Barack Obama has been politically questioned at home, and Washington, while removing U.S. sanctions over the nuclear program, has yet to lift punitive measures imposed for other reasons such as Tehran’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism.
Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for the presidential race in November, has lashed out against the Obama administration’s Mideast policy and indicated that he would review the nuclear deal with Iran if elected. The government apparently desired to avoid Japan being drawn into the U.S. debate over the issue by Abe visiting Tehran at this time, and will try to arrange a trip after the presidential election is over.
The uncertain prospect of better U.S.-Iran relations keep major companies in other countries still cautious in dealing with Iran. That creates frustration on the part of Iran. This month, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei charged that the U.S. has violated the nuclear deal and continued to thwart Iran’s economic relations with other countries.
Such frustration will not work in favor of Rouhani’s administration in the presidential election scheduled in May 2017. Rouhani’s possible defeat to hardliners could spell an end to the nuclear deal, which would then threaten to reignite military tensions in the region over Iran’s nuclear program.
That would be a nightmare scenario — one that should be avoided at all costs. One way of doing that is to facilitate Iran’s engagement with the international community, and to make sure that the nuclear deal will prove to be a successful example of attempts to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons through negotiations. Japan needs to consider what it can do to make these happen as it weighs relations with Iran going forward.