Commentary / Japan

Why Japan should stay out of U.S.-Iran spat

by Thomas Cynkin

The Japan Times reported May 9 that “Japan hopes to mediate between U.S. and Iran to rescue 2015 deal.” This would be a miscalculation on the part of Tokyo.

Japan has been one of America’s staunchest and most loyal allies. Tokyo supports most of Washington’s diplomatic efforts, provides generous host nation support for U.S. forces in Japan and consistently seeks ways to enhance the Japan-U.S. alliance, if at a cautious pace. This trend manifested itself most recently at the “two-plus-two” talks between U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers, who agreed to extend the bilateral alliance cooperation in the field of cyberspace.

However, at the risk of stating the obvious, Japan’s national interests do not coincide completely with those of the United States. Over the years, to maintain strong ties with its only ally, Tokyo has acted with considerable restraint to avoid any breaches with Washington. That said, Japan has over the years quietly pursued foreign and security policy differentiation from the U.S. on the margins. This may be explained in part as the natural pursuit of Japan’s national interests. At the same time, it may represent at some level an expression of frustration among Japan’s policymakers that Japan’s foreign and security policy is constrained by Tokyo’s need to maintain harmony with Washington.

For example, in contrast to U.S. support of Israel in what has been termed the Arab-Israeli conflict, Tokyo has tended to tilt toward the Arab side to protect Japan’s commercial and energy interests — but only to the extent that U.S. feathers are not overly ruffled.

And even among Japan’s conservative old guard are those who appear to view Cuba, longtime bete noire of the U.S., somewhat sympathetically — perhaps even with sneaking admiration — as a “small island country with scarce resources” that has defiantly thumbed its nose at U.S. domination.

Myanmar represents a more nuanced example of differentiated Japanese foreign and security policy. Even at the height of tensions between the U.S. and Myanmar over the latter’s military rule and suppression of human rights and democracy, sentiment ran high among Japanese elites in support of a softer approach. Japanese policymakers rightly viewed with alarm China’s unchecked encroachments in Myanmar. Above and beyond geopolitical considerations, Myanmar was viewed sentimentally by many in Japan’s older generation as generally pro-Japanese, with the people of Myanmar considered to have largely supported Japanese forces against the British during World War II.

Japanese politicians have at times even seemed fixated on Myanmar; there were at one point three separate Myanmar Parliamentary Friendship Leagues simultaneously active in the Diet. Likewise, Japanese business has regarded Myanmar — with its literate, English-speaking, motivated workforce — as a new frontier for Japanese foreign direct investment. Small wonder Japan has attempted to be more forward-leaning with Myanmar than has the U.S. However, while Washington has been at times a bit irked, the stakes are sufficiently small that this has never amounted to more than a minor irritant in bilateral relations.

Iran, however, represents a game with higher stakes, and Japan-U.S. relations concerning Iran have a fraught history. Following the Nov. 4, 1979, seizure of American hostages and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a tumultuous time for the U.S., Secretary of State Cyrus Vance — echoing the sentiment of U.S. Congress — complained to Foreign Minister Saburo Okita that Japanese oil purchases and other financial dealings with Tehran had been undermining American efforts to obtain the release of the American hostages through economic pressure.

“Americans have complained that Japan has been snapping up, at premium prices, the oil that Tehran has been prevented from selling to the United States since President Carter ordered a halt to American purchases of Iranian oil last month,” The New York Times reported at the time. Accordingly, the government of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira decided in December 1979 to reduce imports from Iran to the level prevailing before the hostage crisis began by placing a ceiling on oil purchases from Iran at 620,000 barrels a day. Japan, the largest purchaser of Iranian crude at the time, had been obtaining about 10 percent of its annual requirements from Iran; Japan only ceased all oil imports from Iran halfway through the 15-month hostage crisis.

Even today, this remains a touchy subject for Washington policymakers. Japan has ever since exercised caution about getting crosswise with Washington about Japan’s ties with Iran, while at the same time carefully cultivating a more positive relationship with Tehran.

Following the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, Japan’s foreign minister and Iran signed a key bilateral investment treaty in Tokyo in February 2016. Tokyo also announced it would provide up to ¥10 billion in export credit to Japanese companies doing business with Iran through the Japan Bank of International Cooperation and foreign trade insurance underwriter Nippon Export and Investment Insurance. Later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even considered visiting Tehran to bolster Japan-Iran relations. None of this raised particular alarms in Washington, given that other countries were making similar moves to compete in the lucrative Iranian market.

Now, however, with the Trump administration’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, Japan finds itself on the other side of the issue. Offering to mediate entails substantial risks, as this would inevitably involve efforts to soften Washington’s position — even to argue that Washington should preserve or return to the nuclear deal with Iran, rather than scrapping and renegotiating it.

Given the history, Japan’s mediation efforts might be viewed through Washington’s eyes as being aimed at prioritizing short-term commercial interests over critical national security issues. Far better for Japan to exercise its formidable prowess in counseling behind the scenes, and to be seen as a close ally on this issue, rather than attempt to take center stage as a mediator and risk damaging the broader U.S.-Japan relationship.

Thomas Cynkin is a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.

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