Commentary / Japan

Why Japanese mediation of U.S.-Iran tensions makes sense

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

Reports indicate that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is heading to Southwest Asia next week to mediate tensions between the United States and Iran. The trip comes as the U.S. has increased pressure in seeking to restrict Iran’s oil trade, designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and attributing attacks on two commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf to Iran.

The White House issued strong messaging with commitment of increased troop deployment to the region while Iran has countered that it would not cower to U.S. pressure. In response to rising tensions, Abe offered his services to U.S. President Donald Trump to help temper the situation, which both Trump and Iran’s Foreign Minister Abbas Mousavi welcomed in public remarks. Mediation could be helpful in de-escalating tensions between the two countries, though some observers may ask why Japan?

Japan may seem like an odd choice, but there are five reasons why it is the sensible option to mediate between the U.S. and Iran.

First, Japan has good relations with both countries, especially at the administration level where Abe has healthy ties with both Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Japan is a key ally for the U.S., and the special “Donald-Shinzo” relationship has earned its share of media play, especially with the four-day state visit that took place just over a week ago. Less publicized is Abe’s relationship with Rouhani, whom he has met for six consecutive years in his current prime ministerial tenure. This personal relationship buttresses long-standing diplomatic ties between Japan and Iran that have remained by-and-large conflict free. In fact, this is a landmark year for Japan and Iran as the two celebrate 90 years of established diplomatic relations.

Second, Japan has none of the historical or religious baggage of other would-be mediators. Japan has no record of conquest or colonialism in Southwest Asia, and the absence of religious tensions that exist elsewhere offers a more stable foundation of trust than other mediators may be able to provide.

This will be especially helpful in Abe’s direct engagement that is scheduled with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran who doubles as the country’s head of state and religious authority. Japanese-proposed options could also allow hardliners in the Iranian government to entertain proposed off-ramps without potential fallout that would come from accepting “Western” solutions.

Third, Japan has demonstrated its willingness to go its own way on Middle East policy, most notably in its break from U.S. postures towards the Palestinians. This clear divergence started in 1973 when the Japanese government issued the so-called Nikaido statement under then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka that recognized the legitimacy of the Palestinian state and called for restraint from Israel. Japan has maintained this policy and distanced itself from recent U.S. decisions such as recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights or moving its diplomatic mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This willingness to stand apart from the U.S. on policies of interest to the Iranian government will foster trust in Japan’s role as a mediator.

Fourth, the Japanese government is a strong proponent of the rules-based international order. Japan’s demonstrated willingness to champion international law will serve it well in advising U.S. and Iranian leaders to temper their responses. Further, it enables Japan to serve as the steady hand of the international community in reinforcing accepted rules and norms in de-escalation efforts.

Fifth, Japan has a stake in the game for seeing a peaceful resolution. Although Japan only imports about 5 percent of its energy resources directly from Iran, a total of about 80 percent comes from the region and travels through the straits of Hormuz, a strategic choke point Iran can exploit should tensions continue to escalate. This generates issue attention from the Japanese government and means that Abe will be willing to expend capital with both the U.S. and Iran to see the two parties move away from potential armed conflict.

Of course, Japan’s role in mediation is not without its challenges. The Abe government will have to demonstrate an ability to influence U.S. decision-making. The fact that Japan has stood apart from the Trump administration on issues related to Israel and Palestine may set a foundation of trust with Iranian officials, but if Abe truly intends to mediate, he will need to garner concessions from both sides. Abe’s ability to do so from the White House will test the strength of his relationship with Trump.

Another challenge is that the postwar Japanese government has no history of mediating conflict between nations. Experience is not necessarily a prerequisite for these sorts of engagements, but it does mean that this will be precedent setting for the Japanese government. The successes or failures of this endeavor will color future diplomatic engagements, meaning that missteps will not only affect this effort, but potential opportunities in the future. The Abe government will have to balance between risk management and risk aversion in pursuit of de-escalation measures.

Assuming Abe can overcome these challenges, what can he hope to achieve in inserting himself as mediator between Trump and Rouhani? Without possessing the carrots and sticks to entice speedy resolution of conflict, Abe will have to focus on improving information flow between the two sides while presenting ideas for ways of settling disputes. He can leverage his personal relationships with Trump and Rouhani to reinforce common interests and encourage the two governments to adopt a more conciliatory problem-solving focus in dealing with their various security issues. It is unrealistic to expect that Abe can resolve long-standing problems between the U.S. and Iran, but he can present off-ramps to de-escalation that neither side is willing to introduce on their own.

Not only is Japan a logical choice to intercede between the U.S. and Iran, it presents an excellent option for serving as mediator in other conflict among nations. Japan is the lone Asian representative in the Group of Seven. Its constitutional limitation on use of military force makes it unique among global leaders. Japan’s continued identity as an economic powerhouse presents it with some non-military options to employ in mediation. This role offers an appropriate function for Japan among global leaders as something that employs its available instruments of power and respects its institutional limitations.

Abe’s push to mediate between the U.S. and Iran is a logical move that could succeed in providing necessary off-ramps for the two countries. It will test his skills as a diplomat and leader on the global stage, but it provides his government the chance to explore a role Japan is primed to play in the Reiwa Era. Will Abe succeed as a mediator of international conflict and set Japan up to do the same in future scenarios? The test begins next week.

Based in Niigata, Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.