Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Iran next week in hopes of engineering a diplomatic breakthrough that will thaw the icy U.S.-Iran relationship. Having maintained cordial if not friendly relations with Iran despite the growing irritation and anger of other Western nations, Abe hopes to meet Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during his stay in Tehran. Those meetings are likely to materialize, but a meeting of the minds is not: Both sides are too entrenched and the changes demanded are too great. The prime minister’s effort is to be encouraged, nonetheless.
Japan has long internalized a tension in its relations with Iran. Tokyo has called for engagement, befitting its belief that diplomacy is the best way to address regional problems, as well as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil; at one point in the past, it imported 70 percent of its oil from Iran, and today Japan gets 85 percent of its oil and 28 percent of its natural gas from the Persian Gulf. At the same time, however, Tokyo must be sensitive to U.S. concerns, given the bilateral security alliance and the hostility that has dominated that relationship since the Iranian Revolution and the taking of American hostages in 1979.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has amplified tensions in the relationship by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that capped Iran’s nuclear program, and then pursuing a “maximum pressure” campaign that puts the squeeze on Iran (and its trading partners) with unilateral sanctions that aim to force Tehran to change its behavior across a range of concerns. In recent weeks, the United States has sent military assets, including aircraft carriers and bombers, to the region and warned Tehran that it faces a military response if Iran or its proxies threaten the U.S., its assets or partners in the region.
U.S. demands on Iran are extensive, ranging from halting the nuclear program to ending support for forces that Washington believes create instability throughout the Middle East. Many suspect that the U.S. seeks regime change in Tehran and is looking for a pretense to take military action. Trump recently said that while “there’s always a chance” of military action against Iran, “I’d rather not.”
During his visit to Japan last month, Trump welcomed Japanese efforts to mediate between the two countries and last week said that he is ready to talk to Rouhani. While such an encounter seems unlikely, the same could be said for a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: Only months before that materialized last year the two men were exchanging public insults. In this case, however, there is no one who is actively working to bring the two sides together, a role played by South Korean President Moon Jae-in the North Korean example. In fact, many key regional governments prefer to keep Tehran isolated.
Mediation is a high-stakes move for Abe, who could lose face if no meeting with the Iranian leadership materializes or if Trump pulls the rug out from under him with an insulting or provocative statement or tweet. There is speculation that the prime minister has received assurances from both governments that they will not undercut his efforts. Iran’s deputy foreign minister said his government looks forward to the visit — the first by a Japanese prime minister since 1978 — a sign that Tehran will be an accommodating host and avoid embarrassing its guest.
Abe will also benefit from both sides’ desire to tamp down tensions. While there may be hardliners in each government that desire confrontation, the top leaderships do not. Both governments have said as much and neither public wants a fight. That gives Abe the opportunity to make the case for direct engagement, but all he can propose are general principles and vouch for the other side’s good will.
He has the support of other governments like that of Russia and the European Union, but he has no leverage to either entice or force Washington or Tehran to negotiate and he faces powerful headwinds from the governments in Israel and Saudi Arabia that prefer that Tehran is isolated. And if Abe comes back empty-handed or embarrassed, failure could encourage the hardliners and increase tensions further still.
It is in keeping with Abe’s activist and optimistic diplomacy that he is willing to try. This effort will boost his credibility and gravitas when he convenes the Group of 20 summit in Osaka later this month, help him in elections this summer and allows him to say that he is working to help Trump, his partner and ally. On balance, then, there is every reason to pursue this gambit even while expecting limited results.