WASHINGTON – Amid heightened U.S.-Iran tensions sparked by the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Japan’s relationships with key players as well as its soft power assets create an opening for much-needed diplomacy between the United States, Iran and Arab states.
Abe would do well to use this opportunity to encourage U.S. President Donald Trump to double down on a long-term U.S. strategy to invest in regional stability.
Abe’s mid-January tour of the Persian Gulf, which occurred alongside the Jan. 14 U.S.-Japan-South Korea foreign minister trilateral meeting, will measure the returns on Japan’s investments in its Middle East interests, which are structural as well as increasingly geopolitical.
Japan has a nearly existential reliance on stability in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It still relies on oil and gas from the Middle East to meet at least 90 percent of its energy needs, with the domestic push for alternative energy sources stunted by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Japan has also sought to play a larger role in regional peace and security. Through more robust diplomatic, humanitarian and military footprints, Abe has been determined to advance Japan’s strategic interests to provide for its national defense, increase its global footprint and diversify its energy and trade portfolios. This includes the recent $50 billion Japan-EU economic partnership agreement and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Since 2011, the Self-Defense Forces base in Djibouti has been used for counterpiracy missions and strategic military partnership with the U.S. in the Horn of Africa.
Prior to the killing of Soleimani, Japan had planned to deploy an independent maritime patrol in response to an attack on a Japanese oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman in June. Abe has decided to move forward with this patrol, which excludes the Straits of Hormuz but extends from the Bab El-Mandeb Strait into the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman.
Defense Minister Taro Kono explicitly expanded the SDF’s mandate to “peace and stability in the Middle East.” The need to secure energy markets will withstand political opposition Abe faces as he attempts to advance pro-defense reforms in the Constitution.
Japan has many cultural and historic soft power assets providing it with popular support among Middle East populations. It has also maintained amicable relations with rival parties in the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Japan is uniquely poised to play a mediating role between the U.S. and Iran.
Trump has supported Abe’s engagement with Iran, and Rouhani has met with Abe seven times, including during the prime minister’s visit to Tehran in June. Abe can be a direct line between two parties that do not seek to appear on a negotiation footing publicly. Japan can also be a line between Iran and its regional adversaries.
In both instances, it will be critical for Japan to focus on the drivers of regional instability. The central grievance shared by Washington and its Arab allies has not been Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but rather Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions.
The present situation in the Middle East was made possible by U.S. President George W. Bush, who altered the regional balance with the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iran’s strategy, led by no other than Soleimani, has fueled a sectarian backlash by Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals, resulting in massive humanitarian and counterterrorism challenges. All of this is challenging Washington’s historic commitment to regional peace and security, and creating a strategic opening for China and Russia facilitated by Iran.
Iran oversees a “Shiite Crescent,” a network of political, quasi-military and terrorist proxies spanning Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The myth sold by some proponents of the Iran nuclear deal — that Iran will moderate once it becomes a normal actor in the global economy — has led to one-dimensional Iran policy in the U.S. and Europe.
Generations of Middle Eastern lives have been affected by Iran’s regional activity, and the conflicts in the region today demand a solution to root causes. Any deal that rightly dulls the threat of a nuclear Iran without addressing Iran’s regional imperialism will perpetuate the status quo. That is why former U.S. President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Iran was perceived as appeasement by Washington’s traditional regional partners.
Abe can continue to speak with Trump to emphasize de-escalation and negotiation with Iran, while calling for doubling down on U.S. support for Iraq’s stability and a solution to the Syrian conflict, two theaters of conflict where Iran has deeply affected regional stability.
Should the U.S. forgo its military commitment to the coalition campaign to counter Islamic State and be pressured to leave Iraq, Iran will claim a strategic victory. In theory, this would be unacceptable under Trump’s Iran containment policy, but his mixed messages on regional troop withdrawals leave room for doubt.
Abe could encourage Trump to heed Iraqi reform protests, which advocate against Iranian influence in Baghdad, as well as to continue to invest in stabilization and counterterrorism policies.
Through sending money and proxy fighters since 2011, Iran empowered Syrian President Bashar Assad to wage a campaign of brutality and demographic change to maintain control in Damascus. Assad now offers an economic and military land bridge from Eurasia to the Mediterranean Sea for Iran, Russia and China.
Maintaining military leverage and tightening sanctions to force Assad’s camp to pursue a peace process pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 will be requisite to producing an independent, sovereign Syria that is a far cry from the hotbed for violent extremism and geopolitical competition it is today.
Yemen, too, demands the trust-based diplomacy that Abe has sought to foster. The Saudi-led coalition needs a way out of the humanitarian tragedy caused by the proxy war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman views the Iranian-back Houthi rebels in Yemen as an existential threat to his country. The Houthis have also claimed credit for September 2019 drone attacks on Saudi oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
Iran has been strategically outmaneuvering Saudi Arabia across the region for the past decade, but the tactical loss of Soleimani, the threat of escalation and the pressure of further political and economic isolation may force Iran to reconsider.
Both sides can save face: Trump’s pro-Saudi, maximum-pressure campaign provides political cover for bin Salman’s withdrawal from Yemen, while Saudi Arabia’s enemies can spin the outcome as a Saudi retreat. Though political pressure and arms embargoes from Saudi Arabia’s Western allies aim to force an end to the Yemen conflict, Abe’s relationships with bin Salman and Rouhani presents a unique peacemaking opportunity.
Despite changes in the global order, what has not changed are the relationships built by statesmen and the soft power they can leverage. Though Japan can ill afford a crisis in global energy markets, Abe has demonstrated the political will to stake his legacy on global leadership in the Middle East.
Abe’s Middle East outreach dovetails with his FOIP strategy and Japan’s example of rules-based cooperation, an alternative to a China-led order. Tokyo has also not ignored Russia’s and China’s growing regional power in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal in the past decade. Japan has obvious political and material limitations when it comes to having outsized leverage on regional outcomes, but the region is ripe for solutions from credible actors such as the European Union and Japan to fill a void increasingly left open by the U.S.
From the perspective of Washington, Trump and his successors will depend on Japan’s partnership as the U.S. reconsiders its footprint in the Middle East.
Adham Sahloul is a foreign policy analyst based in Washington. ©2020, The Diplomat distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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