At a time when the season of summit diplomacy in North East Asia – between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung-un (June 2018 in Singapore and February 2019 in Hanoi), Kim Jung-un and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in few times in the border village of Panmunjom, Kim Jung-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, and between Kim Jung-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in late April 2019 – was making international news centering on North Korea denuclearization issue, only country and a major stakeholder in this important regional issue, Japan, was left out.
Japan has remained as the only exception as a summit between Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has not materialized despite that Abe has shown keenness but only to be rebuffed by the North Korean leader. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo felt and with valid reason to have been sidelined as even being one of the important strategic partner of the US, Trump did not feel it was necessary to consult this important ally while reaching out to the North Korean leader.
Not to be left out of international limelight for long, Abe expressed keenness to gain diplomatic clout and offered to broker the impasse between the US and Iran by traveling to Tehran. He took advantage of the opportunity by getting Trump’s endorsement for his planned plan when the US President was in Japan for a summit meeting in late May 2019.
Abe’s objectives are twofold: to realize a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un as soon as possible to address the long pending issue of abduction of Japanese nations by the North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, and to sooth tempers between Trump and Kim over North’s denuclearization issue. Behind this remains the confidence of the robust alliance relationship between the US and Japan. The underlining facts behind Trump’s endorsement to Abe’s offer to mediate the US-Iran talks was to ease the prevailing tensions between the US and Iran after the announcement of America’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, and to check the suspected cooperation between North Korea and Iran on nuclear and missile development.
By securing Trump’s understanding for a visit to Tehran as well as full cooperation on the abduction issue, Abe scored points for his diplomacy ahead of this summer’s House of Councilor’s election. The dates for the visit have been finalized for June 12-14. In fact the Japanese government had been working to coordinate Abe’s visit to Iran since May 16, when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Japan but was reluctant to make it public lest Trump would have been upset. It transpired soon enough that Abe’s planned Tehran visit has Trump’s approval. It seems that Abe’s close ties and understanding he shares with Trump helped him to secure US support.
Having felt sidelined on the North Korean diplomatic front, and having failed to make any progress in peace treaty talks with Moscow since the Japan-Russia summit talks in November 2018, Abe hopes that if his efforts achieve results that would help ease tensions over issues related to Iran which is focus of world attention new, he can display his diplomatic clout to the international community ahead of the summit talks of Group of 20 in June 28-29, in Osaka. That would work to his advantage in the election.
The abduction issue has a strong emotive content in the minds of the Japanese and resolution of this long pending issue is a priority of the Abe government since it came to power. It seemed Abe’s offer to help broker a dialogue between the US and Iran looked aimed at repaying Trump for his cooperation in resolving the issues between Pyongyang and Tokyo. It remains to be seen if Abe’s diplomatic strategy shall bear any fruit since both the US and Japan have divergent positions on the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, though Japan was not a party to it.
Even on North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program, Trump has not remained consistent in denouncing while Japan feels rattled whenever the North fires any missiles. The differences came out starkly when Trump seemed not have been too worried when Pyongyang fired a short-range ballistic missile on May 9, violating UN Security Council resolutions, a position opposite to what Japan takes.
Being the first visit by an incumbent Prime Minister of Japan since 1978 when then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda visited Iran, Abe hopes to help encourage dialogue with the US and ease tensions. Fukuda’s 1978 visit happened not long before the Shah of Iran was toppled by the Islamic Revolution. Since Abe took office in 2012, high profile Japanese visitors to Iran have included ministers and special envoys, as well as Abe’s wife, Akie, and his brother, Nobuo Kishi. Abe’s father Shintaro, then foreign minister, visited in 1983. For this mediatory role, Abe would meet Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rowhani and is expected to convey the merit of dialogue and that he has Trump’s backing for this initiative. Though either side is expected to show some flexibility, not much can be expected and it all depends upon Abe’s persuasive diplomatic skills if any tangible outcome can be expected.
Having met Trump about a dozen of times so far, Abe understands Trump’s mind better than any other world leader. Trump is not on the same page as some of his hardliners whose sole objective is toppling the regime and conveying such assurances to Tehran can help continue the dialogue process. While in Tokyo, Trump said: “We’re not looking for regime change,” explaining that he only cared about Iran not achieving nuclear power status. For the influential leader Khamenei, negotiations with the Trump administration is like “poison”, since as he says, “they don’t stand by anything”, referring to Washington’s withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal signed by Tehran and world powers. It is to be seen how Abe can persuade Khamenei to be flexible in his stand.
So, what has been Tehran’s reaction to Abe reaching out to help ease tensions with the US? Tehran is happy to welcome that Abe has volunteered to take this initiative. Personal ties and history do play an important role in world diplomacy. For example, if we look at the personal chemistry between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Abe, and the same backed by history, it is a beautiful partnership to have blossomed. Given the close ties and bonding between Japan and India, there is no reason why the example of Modi-Abe bonhomei cannot be replicated between Japan and Iran. No wonder, Iran hailed Abe’s mediatory efforts to address the US-Iran conflict as a “turning point”.
Given the personal bonding that Trump and Abe share and Japan-US ties being one of the most robust and important strategic partnership in the world, Trump is expected to trust Abe more than any other leader for Abe’s offer of mediatory role. Since Rowhani has categorically said that Tehran would not be “bullied” into negotiations unless either side sit on the table with total respect in the framework of international law, and that the US lifts sanctions against Iran, Abe’s task is cut out to persuade on the merit of dialogue and urge both to keep an element of flexibility in their respective positions.
Japan being not a party to the 2015 nuclear deal, from which Trump announced America’s withdrawal, is backed by European allies as well as China and Russia, thereby putting Trump on a sticky wicket. That gives Abe an edge to mediate. Abe is expected to persuade Trump after having talks with the Iranian leaders to ease punishing economic sanctions and not link the same with Iran’s alleged nuclear program.
Abe would hope that if his efforts yield some dividend, his credentials of being a mediator would have been enhanced, which he could use to address the abduction issue with North Korea later on.
A resource-poor country like Japan is heavily dependent on imports of oil from the Middle East, though crude oil from Iran accounted for just 5.3 per cent of the country’s total imports in 2018. While maintaining ties with Iran, Japan also cut back its oil purchases from the country to 3 percent of its total oil imports, so the end of U.S. sanction waivers had relatively little impact on bilateral ties. Before the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011, nuclear accounted for almost a quarter of Japan’s total energy needs. After all 54 reactors were shut down following outcry against anything nuclear, Japan has been compelled to diversify energy sources. Any disruption in energy supply resulting from any crisis in the Middle East would severely impact Japan’s economy. So, stakes are high for Abe to protect his country’s economic interest, which is why he volunteered to mediate between the US and Iran.
On May 15, Iran gave the EU a 60-day ultimatum to provide effective means to shield Tehran from re-imposed US sanctions, saying it will increase its nuclear industry output and abandon some of its self-imposed obligations in relation to the JCPOA deal. Under the deal, Tehran is obliged, to liquidate its uranium stockpile in exchange for the removal of US, UN and EU nuclear-related sanctions. Iran stated specifically that its ultimatum will not violate the terms of the deal. Washington abandoned the deal unilaterally in 2018. Recently, the Pentagon began amassing military forces in the vicinity of Iran under the pretext of countering an unspecified military threat from Iran. Iran wants the US to pledge itself again to the agreement and to lift sanctions. Iran also wants Europe to implement the agreement by the beginning of July, with particular weight placed on the lifting of all economic sanctions. If the sanctions are not lifted, Iran has threatened to abolish the agreed limit on uranium enrichment. Iran has alleged that Trump’s economic pressure on Iran has led to the increase of regional tensions.
Previously, Oman, a Persian Gulf state that has also managed to maintain good relations with both the US and Iran, also offered its services as a mediator between the two countries. However, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif insisted Tehran will not engage in any direct or indirect talks with Washington. In the light of this, the remarks made by the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman that Abe’s forthcoming visit to Tehran a “a turning point” is significant, signifying that Japan is acceptable to Iran for mediating its dispute with the US.