In 2019, Iran and Japan engaged in discussions to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf after oil tankers were struck in sabotage attacks that Iran was believed to have masterminded. By the end of this year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to visit Tokyo. The trip, initiated by Iran, signals its desire to ease economic pressures caused by US sanctions in exchange for Tehran committing to ensuring maritime safety in the Gulf.
Japan can play a key role in helping President Rouhani achieve his desired goal. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Iran earlier this year and he simultaneously established a close working relationship with US President Donald J. Trump. Rouhani aims to use Abe’s goodwill to break the impasse in talks between Washington and Tehran.
By visiting Japan, Rouhani is instilling confidence that the time might be ripe for achieving his goal. In recent months, he proposed the Hormuz Peace Initiative, a regional security plan for the Gulf. The initiative aims to pull Iran out of isolation, after the United States imposed sanctions and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018.
The United States and Iran also recently exchanged prisoners. The move was seen as a green light to open up channels for talks. Right before the exchange took place, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs serving as the president’s special envoy, Abbas Araghchi, traveled to Tokyo in early December.
Araghchi made the Japanese aware of President Rouhani’s intended visit to Tokyo by the end of this year. When Rouhani makes his trip, it will be the second time that an Iranian president has visited Japan since 2000. The United States has signaled its approval for the trip and has asked Japan to share its outcomes.
Japan might succeed in opening up negotiations between the United States and Iran. Rouhani’s trip to Tokyo points to Iran’s willingness for the first time to reach out to the United States outside the JCPOA framework. Until now, Iran has repeatedly insisted on holding talks with Washington only through the terms of the JCPOA.
However, most signs indicate that Iran’s approach to speaking with the United States via Japan could fail. Japan itself considers engagement with Iran helpful though it does not insist on playing a mediation role.
The reason is that Japan and Iran hold fundamentally different points of view toward Gulf navigation. Iran promises to ensure maritime security in the Gulf if it is able to export oil like all of its Gulf neighbors, which has become impossible since the United States imposed sanctions on its oil sector. Japan is still interested in buying Iranian oil but that is not the only reason for engaging with Tehran. Before US sanctions kicked in against Iran, Tokyo imported only 5.2 percent of its oil from the country. Japan needs Iran’s assurance that shipping routes are safe in the Gulf because Tokyo imports 80 percent of its energy from the Middle East and Asian countries.
Iran and Japan also disagree about how best to ensure maritime safety in the Gulf. Iran insists that Gulf security should be upheld only through cooperation between the Gulf states and without foreign power intervention. The problem is that most Gulf states do not trust Iran. As a result, only some of Iran’s neighbors have welcomed the Hormuz Peace Initiative, but most view it with suspicion.
In response, Japan has said that it is considering sending its defense forces to the Middle East to improve information gathering and safeguard commercial shipping operations. Tokyo will also send 270 sailors to guard ships in the Gulf.
Given these developments, there is no reason that Rouhani and Abe will see eye-to-eye concerning maritime safety in the Gulf when they meet later this month. Though Japan opted not to take part in the US Maritime Self-Defense Force to patrol the Gulf, Iran’s hardliners say that there is no point in making any promises to Japan when Rouhani sees Abe.
Japan does not buy Iran’s oil because of US sanctions, which angers Iran’s hardliners. More importantly, Japan is not capable of circumventing US sanctions or being an impartial mediator given its close relationship with the Trump administration.
During his trip to Japan, Rouhani could insist that without an end to the sanctions, Iran sees no prospect for fresh negotiations with the United States. But he may also seek to explore ways to keep the JCPOA alive, and the United States committed to the deal, to the extent that it would allow Iran to at least export some of its oil in exchange for ensuring Gulf navigation safety. By doing so, Rouhani hopes that new opportunities will present themselves to de-escalate tensions with Washington. Taken in this light, his trip to Japan should be seen for what it is worth, a catalyst for maintaining channels of communication with the United States but with no clear result in sight as of yet.