Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, Japan has always sought to balance its strategic alliance with the United States and the promotion of its energy interests while dealing with Tehran. For instance, during the Iran hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981, Japan never stopped buying Iranian oil on spot markets, despite Washington’s opposition. Beyond securing oil imports from the Gulf, Japan’s new strategy in the Middle East is based on transforming its regional policy in the Indo-Pacific area into a global one. This new Japanese strategy defines Gulf stability as a core interest and the need for Tokyo to actively engage in light of US plans to withdraw from the region. In January 2021, Tokyo depended on the Gulf states for 90 percent of its crude oil imports – 46 percent from Saudi Arabia, 30 percent from the UAE, 8 percent from Qatar, and 6 percent from Kuwait. Japan also imported 5 percent of its crude oil from Iran before the Trump administration-imposed sanctions on Tehran after its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018. Japan imported half a million barrels of crude oil per day in 2006.
From Iran’s point of view, its Japanese policy is like its European one. Therefore, bilateral dialogue with Tokyo is considered by Iranian decision-makers as a diplomatic card to pressure the United States to lift the economic sanctions on Iran. The US factor has played a critical role in Iran-Japan relations, and Tokyo has played an important role under different US administrations, although in accordance with somewhat different policies towards Tehran.During the Trump era, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration attempted to mediate between the United States and Iran, but its efforts failed because both parties rejected its proposal to barter Iranian crude oil for US grain. In June 2019, during Abe’s meeting with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran, an alleged Iranian drone hit Japanese tankers, one of them was set ablaze and the sailors were evacuated from the vessel. Abe was in Tehran to convey a message from Washington about President Donald Trump’s readiness to start direct talks with Iran.
According to Iran’s perspective, there was a new opportunity with the American administration changing in Washington. President Joe Biden during his electoral campaign had spoken about a new approach towards Iran and a shift away from Trump’s confrontational approach. This new approach provides Iran with a widow of opportunity to overturn the sanctions and improve its internal economic situation. Like during the Trump era, Japan has played an important role in conveying messages and bridging the gap between the two sides. In August 2021, the Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s visit to Tehran stirred a debate in Iran’s media regarding its signification for Tehran’s relationship with the United States. The Iranian daily Aftab-e Yazd during his visit posed the question: “Is the Japanese foreign minister a US envoy?”
Direct talks with the United States are still a redline for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Nevertheless, the Iranian government is keen to take advantage of mediation efforts such as the European ones (the Swiss and French mediation attempts in particular) or the Japanese one to limit the negative economic impact of the US economic sanctions. Japanese and European mediators are trying to create favorable conditions to start direct talks between Iran and the United States. From the mediators’ perspective, this direct diplomatic channel could improve the productivity of international talks in regard to Iran’s nuclear program and contribute to developing a positive framework to restart trade exchange between Japan and Iran on the one hand, and the European states and Iran on the other hand.
Iranian “hardliners” are promoting the idea that Tehran is not hopeful, even if a new nuclear deal is reached, that the West will remove sanctions, reinvest in Iranian markets and rekindle international financial links. This pessimism is used by Iranian diplomats to present the West’s diplomatic positions as the main obstacle to reaching a new nuclear deal. Tehran welcomes the mediating efforts of middle powers such as Japan and France. Tehran presents Japanese and French diplomatic efforts as a sign indicating its significant nuclear developments and strong bargaining position. One has to remember that in 2012, Iranian uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity was then considered to be a redline by Western diplomats, provoking calls for military action to be taken against Iran’s nuclear plants.
The visit of the Japanese foreign minister this year appears to be much more successful than Tokyo’s mediation efforts in 2019. This is because, today, Iran needs to be much more flexible to tackle its deteriorating economic conditions. The Japanese foreign minister’s mission was not only to mediate between Washington and Tehran and to urge the latter to deescalate geopolitical tensions but also to discuss with the Iranian government the volatile situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul. The E3 countries, Japan, and India share similar concerns with Iran regarding the volatility in Afghanistan. Japan is one of the largest donors to the UNHCR to support Afghan refugees in Iran, in coordination with the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs which operates under the Iranian Interior Ministry. Last but not least, as part of its soft power strategy, Japan provided Iran with grant aid of ¥695 million (about $6.3 million) to strengthen its health and medical capacities to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Japan has also supported Iran by dispatching about 3 million doses of Japanese-made AstraZeneca vaccines in July 2021 when the country was going through its fifth wave of the pandemic.
It is significant that countries like Japan, a US ally, continued to reach out to Iran to ensure that diplomatic channels stayed open during the Trump era. Japan, like a number of European countries, provided financial and medical assistance to Iran during the coronavirus pandemic. Japan and Europe have a strong interest to deescalate tensions in the Middle East and expand bilateral relations with Iran, especially in the field of energy . Furthermore, Iran is keen to take advantage of Japan’s mediation offers because although it is not a signatory to the Iranian nuclear deal, it appears willing to talk to all the parties involved in the deal. There is nevertheless one critical hurdle in the evolving bilateral relationship between Tehran and Tokyo, namely the frozen Iranian assets held in Japanese banks due to the US financial sanctions on Iran. President Ebrahim Raisi has often called on Japan to unfreeze Iranian assets held in Japanese banks. Despite this hurdle, Japanese aspirations for economic rapprochement with Iran can be best explained by Tokyo’s concerns regarding Chinese economic hegemony inside the Iranian market. As Beijing’s strategic competitor, Japan hopes that any future deal to resolve Iran’s nuclear dilemma will pave the way for it to economically compete with China for lucrative contracts and access to Iranian energy resources.