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Japan is an invaluable conduit bridging U.S. and Iran: Expert

  • August 20, 2019
  • , Yomiuri , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

By Masayuki Yamauchi, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo


Prime Minister Abe’s most valuable asset in handling diplomatic issues is his long reign. Thanks to this, he is increasing his say in the international arena, winning trust from the leaders of other nations, and establishing a solid presence.


Prime Minister Abe is one of the longest-serving leaders at the G7 and G20 summits. There is no leader in Western Europe who can squarely and frankly talk to U.S. President Donald Trump, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation politically, economically, and militarily. The leaders of Western Europe are collecting information and sizing up U.S. responses through Prime Minister Abe.


Prime Minister Abe parlays his good relationship with President Trump into producing results in multilateral and bilateral diplomatic polices that are important to Japan. He pursues a “diplomatic policy with a bird’s eye view of the globe” and actively visits Europe and the Middle East. He is also interested in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. He has a discerning eye on international affairs for dealing with an era of globalization and is making use of this.


Particularly, his policy with Iran deserves credit. With conflicts between the U.S. and Iran over a nuclear deal intensifying, he visited Iran in June and met with both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the country’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei. He was the first sitting prime minister to visit Iran in 41 years, since Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda who visited there in 1978. Probably Russian President Vladimir Putin is the only world leader who can meet both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei. European leaders must envy Prime Minister Abe.


The U.S. and Iran severed diplomatic ties in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and since then they have grown hostile to each other. There was a time when the U.S. constantly demanded Japan, which continued to engage with Iran in its own way, “cut off ties with Tehran.” President Trump did not welcome Abe’s visit to Iran, but he accepted it, probably because he wanted to keep open a channel of communications with Iran through Japan.


Khamenei expected Abe to approach President Trump. Iran cannot use its channels of communications with major European nations and the European Union (EU) as they are not on good terms with the U.S. leader. Russia is also in rivalry with the U.S. Therefore, he assessed that Japan can become a good intermediary to bridge Iran and the U.S. as it has connections with the two nations.


It is not easy to ease tensions between Washington and Tehran. But Prime Minister Abe was able to establish a foothold for Japan’s future policy with Iran by meeting with Khamenei. At the United Nations General Assembly, which will be held in New York in late September, he should meet with President Trump and Khamenei again and tenaciously work to discuss with them the importance of keeping the Middle East stable and resolving the conflict without resort to force.


Japan should act carefully, as it remains to be seen how much cooperation the U.S. will seek from countries that will join the U.S.-led maritime security vision to keep places such as the Strait of Hormuz safe. President Trump argues that “Japan benefits from oil imports and if that is so, why doesn’t the Self-Defense Forces protect oil tankers?” This pointed comment was on mark, as Japan has shied away from discussion of this.


But Iran is not an enemy of Japan. It is not even hostile toward it. Iran has no intention of waging a war with the U.S. Prime Minister Abe should envisage a scenario for contributing to the stability in the Gulf and present this to both the U.S. and Iran in a manner that wins their understanding.


Diplomacy is the continuation of the efforts of our forebears. Once the relationship of trust developed therein is harmed or lost, it will become extremely difficult to restore. It is important to take on a new challenge, but we must learn the lessons from diplomatic history and tirelessly maintain our commitment to deal with other nations.


(Interviewed by Tomomi Asano)

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