Leaders of various countries used the chance of the recent United Nations General Assembly to pursue Middle East diplomatic initiatives after the severe heightening of regional tensions following drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities — strikes the Saudis and the United States blame on Iran.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to play a constructive role in settling the situation, while also agreeing with U.S. President Donald Trump to cooperate closely on the matter.
Tokyo is allied to the United States, but also has friendly relations with Tehran. While Abe attempted to mediate between the U.S. and Iran, the prime minister was unable to bring Trump and Rouhani together for a dialogue in the current situation, according to diplomatic sources.
It was unfortunate that Trump and Rouhani did not hold direct talks, since the feuding leaders were at U.N. headquarters in New York at the same time. There, Prime Minister Abe neither declared that Iran is responsible for the attacks as claimed by the United States, nor backed Iran’s assertion that the Houthi militia group in Yemen is to blame.
That Abe attempted to ease tensions by not taking either side should be commended. Still, Japan cannot protect its national interests simply by playing mediator. Tokyo needs to proactively develop a diplomatic strategy for the Middle East situation instead of simply serving as a go-between.
Needless to say, the Middle East is the biggest supplier of hydrocarbons to Japan. Tokyo relies on the region for nearly 90% of its oil imports, with largest supplier being Saudi Arabia.
About 5% of oil supply to the world has reportedly been temporarily knocked out because of the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities. It is a serious incident following the crises in the Strait of Hormuz that broke out this past summer.
There are obviously limits to what Japan can do diplomatically, as Tokyo has thus far relied on the United States for Middle East security. Japan was also not involved in the talks toward the Iran nuclear deal, which were led by Europe, the United States, China and Russia. However, to secure its oil supply, Japan is being compelled to conduct a diplomatic strategy that is less dependent on the U.S., as shale gas extraction and other enterprises have made America less reliant on Middle Eastern fossil fuels.
Japan needs to continue urging Iran and Saudi Arabia to exercise self-restraint, while joining hands with Britain, France and Germany in pursuing measures to ensure stability in the region. Moreover, it is indispensable to cooperate with South Korea and China, which also rely heavily on the Middle East for energy resources.
Japan should not hesitate to give advice to the United States over its Middle East policy. Tokyo should continue efforts to convince Trump, who pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran, to return to the agreement.
Tokyo should also persuade Iran to stop extending assistance to pro-Tehran militia groups involved in terrorist activities in Lebanon and Yemen and to make efforts to end its confrontation with Washington.
Japan cannot free itself from the horns of the Middle East dilemma as long as it is only trying to achieve a balance between Iran and the United States.