Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s historic trip to Iran this month was marked by, to say the least, some difficulty. Since Abe arrived in Tehran, both the American and Iranian heads of state have stated bluntly that the time has not come for negotiations with the other.
To Abe’s credit, he made the best of a difficult situation. Few, if any, experts truly believed that the Japanese leader was going to convince either the White House or Iran’s leadership to make fundamental changes in their stances on the major issues fueling friction between the US and Tehran.
Instead, more realistically, Abe’s trip could have been, at best, a potential opportunity to possibly pave the path for a de-escalation in tension between the US administration and the Islamic Republic.
Yet by the time Abe’s visit ended, there was an attack on two tankers (including one that was Japanese-owned) in the Gulf of Oman, causing international oil prices to surge four percent. Without offering any evidence, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo almost immediately blamed Tehran. With the US military also accusing Iran of being the culprit, Tehran predictably denied involvement.
The owner of the Kokuka Sangyo, the Japanese firm that owns one of the targeted tankers, has an account of what occurred that contradicts the official American line. To the general public around the world, which is rightfully skeptical of both the American and Iranian governments’ claims on such matters, the question of which actor(s) bears responsibility remains open.
The responses to the attacks in the Gulf of Oman from the European Union, China, and Russia underscore how little credibility the Trump administration carries on the international stage, particularly in light of National Security Advisor John Bolton’s accusations that Tehran was behind the sabotage off the United Arab Emirates’ east coast last month, which he also made without providing evidence.
While in Iran, Abe insisted that the US leadership’s claim to desire dialogue is genuine. In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader rebuffed him: “We don’t believe these words at all because honest negotiations will not come from an individual such as Trump.”
After Abe’s visit to Tehran, Trump tweeted: “While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”
Notwithstanding the Japanese Prime Minister’s best intentions, Washington and Tehran’s dispute became only more volatile during Abe’s ill-fated visit to Iran. There is widespread belief among experts that whichever actor was behind the Gulf of Oman attacks during Abe’s visit, the intention was to derail any hope of the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit resulting in any cooling of tensions between the US and Iran.
For Abe, who is determined to demonstrate Japan’s influence in global affairs and capacity to serve as a diplomatic bridge in troubled regions, the escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran at the time of his visit was a hard lesson about the Middle East’s realities.
Additionally, that Japan’s military alliance and Abe’s relationship with Trump received negative attention in the Iranian press in the lead-up to his visit also teaches one just how difficult it is to maintain a widely perceived “neutral” foreign policy at a time in which more powers—both global and regional—have maximalist agendas in the increasingly polarised region.
For other states seeking to play a backchannel role between the US and Iran—such as Germany, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Russia, and Switzerland—Abe’s experience is yet just another reminder of how difficult it is to help bridge the gap between the White House and Iran’s leaders.
In saving some face, Abe pointed to certain indicators made by Iranian officials that he said provide assurances about their desire for peace. Yet he did acknowledge that “complicated national sentiment on both sides” make the friction between Washington and Tehran increasingly challenging to productively address.
Despite certain reports on Abe’s trip to Tehran which described his visit as “humiliating”, there could be a brighter way to view his first high-profile attempt at cooling tensions between the US and Iran.
On the Iranian side, although the Supreme Leader stated that Iran will not talk to Trump, he did not rule out future shuttle diplomacy involving Abe or other leaders/diplomats, suggesting that perhaps Tehran could indirectly talk to the White House through a third party. If so, Tokyo could help Washington and Tehran find offramps from this dangerous path.
Likewise, although the Trump administration never seemed to have expressed much hope in Abe’s visit leading to any breakthrough between the White House and Tehran, the US leadership certainly has no problem with Japan’s Prime Minister seeking to playing a mediating role. Therefore, there’s good reason to expect that Japan could and would continue attempting to make diplomatic efforts aimed at easing the friction between Washington and Tehran, even if it would be naïve to imagine this proving easy for Japan or any other country with such ambitions.
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