As Japan looks to ensure security in the region, it could play a vital role in negotiating between Iran and the US.
Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, needing a regular supply of energy from reliable sources and routes.
The diversification of energy resources is, therefore, a key pillar of Japan’s energy policy, in particular as it imports most of its oil from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is Japan’s main oil supplier and besides Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Russia, Kuwait, Qatar and Iran supply additional oil. Stability and peace in the region directly affect Japan’s energy security and economy.
Any tension or conflict in the region from which Japan imports energy or on a route it travels may increase the oil price, resulting in a significant negative impact on Japan's economy as well as other major oil importers. Japan is therefore attempting to play an active diplomatic role in the Middle East to decrease the impact of tensions in the region. As the fourth largest consumer and importer of oil in the world, the largest importer of liquid gas (LNG) and the second largest importer of coal after China, it has no choice but to mediate regional Middle Eastern risks.
Japan’s major oil suppliers
In 2018, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the largest suppliers of oil to Japan with Iran coming in sixth. According to Japan's Ministry of Finance, its crude imports from Iran dropped 42 percent in April compared to March, reaching 169,000 barrels a day on average. In March, the country imported an average of 292,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran. In February, Japan's oil imports from Iran reached 76,000 bpd. At the time of Iran's sanctions waivers the government of Japan extended insurance of state-owned oil imports from Iran for one year. This was the Japanese government's move to encourage its refineries to continue importing oil from Iran.
Zarif’s Visit to Japan
During the last few months, Iran has begun to actively lobby diplomatically to increase its relations with major Iranian oil buyers; Iran does not want to lose its share in regional and world oil markets. Last month Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, visited Tokyo and met with Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Kono.
Taro Kono in his press conference after meeting with Zarid said: “We are very worried about the Middle East and will not hesitate to try to reduce tensions and resolve confrontations.” He emphasised that Iran needs to continue to uphold its commitments under the Iran Nuclear Deal, urging Iran to maintain its implementation. Zarif, at a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, said that Iran continues to honour its commitments under the Iran Nuclear Deal, despite US withdrawal from it. During his trip to Japan, the Iranian foreign minister told reporters that there is no way to negotiate with the United States. Zarif had set the goal of his trip to Japan to confront the "tension" of the United States.
Trump’s Visit to Japan
Japan is one of America's closest allies. President Donald Trump visited Japan recently meeting with Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Shinzo Abe. Trump, in his joint press conference with the prime minister, asked Japanese businessmen to make more investments in the US. North Korea and Iran were also major topics which Trump focused on in his meeting with Shinzo Abe. Trump in his visit to Japan, said of Shinzo Abe’s visit to Iran: "I know that both Japan and its prime minister have good relations with Iran. We will see what will happen."
Japan’s private and state-led companies with high technology and enough financial capabilities hold the potential to invest in Iranian infrastructure and oil and gas fields. Iran needs billions to recover its oil and gas production capacity; due to sanctions after the 1979 revolution Iranian oil and gas production capacity dramatically decreased, and without foreign technology and financial capability it will not be easy for Iran to increase oil and gas production capacity. Iran’s petrochemical and refinery sectors also need foreign investment due to ageing infrastructure the majority of petrochemical and refineries need to be repaired.
Shinzo Abe to visit Tehran
The relationship between Tehran and Tokyo has always been peaceful and based on mutual respect. One of the focuses of economic cooperation between Iran and Japan after the expansion of relations between the two countries in recent decades has been the issue of energy and contracts for oil and gas.
Shinzo Abe's trip to Iran will be the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in over 40 years and has become particularly important regarding intensive diplomacy between Iran and the United States and tensions in the region. The continuation of energy imports from Iran is not the main concern for the Japanese government. The country can easily find an alternative to Iran's oil and gas condensate, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates can easily meet the needs of the Japanese energy market. LNG imports from Qatar and the United States could also replace Iran's gas condensate in the Japanese energy market.
Japan’s energy security will not be affected by US sanctions against Iran’s oil exports. However, any possible agreement between Iran and the United States will be in the interest of Japan. With the abolition of sanctions, Japanese companies can invest in oil and gas fields, refineries, and renewable energy in Iran. The country's products will also have a greater chance of selling in the Iranian consumer market.
Is it possible for Japan to be mediator between Iran and US?
Japan's major concern is decreasing the likelihood of conflict and tension in the region. The tensions and conflicts in the energy supply countries of Japan, as well as the routes that bring oil and gas resources to the Japanese market, have a direct impact on the security of energy and economic growth in the country. The major import of Japanese oil from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, and any military engagement in the region, especially in the Strait of Hormuz, directly threatens not only the energy security, but also the economy of the country. Any possible conflict in the region would mean an increase in oil prices, which would not be pleasant for the economy of major energy consumers, including Japan.
Given that the 12 pre-conditions by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have not yet been eliminated, if the talks are negotiated with Japan's possible mediation, it would be difficult to reach an understanding between Iran and the United States in the current situation. If Iran and US officially choose Japan as mediator, it could play an important role.
It should be noted that negotiation without a precondition is different from the new agreement without a precondition. It is hoped that with Shinzo Abe’s trip, the tension in the region will be somewhat reduced.
Any conflict in the region and insecurity for oil tankers would be detrimental to all energy producers and consumers in the region. Shinzo Abe's visit to Tehran will increase Japan's role and political presence in the region and will enable Japan to play a role in stabilising security in the region.
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