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Can Japan Break the Iran Impasse?

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is determined to break the impasse over Iran. But does Japan’s government welcome his initiative?

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, a key advisor on the current government’s foreign policy, is in Tehran this week, and is holding talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it’s not a popular trip with some of his colleagues.

Hatoyama was prime minister for less than a year before being forced out of office in June 2010, and ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) colleagues including Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba have urged the mercurial former premier to “act prudently so as not to result in dual diplomacy that would be different from the government’s policy.”  

Hatoyama plans to be in Iran for four days, and is accompanied by two advisors. The trip is intended to look at possible ways of resolving the standoff between the West and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear activities, which are suspected as being aimed at giving the country a nuclear weapons capability. The trip, which began Saturday with a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi, was officially revealed at very short notice, but it appears that there has been an internal struggle between Hatoyama and the Japanese Foreign Ministry going on for months before the announcement. Gemba for his part denied there was a protracted rift, claiming that he was only informed of the trip last week.

Regardless, this somewhat cavalier attempt at dual diplomacy comes on the heels of a concerted effort from the Japanese government to tighten the screws on the Iranian regime. Japan continues to struggle to fully implement the strong U.S.-backed sanctions against Tehran, not least because oil shipments from Iran constitute nearly 9 percent of Japan’s total energy imports. The importance of these imports has been magnified by last year’s nuclear crisis at Fukushima, and the reduction of domestic energy sources created by the fallout. Currently only one of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors is online, which has left Tokyo increasingly dependent on other energy sources.

However, while Japan’s reliance on oil from Iran is significant, it’s also decreasing as a result of enhanced sanctions against Tehran. Within the past year, imports from Iran to Japan have decreased nearly 20 percent as authorities in Tokyo have scrambled to comply with U.N. sanctions aimed at suffocating the Islamic Republic’s financial coffers. The United States, meanwhile, has been negotiating with Japan to allow a partial waiver by acknowledging the unique energy issues the country has faced since last year’s earthquake and tsunami. But of greater importance than crude from Iran is the fact that 85 percent of Japan’s oil imports and 25 percent of its natural gas imports traverse through the Strait of Hormuz.

This reality has prompted even constitutionally-constrained Japan to discuss the possibility of deploying its Self-Defense Forces to the Strait in the event of conflict breaking out in the region. Last month, an advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s special advisor to the Middle East suggested to a foreign policy symposium that Tokyo should be prepared to dispatch its SDF to the region as a worst case scenario. Akihisa Nagashima, who is also the senior director of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted that a conflict in the Persian Gulf would “affect Japanese national interests.” Japan’s Constitution bars it from offensive combat roles, but there are loopholes. Nagashima explained that “some operations are authorized” under SDF legislation, pointing to the special measures law that governs SDF counterterrorism and anti-piracy activities.

Gemba has, for his part, played down suggestions of an imminent blockage, noting that the action would go against Iran’s own economic interests. Moreover, Gemba has insisted that his government wouldn’t hesitate to dip into its considerable oil reserves to limit the economic impact of a potential closure of the Strait. Still, if the Iranians do decide to attempt to interfere with ships passing through the Strait, Japan must be prepared to protect its interests. The SDF has experience in this field, and continues to conduct similar maritime operations to protect national vessels from piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

The SDF is also making contingency plans to airlift Japanese nationals from the region in the event of a broader conflict. While there are a limited number of Japanese citizens residing in Iran, there’s a considerable expatriate community in neighboring countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Tokyo is also concerned about its nationals in Israel, especially if the latter launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran. However, Gemba has approached the potential of a SDF deployment cautiously, explaining that “nothing is concrete” and that Japan is “considering its options on various possible scenarios.”

So, how will Hatoyama’s diplomatic foray affect Japan’s efforts in the region? Motohiro Ono, one of the advisors accompanying Hatoyama, said last week that the trip isn’t meant to undermine the Foreign Ministry’s policy on Iran, but is instead aimed at finding a peaceful and lasting resolution to the current stalemate. Ono insisted that currently “no breakthrough is possible if things remain as they are. In order to avoid isolating Iran, it is important to calmly inform Iran what the international community is thinking. There’s significance to having lawmakers engaged in diplomacy.”

Unfortunately, the trip works against months of work from diplomats in Tokyo and around the world aimed at pressuring Iran to return to the negotiating table with the P5+1 for meaningful dialogue. And, with the stalled talks over Iran’s nuclear program set to recommence this week, the timing of Hatoyama’s move is peculiar, to say the least.