The Debate

Japan Seeks to Mediate US-Iran Dispute…Again

Shinzo Abe sent a special envoy to Tehran last weekend, reportedly to jump-start US-Iran talks.

Iran has called on Japan to join it in working towards global disarmament as Japan is once again trying to mediate the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

Masahiko Komura, the vice president of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and a former foreign minister, visited Iran last weekend as a special envoy for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. While in Tehran on Saturday and Sunday, Komura met with a number of senior Iranian leaders including Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, its new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Komura was the first senior official of the Abe administration to meet with the new Iranian leadership since it assumed office last month. Japan’s Foreign Ministry officially billed the visit as an opportunity to discuss bilateral issues as well as Iran’s standoff with the international community over Tehran’s nuclear problem. Komura himself told local media outlets that he would discuss the Syrian civil war with Rouhani during the trip, and urge Iran to play a stabilizing role in that country.

Iranian press reports on Komura’s visit stressed the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), with Iranian leaders calling for Iran and Japan to join hands in spearheading efforts to eliminate work towards global disarmament. Rouhani, for instance, told Komura that Iran and Japan can be the “flag bearers” of the fight against WMDs given their respective histories of being victims of chemical and nuclear weapon attacks.

“Iran and Japan are two countries that have suffered greatly from weapons of mass destruction,” Rouhani said during the meeting, Iran’s Press TV reported.

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During his own meeting with Komura, Rafsanjani, who is one of Iran’s most influential leaders and a close ally of the current president, declared: “We explicitly announce that we are not only against the production and use of nuclear arms, but based on the fatwa of the Leader of the Islamic Revolution [Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei] we consider it a sin.”

He added, “Furthermore, we seek the destruction of weapons of mass destruction in the world.”

It was not clear from the Iranian media reports how Komura responded to these overtures.

On the other hand, Japan’s NHK World reported on Sunday that Komura had conveyed a U.S. message on the nuclear issue to Iran’s leaders during the trip, as well as offered to help mediate the ongoing dispute between the two parties.

“Koumura conveyed a message on the nuclear issue from the United States and intends to convey the Iranian government's message to the US,” NHK World said in the report.

It went on to state that Komura had urged Rouhani to demonstrate flexibility in discussing the nuclear issue with the U.S. and its allies, a phrase that Japan’s Foreign Ministry has often used in discussing the nuclear issue with Iran.

Rouhani, for his part, stressed that Iran is seeking nuclear power for solely peaceful purposes much as Japan does, according to NHK World. Iranian officials often compare their nuclear program to the ones maintained by countries like Japan, which has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle but has not acquired nuclear weapons. The Tehran Times said that Rouhani welcomed Komura’s proposal and assured the Japanese diplomat that he was committed to improving ties with countries around the world. He also argued that the nuclear dispute needed to be resolved through the framework of international law.

The NHK World report appears to have been taken down without explanation, however there is good reason to believe it is accurate. To begin with, Japan in general, and Komura in particular, have long-standing ties to Iran. According to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, before the U.S. and EU sanctions imposed sanctions targeting its oil exports, Iran was Japan’s third-largest oil supplier while Tokyo was Tehran’s second largest trading partner behind China. They have frequently held senior level diplomatic meetings as well. Even as Tehran’s ties continued to worsen in 2012 for instance, Iran and Japan held two foreign ministry meetings.

Komura himself has been central to this relationship, especially during his two stints as foreign minister between 1998-1999 and from 2007-2008. He currently serves as the Chairman of the Japan-Iran Parliamentarians Friendship League and, according to NHK World, he had met Rouhani no less than five times prior the meeting last last weekend.

Although Japan has been harshly critical of Iran’s failure to address the concerns that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has over Tehran’s nuclear program, Tokyo also has a recent history of trying to mediate the dispute between Iran and the U.S.

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Indeed, with the Obama administration’s initial backing, Japan under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama approached Iran in 2009 to try and persuade it to accept the fuel swap agreement the P5+1 powers (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) had offered Tehran as a confidence-building measure. The proposal called for Iran to ship a significant portion of its low enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile to a third country and, in exchange, the P5+1 would convert LEU into fuel pads for Iran to use for medical purposes.

According to Trita Parsi, Japan offered to be the country that ensured Iran would receive fuel pads from the international community by holding onto the 1,000 km of LEU Tehran would first ship out of the country. At the time, Iran had reportedly said it could not trust that France or Russia—the two countries that the fuel swap agreement proposed for holding onto Iran’s LEU—would return the LEU if the West failed to deliver on its promise of fuel pads.

Iran originally showed interest in Japan’s engagement, with a number of senior level Iranian officials visiting Tokyo in late 2009 and early 2010. Japan’s diplomatic efforts ultimately came to naught, however, after the Obama administration lost interest in pursuing the nuclear fuel swap agreement in early 2010, and instead turned its attention to pursuing sanctions against Iran.

Despite this bitter history, energy-starved Japan has a strong interest in ending the U.S.-Iran spat which has forced Tokyo to substantially reduce its imports of Iranian crude. It therefore would make sense for Japan to play an active role in trying to mediate the dispute.

If the NHK World report is correct, Japan would not be the only channel through which the U.S. and Iran have been communicating since Rouhani assumed Iran’s presidency. Late last month, Oman's sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, visited Iran in what was believed to be an attempt by Oman to mediate the U.S.- Iran dispute. In the past, Oman, which has cordial relations with both countries, has tried to facilitate negotiations between them.

Then, last week, Jeffrey Feltman visited Tehran in his capacity of UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. Although the stated purpose of Feltman’s visit was to discuss the situation in Syria, before joining the UN Feltman served in Obama’s State Department as the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

The P5+1 channel is also still being utilized, with the  European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirming that she will hold a meeting with FM Zarif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month. Ashton leads the P5+1 delegation in its negations with Iran.