In mid-July, as tensions between the United States and Iran continued to simmer, the possibility of Japanese participation in a U.S.-led maritime coalition to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz became a hot topic of debate in Tokyo, even before the Japanese government publicly confirmed that the United States had asked for its assistance. When incoming U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Tokyo earlier in August, he requested Japan’s participation in such a maritime coalition. Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya informed Esper that Japan would make a decision after considering various factors, including Japan’s need to ensure its energy security, maintain its positive ties with Iran, and be a good ally to the United States.
Japan-Iran relations have been generally positive in the past, driven in large part by Japan’s energy needs. Even though Japan was not a signatory to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in July 2015, it was eager to take full advantage of the new opportunities this agreement represented. As early as October 2015, then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was in Tehran to discuss a bilateral investment treaty and how Japan could help Iran implement the JCPOA by establishing an Iranian “nuclear safety center.”
Unfortunately for Japan, Iran is not an easy country to have an independent foreign policy toward, as last summer’s events demonstrated – when U.S. President Donald Trump demanded all U.S. allies cut Iranian oil imports to “zero.” Though Japanese businesses are eager to restore access to Iranian oil, for now they are going along with Trump’s diktat in order to avoid U.S. sanctions, as waivers for Japan to import Iranian oil expired in early May of this year. Given what a high profile issue this is for the United States, any Japanese foreign policy choice regarding Iran or the Strait of Hormuz will be closely scrutinized and criticized – either by Trump administration officials if Japan does not bow to U.S. pressure, or by the domestic public if Japan does. With Bahrain becoming just the second country after the United Kingdom to join a U.S.-led coalition, the coalition is still in its infancy. How much pressure Japan feels to join will be a function not only of direct U.S. pressure, but also of how many other countries agree to join.
But Japan has never passively let the United States write its Iran policy, and continues to be proactive in this sphere. Just last week, Japan’s Senior Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Takeo Mori and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Seyyed Abbas Araqchi held the 26th round of Iran-Japan political negotiations, discussing ways to expand bilateral ties, JCPOA-related developments, and the situation in the Persian Gulf region and West Asia. Furthermore, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is expected to visit Japan later this month to discuss the situation in the Strait of Hormuz and convey Iran’s position that securing freedom of navigation should be the responsibility of Iran and neighboring countries – not extraregional powers like the United States and Japan.
In June, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese leader to visit Iran since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, but there was no tangible breakthrough at that time. Abe will have another chance at Iran diplomacy in September, when he is expected to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
In the context of wanting to maintain positive ties with Iran but also appease the United States, one possible solution is for Japan to dispatch the Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) to the region independently from the U.S.-led plan. Japan could also try to thread the needle by sending ships to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait between Yemen and the Horn of Africa instead, which is a less sensitive region for Iran. According to Yomiuri Shimbun, the MSDF could be dispatched on the pretext of gathering information to engage in surveillance and monitoring activities. In the past, similar missions would have been justified on the basis of the Defense Ministry Establishment Law. Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the government could use the Self-Defense Forces Law to justify maritime patrols in the future.
All of this is happening in the domestic political context of a Japanese public opposed to sending the MSDF to the Middle East at all. According to a Kyodo News survey, 57.1 percent of respondents said Japan should not send MSDF to the Middle East for a U.S.-led coalition effort. As Paul Midford has argued, Japanese public opinion is relatively stable, not something that elites can easily manipulate, and has a constraining effect on Japanese policymaking. Japanese public opinion about the use of force abroad is primarily determined by the Japanese public’s trust in their own government and their belief about the utility of military force, but also significantly mediated by the Japanese public’s perception of whether the United States is trustworthy and how high the risk of entrapment is. With the growing gap between Washington and Tokyo over North Korea and the dangerous game Trump played in ordering strikes on Iran and then backing down, it is no wonder that the Japanese public has little appetite to sign up for another U.S.-led adventure.
With an Abe-Trump meeting expected on the sideline of the Group of Seven (G-7) summit coming up in France on August 24-26, Japanese officials are on an extremely tight schedule to come up with an acceptable solution that promotes Japan’s interests in Iran, mollifies the United States, and keeps the Japanese public on board with incremental changes in Japan’s international security role. Even though this mission is seen as an important marker for how serious Japan is about being a “proactive contributor to peace” since its slate of security reforms passed in 2015, it is more important that Abe not move too far ahead of public opinion. The public already has reasons to mistrust the Abe administration – if he loses their trust entirely, constitutional revision will become an even more distant goal.