Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

US-Iran Tensions an Opening for Japan’s Leadership in the Middle East

Abe’s personal relationships with the main players in the Middle East give him a unique opportunity to play peacemaker.

By Adham Sahloul for
US-Iran Tensions an Opening for Japan’s Leadership in the Middle East
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Amid heightened U.S.-Iran tensions sparked by the ordered killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, Abe, not Xi, Merkel, or Macron, is the name being repeated as the voice of caution and diplomacy. This moment is a challenge and opportunity for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Though U.S. President Donald Trump might not risk an all-out war with Iran, Abe’s relationships with Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may play a critical role for de-escalation. Though it lacks the military and economic leverage of other global actors, Japan’s relationships with key players as well as its soft power assets create an opening for much-needed diplomacy between the United States, Iran, and Arab states. Abe would do well to use this opportunity to encourage Trump to double down on a long-term U.S. strategy to invest in regional stability.

Abe’s mid-January tour of the Arab Gulf, which occurred alongside the January 14 U.S.-Japan-South Korea foreign minister trilateral, will measure the returns on Japan’s investments in its Middle East interests, which are structural as well as increasingly geopolitical. Japan has a nearly existential reliance on stability in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Japan still relies on oil and gas from the Middle East region to meet at least 90 percent of its energy needs, with the domestic push for alternative energy sources stunted by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant incident. Japan has also sought to play a larger role in regional peace and security. Through more robust diplomatic, humanitarian, and military footprints, Abe has been determined to advance Japan’s strategic interests to provide for its national defense, increase its global footprint, and diversify its energy and trade portfolios. This includes the recent $50 billion Japan-EU free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Japan benefits from U.S. military protection and nuclear umbrella under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, and constitutionally Japan can only maintain Self-Defense Forces (SDF) for defensive purposes. Abe has made it his priority to reform this aspect of the Japanese constitution, which was written by the United States following the World War II. The SDF base in Djibouti has been used since 2011 for counterpiracy missions and strategic military partnership with the U.S. in the Horn of Africa. Prior to the Soleimani killing, Japan had planned to deploy an independent maritime patrol in response to an attack on a Japanese oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman in June. Abe has decided to move forward with this patrol, which excludes the Straits of Hormuz but extends from the Bab El-Mandeb Strait into the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman. Defense Minister Taro Kono explicitly expanded the SDF’s mandate to “peace and stability in the Middle East.” The need to secure energy markets will withstand political opposition Abe faces as he attempts to advance pro-defense reforms in Japan’s constitution.

Japan has many cultural and historic soft power assets providing it popular support among Middle East populations. It has also maintained its amicable relations with rival parties in the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Japan is uniquely poised to play a mediating role between the United States and Iran. Trump has supported Abe’s engagement with Iran, and Rouhani has met with Abe seven times, including during the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Tehran in June 2019. Abe can be a direct line between two parties that do not seek to appear on a negotiation footing publicly. Japan can also be a line between Iran and its regional adversaries.

In both instances, it will be critical for Japan to focus on the drivers of regional instability. The central grievance shared by Washington and its Arab allies has not been Iran’s nuclear ambitions: it has been Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions.

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Today’s outcome was a door opened by U.S. President George W. Bush, who altered the regional balance with a disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iran’s strategy, led by no other than Qassem Soleimani, has fueled a sectarian backlash by Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals, resulting in massive humanitarian and counterterrorism challenges. All of this is challenging the United States’ historic commitment to regional peace and security and creating a strategic opening for China and Russia facilitated by Iran.

Iran oversees a “Shia Crescent,” a network of political, quasi-military, and terrorist proxies spanning Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The myth sold by some proponents of the Iran nuclear deal — that Iran will moderate once it becomes a normal actor in the global economy — has led to one-dimensional Iran policy in the United States and Europe.

Generations of Middle East lives have been affected by Iran’s regional activity, and the conflicts in the region today demand a solution to root causes. Any deal that rightly dulls the threat of a nuclear Iran without addressing Iran’s regional imperialism will perpetuate the status quo. That is why former U.S. President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Iran was perceived as appeasement by the United States’ traditional regional partners.

Abe can continue to speak with Trump to emphasize de-escalation and negotiation with Iran, while calling for doubling down on U.S. support for Iraq’s stability and a solution to the Syrian conflict, two theaters of conflict where Iran has deeply affected regional stability.

Should the United States forgo its military commitment to the coalition campaign to counter the Islamic State and be pressured to leave Iraq, Iran will claim a strategic victory. In theory, this would be unacceptable under Trump’s Iran containment policy, but his mixed messages on regional troop withdrawals leave room for doubt. Abe could encourage Trump to heed Iraqi reform protests, which advocate against Iranian influence in Baghdad, as well as to continue to invest in stabilization and counterterrorism policies. Through sending money and proxy fighters since 2011, Iran empowered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to wage a campaign of brutality and demographic change to maintain control in Damascus. Assad now offers an economic and military landbridge from Eurasia to the Mediterranean Sea for Iran, Russia, and China. Maintaining military leverage and tightening sanctions to force Assad’s camp to pursue a peace process pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 will be requisite to producing an independent, sovereign Syria that is a far cry from the hotbed for violent extremism and geopolitical competition it is today.

Yemen, too, demands the trust-based diplomacy that has Abe has sought to foster. The Saudi-led coalition needs a way out of the humanitarian tragedy caused by the proxy war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) views the Iranian-back Houthi rebels in Yemen as an existential threat on Saudi borders. The Houthis have also claimed credit for September 2019 drone attacks on Saudi oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Iran has been strategically outmaneuvered Saudi Arabia across the region for the past decade, but the tactical loss of Soleimani, the threat of escalation, and the pressure of further political and economic isolation may force Iran to reconsider. Both sides can save face: Trump’s pro-Saudi, maximum pressure campaign provides political cover for MBS’s withdrawal from Yemen, while Saudi Arabia’s enemies can spin the outcome as a Saudi retreat. Though political pressure and arms embargoes from Saudi Arabi’s Western allies aim to force an end to the Yemen conflict, Abe’s relationships with MBS and Rouhani presents a unique peacemaking opportunity.

Despite changes in the global order, what has not changed are the relationships built by statesmen and stateswomen and the soft power they can leverage. Though Japan can ill-afford a crisis in global energy markets, Abe has demonstrated the political will to stake his legacy on global leadership in the Middle East. Abe’s Middle East outreach dovetails with his FOIP strategy and Japan’s example of rules-based cooperation, an alternative to a China-led order. Tokyo has also not ignored Russia and China’s growing regional power in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal in the past decade. Japan has obvious political and material limitations when it comes to having outsized leverage on regional outcomes, but the region is ripe for solutions from credible actors such as the EU and Japan to fill a void increasingly left open by the U.S. From the perspective of Washington, Trump and his successors will depend on Japan’s partnership as the United States reconsiders its footprint in the Middle East.

Adham Sahloul is a foreign policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He has worked on Middle East policy in the think tank community as well as in the humanitarian field. He has an M.A. in international security and political economy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.