The Question of Iran: Japan’s Most Critical Partner in the Middle East?

In the face of a potential geopolitical conflict involving the U.S. and Iran, Japan’s mediation role has become ever more important. Tokyo’s decision to deploy its Maritime Self-Defense Force to the Middle East, independently from U.S. initiatives, reflects Japan’s prudent consideration for its traditional partner in the region, Iran. Moreover, Tehran’s covert strategic collaboration with North Korea has been a seed of concern for Japanese policymakers. Maintaining warm relations with Tehran whilst acting as a crisis mediator in the U.S.-Iran conflict, is a strategic necessity for Tokyo to not only ensure a stable energy flow but also to keep Iran from forming any type of military cooperation with North Korea.

Escalated Tensions between the U.S. and Iran

On January 03, 2020, the surprising and swift U.S. drone attack in Baghdad that killed Qasem Soleimani, led to several ramifications for the regional security situation in the Middle East. Soleimani was the most distinguished Iranian commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, so there were calls for vengeance throughout the country. Iran, in response, conducted a series of rocket attacks targeting U.S. troops in airbases in both al-Asad and Erbil. Although the tragic downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane was declared “unintentional” misconduct by the Iranian military, the incident caused 176 civilian casualties and sent shockwaves through the international community. Both sides have since constrained political acts of military provocation.

Japan’s Foreign Policy Amid Rising U.S.-Iran Tensions

In the wake of the U.S.-Iran conflict escalating on, Japan has been increasingly involved in the crisis and stepping up to play a mediating role. Japan has been urging all parties involved to exercise self-restraint and Prime Minister Abe showed his support to the U.S. for its moderate response.

During 2019, Japan and Iran exchanged high-level visits, including foreign ministers meetings and summit talks. On December 20, in a highly publicized move Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Japan to discuss strengthening relations. Although the U.S. “maximum pressure campaign” has pushed Japan into a more difficult position in maintaining economic cooperation with Iran, intensified U.S.-Iranian tensions has given Tokyo an important diplomatic role to play.  

Most significantly, Japan has decided to take up a more assertive foreign policy position. The Japanese government decided to dispatch Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) units to Middle Eastern waters as part of an intelligence gathering mission. In addition to sending about 260 MSDF personnel, the patrol planes started operations in January 2020 and the destroyer vessel will begin its missions in February. The planned deployment is aimed at ensuring the safety of Japanese vessels shipping through the Persian Gulf which account for 80 percent of crude oil imports pass through, as well as for peace and stability efforts in the Middle East. In short, this is a move which most likely reflects the preservation of its own vital interests in the Persian Gulf region; stable oil flows and shipping safety.

Notwithstanding, the areas of operations will be limited in the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab. Critics point out that it exclusively circumvents the Strait of Hormuz, which is at the heart of U.S.-Iran tensions. Even though it is deploying battleships, Japanese law only allows the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to collect intelligence through conducting “survey and research” for the defense ministry and does not allow troops to conduct military operations. While the Cabinet Chief Sectary clarified that Japan would closely collaborate with the U.S., it is not clear to what extent Japan’s SDF safeguard mission could contribute to maritime security or the safety of vessels in the Persian Gulf.

Although there are many challenges that Tokyo must deal with, the U.S. has welcomed Japan’s active commitment to mediate the U.S.-Iranian conflict. What’s more, Tokyo’s decision not to participate in the U.S.-led maritime security initiative has alleviated the risk of a break down in friendly relations with Iran.

Why Iran is Significant to Japan?

Iran’s energy supply has played a critical role in Japan’s rapid economic development and even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 Japan managed to maintain stable relations with the Iranian central government. Iran is home to the world’s fourth largest oil reserves, which are crucial for Japan since the country relies heavily on foreign energy imports. Tokyo heavily invested in a development project in the giant oil field in Azadegan but chose to withdraw from the lucrative scheme in 2010 due to U.S. pressure. Therefore, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) came into action Tokyo saw it as a positive way to further Japanese investments in Iran.

National Security Dimension of Iran: The North Korean Factor

The importance of Iran to Japan is not limited to the energy domain but also extends to military security issues. Since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iran has allegedly collaborated with Japan’s principal adversary, North Korea.

Tehran’s ballistic missile systems, Shahab 1 and 2 (with a range of 300 and 500 respectively) and medium range Shahab 3 (with a range of 800-1000km), capable of delivering nuclear warheads, were reportedly variants of North Korea’s Scud B, C and Nodong-1 Although, there is no clear evidence to prove direct collaboration, the chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps publicly acknowledged for the first time that Iran obtained North Korean missiles during the Iran-Iraq War. In fact, the Japanese government requested that Iran terminate all military collaboration with North Korea during a bilateral foreign ministers meetings in 2015. In the face of U.S. hard line measures against Iran, there is legitimate cause for concern for potential strategic collaboration in nuclear development and ballistic missiles between Tehran and Pyongyang.

Japan’s Nightmare Scenario

Iran’s recent developments in drone technology pose a significant threat to Japan’s regional economic investments and perhaps even closer to home. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, allegedly backed by Iran, conducted drone strikes against Saudi Arabia’s key oil producing facility in Abqaiq and Khurais on September 14, 2019, which led to a 50 percent drop of Saudi’s oil production. Analysts are increasingly casting Iran as “becoming a drone superpower” and (though Tehran denied any role) the drone attack on Saudi Arabia was conducted with such pinpoint precision that even the U.S. advanced Patriot Air defense system failed to detect it. This demonstrates how rapidly Iran’s drone strike capability is advancing. Development in unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and proliferation of its technology to North Korea is a grave concern for Japan.

In terms of its long-term interests, Japan wishes to maintain its historic relations with Tehran while strengthening its alliance with the U.S. Moreover, Tokyo seeks to keep Iran and North Korea from forming any covert or even official cooperation. Easing U.S.-Iran tensions is a strategic necessity for Japan, as it views escalation of conflict in the Persian Gulf region as bringing only harm to Japan’s energy security as well increasing further military concerns both regionally and with North Korea.