Upgrading Japan's Policy Toward Iran


When Western countries intensified pressure on Iran because of its nuclear program, Japan agreed to reduce oil imports. However, Miyata Osamu, chairman of the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan, argues that Japan is in no position to sever relations with Iran. It should keep channels of exchange open, seeking to draw Iran into the international community.

Keeping Channels of Communication Open

From the viewpoint of Japan’s energy security, the Middle East is of course an important region. As much as 90% of Japan’s crude-oil imports come from Iran and other Persian Gulf countries. The Japanese government has long adhered to the stance that building good relations with Middle Eastern countries is vital for national security. Toward this end, Japan extends financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, for example, and it has dispatched units of the Ground Self-Defense Force to the UN peacekeeping operation in the Golan Heights.

It goes without saying that the maintenance of steady supplies of oil cannot be ignored when considering Japanese relations with Middle Eastern countries. This is why Japan will not completely sever its relations with oil-producing nations like Iran, although the United States asks it to. During the turmoil in the Middle East following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq was raging, a number of political and economic leaders called for diversification of the nation’s sources of oil. However, Japan has continued to rely primarily on Middle Eastern sources because of relatively low oil prices and transport costs.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009, supporters of the reformist camp launched street demonstrations in protest. While a lack of freedom is one of the issues driving opposition to the government, economic problems figure prominently in the unrest. The country’s woes on the economic front have also worked to harden the government’s stance on its nuclear program. In this situation, would not the best course be to make improving the economic situation the top priority, seeking thereby to induce the government to adopt a more flexible nuclear posture and to draw the country into the international community? What is required of Tokyo is to persuade Tehran to continue negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and adopt a course that will avoid the imposition of even harsher economic sanctions. It is precisely when Iran finds itself internationally isolated that Japan should keep its channels of communication with the country open.

If Japan is unable to endorse all of the policies toward Iran proposed by its ally the United States, it might make up for that by giving extra effort to attaining other common goals that it and the United States need to achieve in the Middle East. Such an understanding has been in evidence in the special attention the Japanese government has devoted to the reconstruction activities in Afghanistan and Iraq following the wars in these two countries.

With its sights set on assisting the development of market economies in the Muslim countries of the Middle East, what Japan needs to do is to step up investments, make technologies available, and generally provide support. Surely Japan should be able to use its strength in environmental technologies to assist Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. People in Iran are beginning to show interest in the use of wind and solar power for generating electricity, both to prepare for the day when their oil resources become depleted and to free up more oil for exports. Obviously this is one area where Japanese technology can make a contribution.

The Need to Promote Peace

Numerous people in the United States, Israel, and other countries see Iran as a threat because its leaders oppose the Middle East peace process and are calling for the eradication of the Israeli state. The peace process is currently at a standstill. Since the Islamist political organization Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since 2006, enjoys support from Iran and espouses an ideology that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist in Palestine, it has provoked fear in both Israel and the United States. Japan should engage in dialogue with Hamas and call for coexistence with Israel.

The Japanese government appreciates the importance of the Middle East peace process. Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, it has worked to improve the environment and lives of the Palestinian people, putting special effort into upgrading the sewerage system in Gaza and building a Jericho hospital in the West Bank. The hospital in particular has been highly praised by the Palestinians. As Islam is a religion that stresses the value of social welfare, Japan needs to continue conducting activities in this area.

If progress toward peace in the Middle East can be achieved, the Iranian call for Israel’s dismantling will lose persuasive power. Currently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing ahead with expanded settlement construction in East Jerusalem, where many Arabs have long been living. This initiative is unpopular in US President Barack Obama’s administration. Is it not in just such cases, where Americans have raised objections to Israeli actions that are in violation of international law, that Tokyo should give support to Washington, and call for Israel to stop building settlements in occupied territory?

Light-Water Reactors and Inflammatory Language

The nuclear issue is a subject on which Japan, as the only country to have suffered from atomic bombing, should continue to tell Iran in plain language that an increase in the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons cannot be permitted. If Iran hopes to eradicate the suspicion that it is intent on developing nuclear weapons, it ought to accept the proposals from the European Union and the United States to supply nuclear reactors of the light-water type. If the Iranian nuclear program is truly aimed at developing nuclear energy for peaceful uses, there is no reason for Iran not to accept this offer of light-water reactors.

In another area, Japan would be wise to ask Iran to refrain from the use of anti-American slogans. While voicing vigorous condemnation of the United States may have been a symbolic gesture of the Iranian Revolution, the continued use of anti-American rhetoric is only strengthening the distrust of Iran in the United States.

On the other side of this conflict, it is a fact that Washington has encouraged obstinacy in Tehran by freezing Iranian assets in the United States. Washington should be able to extract concessions from Tehran, such as the acceptance of light-water reactors, by promising that it will unfreeze the assets in return. If Washington were to play this card, it is possible that Tehran would act to improve its relations with the United States. Making such a proposal to Washington is one of the options available to Japan’s diplomats.

Drawing Iran into the International Community

By engaging in academic and cultural exchange with Iran, Japan can improve the bilateral relationship. Such a course of action might become a catalyst for a better relationship between Iran and the international community. As can be seen in the international acclaim for Iranian films, the culture of Iran is highly regarded. The Iranian people also take pride in their country’s elaborate crafts, one example of which is Persian carpets. The Japanese people’s understanding of Iran can be enhanced through the introduction of Iranian culture into Japan. This should work to correct the impression of Iran as a country that only opposes the United States.

Thought should also be given to helping the Iranian people get better acquainted with Japanese culture, traditions, and technology, for example by putting items in the possession of Japanese museums on display in Iran. The Iranian people look on Japanese technology with something akin to absolute trust. Without doubt the introduction of refined Japanese culture would help to foster friendly feelings toward Japan among the Iranians.

With such positive sentiment toward Japan serving as a base, Tokyo should ask Tehran to give clear signs that its nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes. The Japanese should set their sights on drawing Iran into the international community. As a result of the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Japan has become unable to rely heavily on nuclear power as an energy source. The importance to Japan of Iran’s energy resources has, accordingly, become much greater. Without question, maintaining and developing friendly relations with Iran will be in the best interest of the Japanese people over the years to come. It will be crucial to use these relations in a way that can resolve the concerns of the international community over Iran’s nuclear program.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 9.)

diplomacy United States energy Iran Miyata Osamu Israel Oil