Japan moves up mediation on Iran nuclear issue

(Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo, May 16, 2019.)

The reports from Tokyo indicate that the dates for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit to Iran have been firmed up — June 12-14. Abe will have a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani upon arrival in Tehran on June 12, followed by a call on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the next day. 

Abe’s mediatory mission aims at promoting US-Iran negotiations. Earlier, during his state visit to Japan on May 24, the US president Donald Trump had green lighted Abe’s offer to mediate with Tehran. 

As of now, Tehran’s reaction remains ambivalent — perhaps, deliberately so. However, it is useful to recall that a week before Trump’s visit to Japan, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif was in Tokyo and Abe received him. (See my blog Trump makes big-time overture to Iran.)

It is conceivable that Abe would have staked his prestige on such a mission without some sort of preliminary sounding out of the Iranian thinking in the matter. Of course, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, while confirming that the date of Shinzo Abe’s visit was being coordinated, reiterated that “Iran has no plans to negotiate with any US official”, and added, “we do not need any channels” and “for now we have no special message for anyone”. Nonetheless, Mousavi also called Abe’s trip a “turning point” and said Iran would “wait and see” before deciding on any offers of negotiations. 

Clearly, some discreet diplomatic signalling ensued — with Tokyo acting in good faith between Washington and Tehran. This explains the dramatic U-turn by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday from his famous 12 demands of May last year on Iran. Pompeo has made an unconditional offer of talks. Predictably, Iran dubbed Pompeo’s offer as mere ‘wordplay’, but, significantly, not rejected it, either. On the other hand, Rouhani has since given a nuanced response suggesting that Iran may be willing to hold talks if the US showed its respect, but adding that Tehran will not be “bullied” into negotiations with Washington. 

In Rouhani’s words, “We are for logic and talks if [the other side] sits respectfully at the negotiating table and follows international regulations, not if it issues an order to negotiate. We have shown that we do not submit to bullying and covetous powers.” Keeping up appearances is an Iranian trait. 

Indeed, it is highly significant that Abe is traveling to Iran before the G-20 summit in Osaka on June 28-29, which Trump will be attending. Clearly, there is cautious optimism in Tokyo and Washington that things are moving in a positive direction. Trump is keen on commencement of talks with Iran and a deal possibly, which he could show as a foreign policy achievement. 

The Democrats, on the other hand, are just as keen that Tehran should hunker down and refuse to engage with Trump. According to the Daily Beast, several officials in the Obama administration have quietly urged Iranian government officials to keep their cool in the face of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy against Tehran. The daily reported that Team Obama “reached out to their contacts in the Iranian government, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Their message to Iran: Don’t take Trump’s bait. Stay calm.” An unnamed Republican congressional aide who works on Iran policy told The Daily Beast that the former officials in Obama administration aim to “divide and isolate the Trump administration.” 

Tehran estimates that war with Iran is not Trump’s priority, and he is personally against it. Trump’s transactional approach also appeals to the Iranian sensibility of give-and-take. Having said that, Tehran is moving cautiously, factoring in the uncertainties: a) sheer miscalculations regarding each other’s intentions and compulsions; b) some false-flag operation that is exploited as alibi to create new facts on the ground; and, c) an extreme contingency where with the back against the wall, Iran may be left with no option but to fight its way out. 

Iran sees the National Security Advisor John Bolton as the villain of the piece who in cohort with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE obsessively pushes for a confrontationist line against Iran. No doubt, any move by Trump to dump Bolton from his national security team will go down well with Tehran. Reports keep appearing that Trump is losing patience with the warmongers in his team but he is utterly unpredictable, too. 

The good part is that the clouds of war are lifting. Meanwhile, Israel is bogged down in domestic politics and the attempt by the Saudis and Emiratis to drum up support of the GCC counties and other Arab states to join them in a collective stance against Iran has backfired as most regional states do not want a conflict in the region. Qatar has been the last country to express reservations over the Saudi attempt to isolate Iran.

Everything now depends on the tidings that Abe brings back from Tehran. Does Japan make a good mediator? Yes, it does, because Japan has friendly relations with Iran while also remains a longstanding ally of the US and has vital interests as an energy importing country. Except for China, perhaps, there will be goodwill in the international community for Abe’s mission. 

Unsurprisingly, China feels uncomfortable that Japanese diplomacy is stealing a march on a turf where Beijing is a stakeholder. Two commentaries in the Chinese Communist Party daily Global Times have expressed scepticism on various counts (here and here). It appears that Tokyo sprang a surprise on China. Importantly, if Abe’s mission gains traction (which is yet uncertain), Japan will have effectively gatecrashed into the charmed circle of the EU, France, UK, Germany, Russia and China who have so far presided over the Iran nuclear issue. Tehran will welcome it.