In a move contradicting its policy and investments of the last several months, Japan took a symbolic step back from Iran when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe postponed his visit to the country in late July. The visit, for which plans had been in place since March of this year, was intended to strengthen economic ties between Japan and Iran. It would have marked a diplomatic milestone; if Abe had taken the trip in August as he was scheduled to, he would have been the first Japanese leader to set foot in Iran since 1978 (1).
Japan’s energy-oriented relations with Iran have long been influenced by the U.S., a key ally that severed diplomatic ties with Iran for decades, first because Washington disapproved of the 1979 revolution that toppled the pro-Western monarchy, more recently because of tensions related to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Nonetheless, Japan took steps to maintain bilateral relations with the Shi’ite country and remained on good terms with Iran until 2006, when the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iran for failing to halt its uranium enrichment program (2). These sanctions, along with crippling international sanctions imposed by the U.S., the E.U, and Japan, among others, were lifted in January following the historic 2015 agreement negotiated by the P5+1 group (China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S., plus Germany) that effectively put an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Iran boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves, fourth-largest oil reserves, and 78 million potential consumers (3), and Japan is eager to get ahead in the global rush to establish footholds in the Iranian market that ensued immediately after the lifting of the sanctions. Prior to 2006, Iran was one of Japan’s primary sources of foreign energy, and the island state only stopped importing Iranian oil when the Obama administration increased pressure on its allies to comply with the sanctions regime in 2012 (4). Tokyo’s energy needs have only intensified after its four-year voluntary nuclear moratorium, a consequence of the 2011 nuclear crisis at Fukushima; at the time of the ban, nuclear energy supplied almost a third of Tokyo’s domestic energy (5). In mid-February, the Foreign Ministers of Japan and Iran signed a bilateral pact that promised to give Japanese countries an edge in investing in the resource-rich nation, and Tokyo soon after announced a business facilitation mechanism that will invest $10 billion in different sectors of the Iranian economy (6). These actions are clearly indicative of Japan’s strong desire to resume business with Iran and diversify its dependence on foreign oil imports.
So why would Abe postpone his meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and risk sending signals of reluctance or hesitation, when his country and its businessmen have so much to gain from close economic ties with Iran? Donald Trump.
If the visit does happen, it will likely not occur until after the November U.S. presidential election, when Japan can finally be certain who is calling the shots for its favorite ally. Over the course of his campaign, the anti-establishment and now-official GOP nominee has expressed a number of anti-Japanese sentiments, including resentment toward the fact that Japan relies on America for military protection, disgust with the Trans-Pacific Partnership that benefits Japan, and a proposal for sky-high tariffs on Japanese cars sold in the U.S., and he has even gone so far as to hint at ending the Japanese-American alliance. Any foreign policy expert would be happy to explain that this alliance is of great importance to Washington, and that as host to 50,000 U.S. troops, Japan plays a vital role in the U.S.’s “rebalance” of its economic and security focus to the Asia-Pacific region (7). It is not unlikely that if Trump were to win the election, he would rely on the advice of experienced and rational foreign policy experts, and therefore steer clear of outlandish, almost universally recognized as foolish policy decisions, such as the ones mentioned above. However, his blustering remarks and belligerent behavior are so inconsistent that Trump remains a huge wildcard, leaving other countries such as Japan unable to confidently predict what foreign policy he would pursue and what actions he would take internationally. As Hillary Clinton and Trump remain uncomfortably close in voter polls and the possibility of a Trump-presidency seems more and more like a potential reality, Japan cannot be certain what kind of leader it will face in the Oval Office. And because Clinton has extensive foreign policy experience and spearheaded the rebalancing toward Asia as Secretary of State during Obama’s first term, it stands to reason that Japan and other Asian countries prefer a Clinton administration.
As such, Japan seems unwilling to enact strategic decisions with major global implications before November 2016, with economic activity in Iran being chief among them. The U.S. and Iran have long had strained, if not outright hostile, relations, and though these appear to be improving in recent months with the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal, much tension still exists between the two states. Though Clinton supports the deal, Trump has actually condemned it, calling it “disastrous” and saying it would be one of the first agreements he would re-negotiate if he assumes office, in an interview with The Washington Post. The next U.S. president could re-impose sanctions against Iran that would cause trouble for companies doing business there, which may be why Japan wishes to stall its pursuits in the Iranian economy. Tokyo is likely also exercising greater caution to avoid offending the U.S. in its dealings with Iran, an outcome which could have dire consequences for the Asian country if transpiring under a volatile Trump administration.
Because the U.S. is such a powerful player on the global stage, Japan will not be the only country to reevaluate its foreign policy when facing the prospect of a fickle Trump presidency. His confirmation as the official GOP nominee in July provided a reality-check to any observers who still hopefully denied the legitimacy of his campaign, and countries everywhere must take steps to prepare for the possibility of Trump in office. Onlookers can expect to see many other foreign policy decisions put on hold until after the November elections, when the world will finally learn who steers the American ship for the next four years.
(1) "Japan's Abe Looks to Visit Iran This Year." March 7, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/Japan-s-Abe-looks-to-visit-Iran-this-year.
(2) “Sanctions eased but Japan Inc. treads warily in return to Iran | The Japan Times.” Japan Times RSS. March 16, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016.
(3) "Japan's Abe Looks to Visit Iran This Year." March 7, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/Japan-s-Abe-looks-to-visit-Iran-this-year.
(4) Berkshire Miller, Jonathan. “Japan’s Strategic Ties with Iran.” Aljazeera Centre for Studies. February 18, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016.
(6) Obe, Mitsuru. "Japan Set to Resume Business With Iran." WSJ. February 5, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-set-to-resume-business-with-iran-1454654121.
(7) Pennington, Matthew. “Trump’s Positions on Trade, Security Alliances Could Roil U.S.-Asia Ties.” Haaretz. March 10, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016.
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