he United States is in a diplomatic conundrum in light of Iran’s recent attack on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure. If it does nothing it might as well pack its bags and depart the Middle East. Yet, a direct military strike on Iran by U.S. Forces, would most likely be a severe overreaction that sparks a dramatic escalation. Perhaps lending assistance to the Saudi’s in a strike of their own against Iran might be viable, but if Iran again calls the bluff or retaliates, we risk having to get directly involved regardless. Of course, there is the option of striking at Iranian proxy forces elsewhere, such as in Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen—with Syria being the riskiest and most complicated option, for a whole host of reasons. Engaging to disrupt Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen might be viable—but the options are limited.
Realistically, substantive engagement and negotiations between the U.S. and Iran is a necessity. But under the current political climate direct engagement looks implausible and unproductive. A credible third party needs to help bridge the gap. Unfortunately, it looks as if no European nation could fill that role; their collective political stance and what might be characterized as outright French pandering to Iran, has led to an erosion of trust and credibility. Japan however, might be able to credibly fill this role. Japan’s economic engagement with Iran goes back a long time, and Japan has been reluctant to disengage economically despite U.S. pressure. It managed to do so while still largely keeping its channels of communication and dialogue, with Iran, intact. As such, it is rather well placed, to utilize these connections once again to help bridge the communications gap.
Japan, could not only help establish a dialogue, to deescalate the current tensions, but also enable a discourse between the two antagonists that is not fraught by mistrust, excessive media speculation, and public displays of emotion and toughness. Starting this conversation is essential to avoid escalation. Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities represents a tipping point in regional and international relations. The strikes demonstrate that Iran has both the ability and wherewithal to use brute force and aggression in the region, which poses a severe strategic and economic threat. This threat is now truly regional and not just confined to the narrow strait of Hormuz. Iran, with this strike, has further limited the viable retaliatory strike options that are on the table, and proven that it will impede international oil markets, if it cannot export its own oil. Any limited retaliatory strike would likely spur a further retaliation from Iran, risking escalation and all out conflict. A conflict in which the U.S. would inevitably be directly involved, in light of the severe shortcomings in Saudi military capabilities and competencies.
It is by now abundantly clear that the regional status quo is not viable. Iran’s frustration at economic sanctions and Europe’s inability to provide it with any sort of respite has left it in an ever-deteriorating situation. Simultaneously, the U.S. has left itself in a conundrum, if it fails to respond in any meaningful way, it is perceived as weak and unsupportive of its allies; if it responds forcefully, it might find itself in a war it does not want. Further, the very conflicting and ambiguous response from President Trump, thus far, is creating confusion and might lead to miscalculations on both sides.
In this situation, it would be prudent, to bring in a third party, one that has some trust with both sides and one that is perceived as largely unbiased. Japan fits this role. Its involvement might also help reduce the risk of rash action by the Israelis—something that would not be conducive to de-escalation.
There are several avenues available for Japan’s involvement, but direct mediation by the Abe administration and in particular the Japanese Foreign Minister (Motegi, Toshimitsu) could possibly be fruitful. His past experience in dealing with other regional actors, as well as the Russians (whom have an interest in Iran as well) places him in a good position to act effectively.
While there are no assurances, that this would be a recipe for success it can hardly make things worse than they already are. We should also recognize that this might be fraught with risk for the Japanese, if any of these efforts were to fail. It also presents an opportunity for Japan to increase its influence, international engagement, and diplomatic standing. It further brings in a large and responsible actor to the regional and international stage, that has largely been politically absent from the region.
There are a few possible additional benefits that could be derived from Japanese involvement, such as for example getting help in talking to the Iranians about a number of U.S. citizens that are missing and believed to be held in Iran.
While both U.S. and Japanese hostage negotiation strategies and tactics are generally atrocious, the fact remains that—aside from a few regional nations, such as Qatar and Oman—Japan, remains in a good position, to constructively engage with the Iranian leadership on issues such as this. Despite President Trump’s bombastic claims of being a great hostage negotiator, and doing all he can to bring captive Americans home, the fact is he has made very little substantive progress. The Department of State and Intelligence Communities team(s) working on these issues are not nearly as proficient or competent as is claimed. Not that things were better under President Obama; it’s simply that the U.S. government has little aptitude in this regard. The fact remains that efforts of this nature are best handled by third parties or private intermediaries. In light of this, Japan could play a constructive role. It not only lends itself to objectivity and removes emotion and national pride from the equation, but also gives you the benefit of arm’s length distance to the particular issue at hand should things go sideways.
An objective intermediary is necessary at this stage, should we wish to avoid unnecessary escalation and increased regional tensions, regardless of whatever counteractions are ultimately decided upon against Iran. Japan can fit this role effectively and help remove the emotions and tensions that make engagement difficult at best. But the question remains; is Japan interested in filling this role?