Tokyo Toughens its Stance on Iran

Japan, Washington’s chief ally in Asia, is continuing to struggle with how to position its fragile economy to prepare for a worst-case scenario in the Persian Gulf, with talk swirling about the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s latent nuclear program.

Efforts to resolve the issue diplomatically and through biting sanctions have been enhanced. Last week, in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, US President Barack Obama emphasized that he would “take no option off the table” and stressed that he was determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons program. (see related story, Asia’s experience means US is bluffing on Iran) Obama stopped short however of giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the green light for an attack on Tehran.

Meanwhile Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s special advisor for the Middle East recently suggested to a foreign policy symposium that Tokyo should be prepared to dispatch its Self-Defense Forces to the region in the event there is a conflict.

Akihisa Nagashima, who is also the senior director of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted that a conflict in the Persian Gulf would “affect Japanese national interests” and even suggested that Japan should consider sending the SDF to the Strait of Hormuz if there was a clash. Japan is constitutionally prohibited from combat roles overseas, but there are loopholes. Nagashima explained that “some operations are authorized” under the SDF legislation and pointed to the special measures law that governs SDF counterterrorism and anti-piracy activities.

What could the self-defence forces be expected to do if deployed to the Middle East? Any contribution would most likely be reactive in nature and focus on the protection of maritime trade routes in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has threatened to cut off international access to the Strait in the event of a conflict. Oil shipments from Iran constitute 8.8 percent of Japan’s total energy imports.

The importance of these imports has been magnified by last spring’s nuclear crisis at Fukushima and the reduction of domestic energy sources created by the fallout. Currently all but two of Japan’s nuclear reactors are offline for maintenance and checks which leaves Tokyo increasingly dependent on foreign energy sources.

However, while Japan’s reliance on oil from Iran is significant, it is also steadily decreasing as a result of enhanced sanctions against Tehran. Within the past year, imports from Iran to Japan have decreased nearly 20 percent as authorities in Tokyo scramble to become compliant with United Nations Security Council sanctions aimed at suffocating the Islamic Republic’s financial coffers which are suspected as being diverted to fund its nuclear program.

The US has been negotiating with Japan to allow a partial waiver by acknowledging the unique energy issues Tokyo faces since last year’s earthquake and tsunami. But of greater importance than crude from Iran, is the fact that 85 percent of Japan’s oil imports and 25 percent of its natural gas imports traverse through the Strait of Hormuz.

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba has played down suggestions of an imminent blockage noting that the action would go against Iran’s economic interests. Moreover, Gemba has insisted that his government would not hesitate to dip into its considerable oil reserves to limit the economic impact of a potential closure of the Strait of Hormuz.

However, if the Iranians do decide to attempt to interfere with ships passing through the Strait, Japan must be prepared to protect its interests. The SDF has experience in this field and continues to conduct similar maritime operations to protect national vessels from piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

The SDF is also making contingency plans to airlift Japanese nationals from the region in the event of a widened conflict. While there are a limited number of Japanese citizens residing in Iran, there is a considerable expatriate community in neighbouring countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Tokyo is also concerned about its nationals in Israel especially if the latter launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran.

However, Gemba has approached the potential of a SDF deployment cautiously explaining that “nothing is concrete” and Japan is “considering its options on various possible scenarios”. Tokyo is hopeful that the window of diplomacy on Iran stays open for a little longer.

(Jonathan Berkshire Miller is an analyst on the Asia-Pacific region based in Japan.)