How Japan Can Help the U.S. De-escalate with Iran
How Japan Can Help the U.S. De-escalate with Iran
Interview / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

How Japan Can Help the U.S. De-escalate with Iran

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visits Iran, President & CEO Robert Malley tells CNN Today that Japan has the capacity to mediate between the U.S. and Iran at a time of heightened tensions. 

First off, a very simple question: Why is [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō] Abe in Iran? 

He is there for many reasons, but right now let’s not forget he went there after having met with and spoken to President Trump. So, he can play a role. He has a personal relationship with the U.S. president. Also, Japan has had good relations with Iran, so he is there and can play a role in trying to de-escalate what is a pretty explosive situation between those two countries. 

But, of course, Japan is not a signatory to the JCPOA, or the Iranian nuclear deal as it is known, but what is in it for Japan to act as a mediator? Why is Japan getting involved? 

Japan imports its oil from the Middle East. Obviously, with the sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Iran most countries, including Japan, have had to reduce, if not eliminate, their imports of Iranian oil. And, obviously, Japan would suffer if there were a confrontation between Iran and the United States, instability in the region, a rise in the price of oil. All of that would hurt Japan. 

I think most, many countries in the world - and Japan happens to be in a position to do something about it - would like to avoid what could be a catastrophic escalation between the United States and Iran. So, Japan has the capacity because of the relationship they have with both the U.S. and Iran, and as we know in this visit, the prime minister is going to meet not just with the Iranian president, but with the Iranian supreme leader, who is the ultimate decision-maker. So, he has an opportunity to do what is going to be very difficult to achieve, which is to try to get both sides to walk away from the brink. 

My question is, could Mr. Abe truly be a credible broker considering his close relation to President Trump? And I imagine the hardliners in Iran are quite suspicious. 

Obviously, the odds are against success. He won’t be able to negotiate a full agreement between the two countries, no doubt about that. His goal right now is to at least get each side to de-escalate and there are some steps that the United States could take, that Iran could take. And let’s not forget these are two countries, the United States and Iran, that don’t really have a direct channel. Ever since President Trump became president, [the U.S.] cut off what used to exist between the two countries in terms of diplomatic channels. So, you need somebody, some country that could go in and say “here’s what the U.S. is prepared to do, here is what Iran is prepared to do”. 

If he could deliver a message or at least come back to President Trump, who he should be seeing in two weeks, and say, “if you”, for example, “allow Iran to export more of its oil, some of its oil, Iran is prepared to release a U.S. detainee or is prepared to suspend – [that is,] itself not take – some of the nuclear measures it announced it would take in July”. Then, maybe at least you could freeze the situation, and provide an opportunity to take a step back, take a deep breath and see whether there is a broader agreement, or at least some kind of greater de-escalation that could take place between Iran and the U.S. 

So, does that seem realistic to you, Robert, I mean especially when you look at the Trump administration’s actions in the past few months, not only withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal, but reimposing sanctions and of course deploying that aircraft carrier and those bombers to the region. All of this is going to come down to President Trump and actually to his national security adviser, who we know has been really calling the shots on Iran policy. 

So, listen, there is this schizophrenia at the heart of the U.S. administration. On the one hand, everything that the administration has done, basically since the president took office, all the steps you mentioned to escalate the pressure on Tehran basically strangle them economically. All of that is leading to a potential escalation, perhaps even a military confrontation with Iran, because Iran will react at some point to  what they consider to be economic warfare. So, on the one hand you have all of that, which seems to be driven mainly by John Bolton, the national security adviser, but then you have the president - and I take him at his word - who says “I don’t want war with Iran”, “this is not what I want”. He seems to be presiding over policy that could provoke the war he doesn’t want. And the goal of someone like the Japanese prime minister would be to go back to President Trump and say: “If you don’t want this war, here is a realistic step you could take”. It’s not going to be a step that I would suspect John Bolton would appreciate, but the president is the president, if he really wants to avoid this escalatory dynamic, there is a way forward. 

You can see the interview here.

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