By Joshua Walker Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Iran, the first by a Japanese leader since Iran’s 1979 revolution, marks an exceptional moment for Tokyo on the global stage at a time when tensions between Washington and Tehran are on the rise. In Japan, expectations have been set extremely low and few will be paying attention, yet leaders in the Middle East will be watching carefully. Abe seems to have paved the way for the visit by talking to all of the important players in the region, seizing on the occasion to highlight his unique relationships with everyone from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The outreach represents a subtle shift in Middle East diplomacy that was once the exclusive domain of great powers.
Tokyo’s concerns over tensions between D.C. and Tehran led to an initial conversation between Abe and Donald Trump during the U.S. president’s recent visit to Japan, which produced an American message that Abe will be delivering. Trump seems eager to meet with the Iranians if they are willing to make a deal involving the same sort of showmanship that surrounded the meeting he had with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore. The problem on the U.S. side is high expectations for a meeting that can be sold as a breakthrough, even if it lacks substance. But for Japan, it now has the opportunity to carve out for itself a role similar to the one Switzerland has been playing in representation of the U.S. in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis, or which Oman recently played during negotiations on the nuclear deal.
The good news for Abe is that he will be warmly received in Tehran, and images of him shaking hands and smiling on the evening news will bolster his image as a global statesman in Japan. As the world’s third-largest economy, Japan has historically enjoyed good relations not just with Iran but also with its principal rivals Israel, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey. Its foreign policy in the Middle East has been driven primarily by economic and energy concerns.
Tokyo continues to support the nuclear deal while also abiding by the Trump administration’s sanctions regime, staking out a middle ground between the Europeans and Americans. Abe’s unique personal style of diplomacy, which has been on clear display with Trump, will be tested in Iran. The primary reason for his 48-hour visit is to reach beyond President Hassan Rouhani, the international face of Iran with whom he has met on numerous occasions, to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the country’s main decision-maker. Khamenei never leaves his country, so Abe is coming to him with an outstretched hand of friendship and promises of a future more similar to past Japanese-Iranian relations if a pathway out of the current impasse between D.C. and Tehran can be found.
Whether or not there is a historic breakthrough, either in the form of participation by the Iranian president at the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, where Trump will also be in attendance, or in steps taken to provide a new foundation for U.S.-Iran relations, Japan is taking the lead. Of course, like all Middle East diplomacy, there is also the strong possibility of an embarrassing letdown. Still, Abe has done the proper groundwork in his discussions with Trump, Mohammed bin Salman, and Netanyahu, among others, so the risk is worth the reward of simply demonstrating his global statesmanship ahead of the G20 this month and upper house elections back home in July.
Given the geopolitical moment in which Japan finds itself, caught between its largest trading partner China and critical security ally the U.S., venturing out beyond its neighborhood is a smart move and a reminder of Tokyo’s global value. For Abe, the move could remedy a situation in which his ability to deliver domestically is increasingly constrained by the politics of his succession, even though he has another two years in office and could conceivably serve another term if his party revised its own guidelines. Abe’s longevity in office has allowed him to benefit from personal relationships that cannot be transferred and make his appeal uniquely strong on national security grounds. Adding Iran to his list of 60-plus countries already visited while in office and Khamenei to the long list of leaders he has met and with whom he shares warm relations, further strengthens the prime minister. Of course, the risks are real, as every nation that has dealt with Iran can attest.