Dhaka, Bangladesh
Why Japan should stay out of US-Iran spat

Comments & Analyses-II

Why Japan should stay out of US-Iran spat

By Thomas Cynkin

Japan has been one of America’s staunchest and most loyal allies. Tokyo supports most of Washington’s diplomatic efforts, provides generous host nation support for U.S. forces in Japan and consistently seeks ways to enhance the Japan-U.S. alliance, if at a cautious pace. This trend manifested itself most recently at the “two-plus-two” talks between U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers, who agreed to extend the bilateral alliance cooperation in the field of cyberspace. However, at the risk of stating the obvious, Japan’s national interests do not coincide completely with those of the United States. Over the years, to maintain strong ties with its only ally, Tokyo has acted with considerable restraint to avoid any breaches with Washington. That said, Japan has over the years quietly pursued foreign and security policy differentiation from the U.S. on the margins. This may be explained in part as the natural pursuit of Japan’s national interests. At the same time, it may represent at some level an expression of frustration among Japan’s policymakers that Japan’s foreign and security policy is constrained by Tokyo’s need to maintain harmony with Washington. For example, in contrast to U.S. support of Israel in what has been termed the Arab-Israeli conflict, Tokyo has tended to tilt toward the Arab side to protect Japan’s commercial and energy interests — but only to the extent that U.S. feathers are not overly ruffled. And even among Japan’s conservative old guard are those who appear to view Cuba, longtime bete noire of the U.S., somewhat sympathetically — perhaps even with sneaking admiration — as a “small island country with scarce resources” that has defiantly thumbed its nose at U.S. domination. Myanmar represents a more nuanced example of differentiated Japanese foreign and security policy. Even at the height of tensions between the U.S. and Myanmar over the latter’s military rule and suppression of human rights and democracy, sentiment ran high among Japanese elites in support of a softer approach. Japanese policymakers rightly viewed with alarm China’s unchecked encroachments in Myanmar. Above and beyond geopolitical considerations, Myanmar was viewed sentimentally by many in Japan’s older generation as generally pro-Japanese, with the people of Myanmar considered to have largely supported Japanese forces against the British during World War II. Japanese politicians have at times even seemed fixated on Myanmar; there were at one point three separate Myanmar Parliamentary Friendship Leagues simultaneously active in the Diet. Likewise, Japanese business has regarded Myanmar — with its literate, English-speaking, motivated workforce — as a new frontier for Japanese foreign direct investment. Small wonder Japan has attempted to be more forward-leaning with Myanmar than has the U.S. However, while Washington has been at times a bit irked, the stakes are sufficiently small that this has never amounted to more than a minor irritant in bilateral relations. Iran, however, represents a game with higher stakes, and Japan-U.S. relations concerning Iran have a fraught history. Following the Nov. 4, 1979, seizure of American hostages and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a tumultuous time for the U.S., Secretary of State Cyrus Vance — echoing the sentiment of U.S. Congress — complained to Foreign Minister Saburo Okita that Japanese oil purchases and other financial dealings with Tehran had been undermining American efforts to obtain the release of the American hostages through economic pressure. “Americans have complained that Japan has been snapping up, at premium prices, the oil that Tehran has been prevented from selling to the United States since President Carter ordered a halt to American purchases of Iranian oil last month,” The New York Times reported at the time. Accordingly, the government of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira decided in December 1979 to reduce imports from Iran to the level prevailing before the hostage crisis began by placing a ceiling on oil purchases from Iran at 620,000 barrels a day. Japan, the largest purchaser of Iranian crude at the time, had been obtaining about 10 percent of its annual requirements from Iran; Japan only ceased all oil imports from Iran halfway through the 15-month hostage crisis.

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