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Middle East

Japanese PM arrives in Tehran to mediate growing Iran-US feud

media Caricature of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Farheekhtegan an Iranian newspaper twitter @Amena__Bakr

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has arrived in the Iranian capital, the first time in more than 40 years a Japanese head of government has set foot in Tehran. But the true nature of his visit has stirred controversy. 

Iranian officials have made it clear they will ask Abe to mediate the escalating confrontation between Iran and the United States.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran began after US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord and decided to impose sanctions.

This was followed by his decision to then add more US troops into the Persian Gulf after accusing Tehran of scheming to attack American targets.

Why Japan?

While this may seem like a playground fight between the US and Iran, it’s turned into a headache for Japan.

Tokyo and Tehran have long held amicable relations since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Japan’s friendliness with Iran is part of its desire for stability in the Middle East that also provides a steady stream of energy to the island nation that relies heavily on imported sources, especially since the 2011 earthquake, which saw a gradual shutdown of its nuclear power plants and a rise in its dependence on fossil fuels.

But with the US now reactivating long-standing hostilities, Japan has buckled under American pressure and has stopped importing oil from Iran. Many of its businesses have also begun to tread softly where Iran is concerned to minimise any negative provocation from the US.

And now Japan finds itself in the middle of their spat.

Puppet of Trump?

Abe’s visit to Iran has been blessed by Trump, to see if he can ease the growing tensions, but in reality, there’s very little room for manoeuvre.

Speaking to the New York Times and Al-Monitor, Koichiro Tanaka, the president of the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan, and a former Japanese Foreign Ministry official himself says even if Abe is able to defuse some amount of tension that is achievable, it will be very short-lived.

In order for Iran to trust Abe, he’ll have to show Tehran that is not merely “messenger or a puppet of Trump” said Tanaka.

Soft power Japan in Iran

"There are concerns over rising tension in the Middle East region," Abe said just before leaving Tokyo. "Japan wants to do as much as possible towards peace and stability in the region."

Just ahead of his touch-down in Tehran on Wednesday, a hard-line Iranian paper, Farheekhtegan, or Educated, published a front page image of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear blast – a direct reference to the US’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, with the caption in both Farsi and English: “How can you trust a war criminal, Mr. Abe?”

The image itself underlines the difficulty that lay ahead of Abe as he tries to find some common ground between the two hostile countries.

The image was published by students form the Islamic Azad University, which has several campuses across the country, indicating the level of weariness many Iranians, both young and old, have in this visit.

Though the chances of major breakthrough appear slim for Abe, Yukio Okamoto, a former Japanese diplomat and policy adviser to previous Japanese prime ministers told the New York Times says Abe has nothing to lose.

His visit is also symbolic in demonstrating concretely to Iran that Japan is serious about advancing its foreign agenda across the region.

It’s also a chance for Abe to establish his legacy at home as the country heads into elections for the upper parliament next month, adds Okamoto.

If Abe comes out of the visit with some positive conclusions, then he only stands to earn more points at home and ultimately on the world stage.

 
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