March 17, 2016
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tehran this summer will send a strong signal that Japan is ready to ramp up its engagement with Iran, according to Yasuyuki Matsunaga of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Japan, which imports most of its energy, was forced to cut back its imports from Iran as sanctions were imposed on the Islamic Republic over suspicions that it was building a nuclear bomb. Those sanctions are now being lifted following a nuclear agreement that was reached between Iran and the P5+1—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany—in July of 2015.

Abe’s trip to Iran will the first by a Japanese Prime Minister since Takeo Fukuda visited in 1978.

“By sending the Prime Minister [to Iran], the Japanese government as a whole is showing that they are very committed and they are trying to seize this opportunity so that they can go to a more enhanced level of delegations,” said Matsunaga, who has served as attaché at the Japan Embassy in Tehran and is currently the Director of the Graduate Program in Peace and Conflict Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Japan, which has good relations with both the United States and Iran, sometimes feels “caught” in the middle when ties between Washington and Tehran become strained. With the thaw created by the agreement on the nuclear deal, it would now be best if the next US President stays committed to the terms of that deal, said Matsunaga.

“The change of the administration in the United States, if it doesn’t affect what has been achieved so far, is probably the best for both the parties concerned,” he added.

Republican Party presidential frontrunners, US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Donald Trump, have both railed against the nuclear agreement. Trump has called it a bad deal, and Cruz has said he would on “rip [it] to shreds” if he is elected President.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunner, has said the deal will work “as part of a larger strategy toward Iran.”

Despite the breakthrough on the nuclear deal, Iran remains on the US State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and it has strained ties in its neighborhood, most significantly with Saudi Arabia.

Matsunaga said compared with the other crises in the Middle East, the issues with Iran can be easily resolved. Japan could play the role of a neutral partner to facilitate such a resolution, he added.

Yasuyuki Matsunaga spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen on a visit to the Atlantic Council in March. Here are excerpts from our interview, which has been edited for clarity.

Q: Japan has had a long energy relationship with Iran. What new opportunities does the lifting of sanctions on Iran create for Japan?

Matsunaga: This is a very good opportunity for Japan, for both the Japanese government and the Japanese private sector entities. Japan’s government and Japanese companies, especially, wanted to expand their engagement with Iran, but it was unfortunate that they had to reduce the level of engagement that they used to have ten to fifteen years ago. During Mohammad Khatami’s presidency from 1997 up until 2005, Japanese companies were very active in doing business and trying to invest in Iran. [After] that time the political situation inside Iran wasn’t very stable and, internationally, sanctions against Iran were enhanced and strengthened. Japanese companies were very eager, but were not able to do business as they wanted.

With the historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, Japan, although it was not part of the negotiations, was very engaged behind the scenes. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director General [Yukiya Amano] is a Japanese diplomat. At least from our point of view, we were engaged in and supportive of this process. Finally, an agreement was reached and everybody was jumping on the opportunity and trying to go back to Iran. The Iranians, I believe, are very receptive to the Japanese eagerness and hopefully we shall see concrete results.

Q: What can other countries learn from Japan’s experience in Iran?

Matsunaga: Many Japanese companies, although they reduced their level of presence, tried to maintain at least a minimum level of presence in Tehran to show that the Japanese companies and businesspeople were committed to having stable and longer-term relations with Iran. It was not just the private business actors, the Japanese government has always maintained an embassy [in Tehran]. They never closed the embassy at any point in the last several decades. The Iranian government, as well as the business community, understands that we are there for the long haul and that we are very committed.

Q: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to visit Iran in August. What is the significance of this trip and what do you expect will be on the agenda?

Matsunaga: The Prime Minister’s visit is the first [by a Japanese Prime Minister to Iraq] since 1978. That means it is the first ever visit after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. I don’t think there was a specific reason that no Prime Minister visited in between. There were several occasions where a Japanese Prime Minister could have visited. Nonetheless, it is a very symbolic gesture from the Japanese side—both the government and the private sector—that this first ever visit [since 1978] is happening this year.

Prime Minister Abe and President [Hassan] Rouhani have met in other places, for example, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. I believe they have met four times already. So it’s not that they are having their first face-to-face conversation, but by sending the Prime Minister [to Iran] the Japanese government as a whole is showing that they are very committed and they are trying to seize this opportunity so that they can go to a more enhanced level of delegations.

Q: Japanese imports of Iranian oil were a sticking point in an otherwise warm US-Japan relationship prior to the nuclear deal. What does the removal of sanctions on Iran mean for the US-Japan relationship and how does Japan view the upcoming change of administrations in the United States and the potential impact of this on the nuclear deal?

Matsunaga: From the Japanese point of view, we sometimes feel that we are caught in between. We want to have a good and wide-ranging relations with the United States and Iran. Because sometimes relations between the United States and Iran becomes difficult, we get caught in between. The most recent episode of international sanctions was, from our narrow point of view, unfortunate. Japan wanted this issue to be resolved peacefully and amicably for both parties involved. The results seem very good for both parties.

From the Japanese perspective, we would like to see that the US and Iran are committed to what has been agreed. So the change of the administration in the United States, if it doesn’t affect what has been achieved so far that is probably best for both the parties concerned.

However, the nuclear issue is not the only issue that Iran has with the international community. Iran is still on the US State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Iran still has issues with some of its neighboring countries. Our view is that all these issues should be resolved in a reasonable timeframe. We would like to be part of this problem-solving process.

I don’t think the nuclear issue and the issue over the oil imports is the only issue. We try to approach the more comprehensive issue. Given what we have in the Middle East, the Iran issue is relatively easy to solve. We can work together. The Japanese government, I am sure, will engage with their various counterparts and try to work with the EU countries and resolve these issues.

Q: Pro-government moderates made big gains in recent elections for Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts. Are we seeing the emergence of a more moderate Iran? Could the nuclear deal be a catalyst for change?

Matsunaga: The parliamentary election in Iran showed, in my view, mixed results. In Tehran, supporters of President Rouhani won. However, outside Tehran the results are mixed. The incoming parliament has no big majority. Nobody knows how the majority in that next parliament will evolve, but one thing is sure that President Rouhani got some boost. We are hopeful that there will not be any disruptions in whatever political change is taking place in Iran. It is not a matter of whether conservatives or moderates win. They should have the political process worked out between themselves so that they can seize the opportunity that Iran has with the international community today.

Q: What are the implications of the Saudi-Iran rift on energy importers like Iran?

Matsunaga: Japan has had good relations with both countries. The recent worsening of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia and some the Arab Gulf countries is unfortunate from our point of view because we like to be good friends with everybody involved. If in time they need to talk to each other in a completely different atmosphere Japan could be a place of mutual distance.

As we have tried to help resolve certain longstanding disputes, for example, between Iran and the United States, we try to be the mutual location for some sincere dialogue. We can provide that kind of opportunity for Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.