Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Iran on Wednesday marks the first time a leader from Japan has gone to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution; and, possibly, the start of indirect diplomacy between Iran and the United States under the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump supported the possibility of Abe helping ease tensions with Iran when he visited Tokyo in May. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University, told ThinkProgress that this meeting essentially constitutes indirect talks between Iran and the United States.
“That is the main reason for the trip regardless of what each side says,” said Boroujerdi, answering questions via email.
Other countries — including Germany and Russia — have tried to lower the temperature of tensions between Iran and the United States after Trump violated the 2015 nuclear deal by withdrawing from the agreement in May 2018.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a deal between Iran, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, offering Iran sanctions relief in exchange for the country limiting its nuclear enrichment activities.
Trump pulled the United States out of the deal, reimposed sanctions, then threatened secondary sanctions on any country dealing, trading with, and investing in Iran. But Abe’s offer of running as go-between seems to hold some promise.
For one thing, Japan is not party to the JCPOA. And, as the Japan Times reported, “Abe is likely to have reiterated his intention of encouraging Iran, with which Japan has traditionally maintained friendly relations, to engage in dialogue.”
While Switzerland has often been a diplomatic broker between Iran and the United States, Boroujerdi said, “The Swiss have been a channel for 40 years and there is nothing exciting going through them.”
“Trump thinks Japan may mean more to Iran than Switzerland considering its economic ties to Iran,” he added. And those ties run deep, indicative of a “strong and unbroken relationship,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
“In 1953, when the British put an embargo on Iranian oil, Japan broke the embargo and bought oil. After the revolution, when the U.S. was trying to discourage people from trying to buy Iranian oil during the hostage crisis [when Iran held 52 Americans hostage, including embassy staff and diplomats, for 444 days], Japan continued to buy Iranian oil,” Slavin told ThinkProgress.
The stability of the region, where Japan purchases most of its oil, along with Japan’s trade with Iran — importing mineral fuels, textiles, and food, and exporting transportation equipment and machinery — are important, she noted.
However, Slavin doesn’t think Abe’s meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani equals indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States. Those will only come if “real concessions” are promised to Iran, with the lifting of sanctions being the most crucial one. The odds of these talks leading to a Trump-Rouhani summit are slim.
“It would be a loss of face for Rouhani, at this point, to meet with Trump,” she said. But for now, if Japan can “deescalate tensions, even if it doesn’t lead to negotiations, that’s to the good.”
“I still don’t see a strategy…at this point it’s all about hurting Iran and making Israel, the Saudis and the Emiratis happy,” she added, listing Iran’s challengers in the region.
“Not a nice atmosphere”
But things have gotten extremely weird — even by contemporary standards — between Iran and the United States since Trump’s visit to Japan.
Shortly after Trump’s trip, Twitter and Facebook made public announcements about shutting down Iran-linked accounts that were impersonating U.S. Republican congressional candidates.
Then reports began surfacing that the U.S. State Department had been funding a massive and extremely inflammatory disinformation campaign against Iran. A website and a network of accounts — over 400 of them — targeted Iranian journalists based in the United States and abroad, pushed for regime change in Iran, and supported the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a cult-like anti-regime group that the United States had classified as a terrorist organization until 2012.
The MEK openly advocates for military action against Iran, which it hopes will result in regime change. The group enjoys close ties to the Trump administration; it has, as recently as 2017, paid National Security Adviser John Bolton, as well as the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, for speaking engagements.
On Sunday, the Intercept reported that the MEK is likely responsible for creating a fake online persona to spread war-mongering rhetoric. So-called writer and activist Heshmat Alavi, whose articles regularly appeared in American publications, pushed the agenda of regime change in Iran.
Alavi’s work has been used by the Trump administration to justify its crackdown on Iran, and he had previously advocated for designating the country’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist force, which the United States did in April of this year.
Alavi’s profiles have since been removed from some of the sites featuring his work, and his Twitter account has been suspended, though his articles are still available on the Saudi Arabian-run Al-Arabiya. This includes a piece in which he rather ironically wrote about Iran’s “embarrassment in cyberspace” after being linked to a disinformation campaign.
How these developments might damage further negotiations is unknown. “This is no big deal in the larger scheme of things. Iranians do believe that the U.S. is involved in all sorts of trickery against them anyhow,” said Boroujerdi.
Slavin pointed out that “this is not a nice atmosphere…the State Department, in an effort to counter Iranian propaganda is becoming a propaganda machine.”
While none of this helps diplomatic efforts, what Iran is more concerned about is selling more oil, and “we’re still one accident away from a possible clash between the U.S., and Iran in the Persian Gulf,” she added.