Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.09.04

Japan Should Participate in the Nuclear Negotiations with Iran

In his August 6th press conference, following his inauguration on August 3rd, Hassan Rouhani, the new President of Iran, stated that he intended to improve his country's relations with the international community, which have been deteriorating. As regard to the nuclear issue, he said that Tehran would not relinquish its right to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes and that it would continue enriching uranium, but he also said that Iran was willing to talk with the U.S. as long as Washington demonstrates goodwill and stops pressuring Tehran. He also stated that resolving the nuclear issue will require political determination and political will and that sanctions should be removed.

President Rouhani, in contrast to his predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was prone to incendiary language, is a moderate conservative. He was a chief nuclear negotiator with the West from 2003 to 2005 and has an international perspective. The United States, European nations, and Russia welcomed his inauguration.

For many years, the West, along with China and Russia, alarmed by Iran's nuclear development, which could lead to the manufacture of nuclear weapons, has been negotiating with Iran to try to resolve the issue, to find a solution acceptable by the international community. These efforts have repeatedly moved one step forward, then one step back. For Israel, under a direct threat from Iran's nuclear weapons, the sense of impending crisis has increased to a level that it believes it no longer can afford to wait to take action; it has been hinting at the possibility of engaging in a unilateral military strike at Iran's nuclear facilities. Therefore, the expectations that nuclear negotiations make progress under the President Rouhani regime are high.

To date, P5+1, i.e., the 5 members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, have been leading the nuclear negotiations with Iran. President Rouhani is willing to pursue more serious negotiations with the P5+1. Moreover, as noted above, he also is interested in engaging in direct bilateral talks with the United States.

As for Japan, although it is not possible for it to join the P5+1, I hope that it will be involved in the talks between Iran and the United States for the following reasons:

Since President Obama's inauguration in 2009, he has made it clear that he is interested in direct talks with Iran; however, to date, no talks have materialized. One of the reasons for this is the deep suspicion of Iran towards the U.S. In particular, ever since the time of the 1979 Iranian revolution, frictions have arisen between the two countries, and Iran perceives the U.S. to be meddling with it in various ways.

In any international dispute, it is rare that just one party has the sole responsibility for the conflict. When the U.S. Embassy personnel were held hostage in Tehran, the United States sent a military helicopter to try to rescue them, but to no avail. Iran was responsible for the hostage crisis and its government was responsible for not being able to resolve it, but Iranians were irate that U.S. military action infringed on their national sovereignty. Incidentally, the U.S. action in Pakistan to assassinate Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had similarities to the action in Iran, with the result that Pakistanis became upset about Americans violating their sovereignty.

Another issue that could arise in direct talks between the U.S. and Iran is Iran's half-hearted cooperation with the international inspections, as to which the U.S. has been applying pressure on Iran. The two countries are far apart on the issue of these inspections. The United States demands that Iran fully comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and cooperate comprehensively with inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but the U.S. itself would not be subject to reciprocal demands from Iran. There is an evident inequality in this situation, but, under the NPT regime, that cannot be avoided because it distinguishes between nuclear powers and non-nuclear states. Iran, however, resists unilateral demands, rebels against the demands of the U.S. and would, in time, cease cooperating with the inspections. Apparently, anticipating the possibility of a further downward spiral, President Rouhani has demanded that Washington show goodwill and stop pressuring Tehran.

It is on this issue of inspections of Iran that Japan can contribute positively, with a perspective different than that of the U.S. The IAEA's requests for inspection are quite rigorous and very costly in terms of time and human resources; however, there is no choice but to accept them. For over 30 years, Japan cooperated with the IAEA's inspections and it is only now, in the 21st century, that the IAEA has concluded that there was neither indication of the diversion of nuclear material placed under safeguards nor indication of undeclared nuclear material or activities in Japan. Based on Japan's experiences with the IAEA, Japan would be in a position where it could attempt to convince Iran of the importance of cooperating with the IAEA inspections and the need to do so. I might add that the U.S. is not itself well suited for trying to persuade Iran.

On a personal level, a few years ago, as Ambassador for Disarmament, I had an opportunity to describe Japan's experiences to then-Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki. Afterwards, I was told that he had listened to my explanation with interest. During my description, ambassadors from other major countries in the West also were present; they also took notice and some even asked me if my explanation was Japan's new policy. Even though there was nothing new in the contents of the explanation itself, they had paid heed to the fact that a Japanese diplomat was describing Japan's experiences to a high level Iranian official. Some of the ambassadors even commented that they were appreciative of Japan's explanation. One can assume that the West would be grateful if Japan tried to persuade Iran to cooperate in light of Japan's unique experience.

Iran, the United States, and Japan are each in different positions. This, however, can be an advantage in seeking to persuade Iran to cooperate with the inspections. Japan should attempt to convince the U.S. and Iran to welcome Japan's participation in their talks.