Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.06.25

Is U.S. attention on the Mideast yet again?

the japan times on June 18, 2019
Tokyo should strive to not let U.S. policymakers' strategic attention be diverted from East Asia to the Middle East yet again.

I am writing this piece on my return flight from Washington. Coincidentally, I was visiting the U.S. capital while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran. I planned to focus this week on his historic trip to Iran, the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in 41 years. As usual, however, something unexpected happened again in the Middle East.

Norwegian and Japanese tankers were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz. While the perpetrators are still unknown, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last Thursday, "It is the assessment of the U.S. government that the Islamic Republic of Iran was responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today." Pompeo also said the assessment was based on "the intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication."

Those who know the Middle East and the U.S. government would not automatically believe such remarks anymore because when it comes to the issues in the region, everyone knows that nothing can be taken at face value. Those alleged attacks by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) maritime units are no exception.

After reading the news related to Abe's visit and the tanker attacks, I have more questions than answers. Some questions are even based on misleading, if not fake, articles written by journalists who are probably not fully informed of the background behind the stories. My questions and answers are as follows:

1. Why did Abe visit Tehran last week?

As I mentioned, the last official visit by an incumbent Japanese prime minister was in September 1978, when anti-government demonstrations were already taking place all over Iran. For years if not decades it has been an option for Japanese foreign policymakers to explore an official visit by the prime minister.

My take is that since U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly asked Abe to convey a message to Iran's leaders, Abe did not miss the opportunity when he was in Tehran. In a nutshell, Abe's visit was primarily of bilateral importance and the "peacemaker" mission was only secondary.

2. Was the visit a painful lesson for a novice player?

Under the headline "U.S. media criticizes Abe as an amateur in the Middle East," a Tokyo-based major daily triumphantly quoted an online version of the June 14 Wall Street Journal article titled, "A novice player gets a painful lesson in Middle East peacemaking." I consider it an intentionally misleading spin.

I had a copy of the same article in Washington. The printed version didn't even use the word "novice." Probably the Japanese writer did not know that Abe has fair amount of knowledge of the region. He visited Tehran and Baghdad as early as in 1983 with his father, Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe.

3. Was the visit intended to boost his popularity in the upcoming Upper House election?

Hardly so. Although the WSJ article stated that Abe "pitched himself as an independent mediator," what he did was not mediation in a sense of an honest third party trying to bridge a gap between two rivals. All politics is local and experienced politicians know foreign policy success will not win votes.

4. Who attacked the tankers?

Despite the U.S. claims that Iran was behind the recent series of attacks against tankers, there is no smoking gun so far. Conspiracy theories are everywhere. One pundit says Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen were involved. Others hinted a possible false flag operation by Israel.

Some even blamed hawks in the Trump administration who wanted a pretext for going to war against Iran. Here I quote Anthony Cordesman, who said, "Is there hard evidence that Iran is guilty? The answer is no. Is it probable that Iran is guilty? I would say the answer is yes. But those are two very different things."

5. Why would they attack the tankers?

Even if Iran is guilty, as Cordesman hinted, its motives may vary. It could be either out of despair, testing the U.S.' will or demonstrating Tehran's will to fight. Yes, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, its reimposition of economic sanctions and its denial of waivers to Iran's biggest oil customers might have worked.

However, what I am more interested in now are the internal politics in Tehran and Qom. It would be a nightmare for hardliners in the IRGC if the supreme leader changed his mind and agreed to talk to the satans in the U.S. government. If I were the IRGC commander, I would do my best to kill any chance of talks with the U.S.

6. Why was a Japanese-owned vessel targeted?

Although the owner of the Japanese tanker explained otherwise, experienced maritime attackers can easily find out who owns a tanker regardless of the flag it flies. The perpetrators may not have targeted Japan, but they might not have minded even if the target had clearly been Japanese.

7. Who is laughing now?

Of course, the Chinese and Russians. No matter who the attackers were, what concerned Tokyo most must have been that the strategic attention of U.S. policymakers could be easily diverted from the East Asian or European theaters to the Middle East again and to the Gulf region in particular. Similar shifts took place in September 2001 and 2013 under the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively.

What the international community should work on now is de-escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran. What is more important for Tokyo, however, is to not allow U.S. policymakers' strategic attention be diverted from East Asia to the Middle East once again.