Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.08.20

How to deal with Islamic Republic

the japan times on August 13, 2019

Tokyo has been overwhelmed by yet another media frenzy since mid-July when the United States officially requested a "maritime coalition" to protect commercial shipping in waters off Iran, including the potentially explosive Strait of Hormuz. How should Japan deal with issues involving Iran these days?

People always say Tokyo has "traditionally friendly" ties with Tehran. Is that true? I am not sure about that. Iran was very friendly to Japan before 1978, for sure. The Islamic republic of Iran now is important to Japan, but bilateral relations have been delicate at best. In particular, the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 was disappointing.

What was agreed upon is fine. The P5 plus 1 - the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members and Germany - claimed that Iran's nuclear development programs would be significantly limited for the next eight to 15 years. What wasn't settled in the nuclear deal, however, is what really annoys me.

At that time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proudly declared that the "breakout time, now only a few months, would be extended to more than a year" but I remained very skeptical. Iran had never given up its nuclear weapons-related technologies and facilities. The P5+1 could not avert the moment of truth - it just postponed it by a decade or so.

It was also unclear whether Tehran really agreed that all its nuclear-related military facilities would be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. Haven't we heard something similar before? There was no guarantee that Iran would not cheat again, as Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Kim Jong Il's North Korea did in the past.

I am still dubious now as Tehran interferes politically and militarily 24/7 in the region. Iran also continues to develop long-range missiles. Recent attacks against commercial tankers and a U.S. military drone naturally triggered a debate on the "maritime coalition." Japan's mainstream media, however, seem to be so far ambivalent at most.

Jiji Press, for example, first reported in late June that Tokyo had no immediate plan to send troops there, but then, in mid-July, that the government is "carefully examining the possibility of dispatching" Self-Defense Force troops to the region.

Finally, last week, the news agency sent an article headlined "Multiple options eyed for Japan's contribution to Hormuz security," after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga "hinted that Self-Defense Forces troops could be dispatched to waters in the region to help protect shipping." It also reported that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was "reluctant to send the Maritime Self-Defense Force to the strait" "out of concern that doing so could hurt Tokyo's friendly ties with Tehran," but "as a compromise" is now considering sending destroyers and surveillance planes to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait or the Gulf of Oman.

Some liberal media outlets in Tokyo are much more skeptical. Mainichi Shimbun wrote that "sending SDF vessels to the Strait of Hormuz or the water areas in the Persian/Arabian Gulf could not only infuriate Iran but also embroil Japan in a major armed conflict in the region."

It also said that "sending troops to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait or the Gulf of Oman is now legally possible, but its mission must be to deal with 'activities of piracy' only and, therefore, cannot cope with any hostilities or contingencies involving or initiated by a specific known sovereign nation."

In addition, the Mainichi rejects any SDF activities to physically protect shipping in the region even if such missions are dispatched under the existing Defense Ministry Law or Self Defense Forces Law. The two laws authorize SDF troops to conduct "research and study" as well as "maritime policing" activities overseas.

Finally, the daily concluded that the government could try to enact a new special law to authorize the SDF to join the United States-proposed coalition, "but it may not be a realistic option" since the measure will need an extended debate in the Diet before it's approved.

Good grief! The same old stories and the same trite arguments. A coalition in the Gulf is nothing new to Japan. When I say this, pundits here only talk about the coalition for the Persian Gulf War in 1991. No, they are wrong. The first coalition that the U.S. requested Japan to join was the one in 1987 during the "Tanker War" crisis.

I was a private secretary to Japan's foreign minister that year. For Japan at that time, dispatching SDF troops was out of the question. The Foreign Ministry tried to send Japan Coast Guard vessels to the gulf, but the idea was rejected by Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda.

At an interview with the Nikkei daily two weeks ago I said, "It would have been 32 years of negligence if we still cannot decide whether or not to dispatch troops to the region as well as to work on the concrete activities of SDF units before being fully briefed by Washington on operational details." I also said, "It is pretty natural that we defend our Japanese vessels, whether owned or registered, no matter where they are. We must start contemplating on what we can do without waiting for U.S. plans. Our relations with Iran are important but we should explain to Tehran that what we do is only to defend our tankers.

"The new security-related laws enacted in 2015," I continued, "are a so-called positive list that only stipulates the specific activities that the SDF can conduct and, therefore, may not be applicable to the current coalition activities." But I also said that activities such as research and study or maritime policing are worth considering.

All in all, Japan should do just what it can do under the existing laws and regulations, period. Nothing more and nothing less. What we need is not a new special law but a political will strong enough to make a tough decision whenever necessary.