Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.08.12

Tokyo too preoccupied to worry about attack on oil tanker ~The Olympic Games, the pandemic and the upcoming Lower House election are garnering all of the government's attention~

the japan times on August 8, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy National Security The U.S.A. Middle East

On July 30, the Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned tanker, was attacked by multiple drones off the Omani coast, killing a British national and a Romanian.

The Liberian-flagged vessel, though owned by a Japanese shipping company, is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, which is owned by a wealthy Israeli family.

The U.S. 5th Fleet determined after a visual inspection “that a UAV-style attack had occurred.” The Mercer Street was eventually escorted to safer waters by the U.S. Navy, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.

Israel immediately blamed Iran. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that “Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that harms us all.” He added, “The world must not be silent in the face of Iranian terrorism that also harms freedom of shipping.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that the U.S. is “confident” that Iran was behind the attacks.

Iranian silence

As usual, Tehran has remained silent. Still, an Arabic-language television network run by the Iranian government reportedly cited unnamed sources as saying the attack on the ship came in response to a suspected and unspecified “Israeli attack” on an airport in Syria.

In London, the Foreign Office summoned the Iranian ambassador to the U.K. and told him that “Iran must immediately cease actions that risk international peace and security,” and that “vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.”

Japan’s measured response

In contrast to the Western press, the media coverage in Japan about this sophisticated drone strike was minuscule at best. The editorial pages of Japan’s major newspapers largely ignored the incident.

And their silence is not surprising. On Aug. 2, the Japanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement, which, without mentioning Japanese ownership of the vessel, only referred to an attack against a ship run and managed by an Israeli-owned U.K. firm in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman.

The statement said that Japan is “deeply concerned,” that it condemned the attack and noted it impedes the “free navigation” of waterways. The ministry also extended its “deep condolences” over the deaths. Still, the statement fell short of specifically blaming or naming any country or entity for the incident.

Was it the right diplomatic response? It was certainly not as strong a measure or statement as those made by Israel, the United States or the United Kingdom. As a former diplomat, if I were the official in charge, however, I would have made a similar statement as Tokyo given the information available to Japan so far.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), for example, took a similar approach. Without blaming Iran, even though everyone suspects Tehran’s culpability, the GCC called on the international community to act and to put a stop to such aggressive actions that impede navigation in the region.

A bad omen

As U.S. Secretary of State Blinken stated, “There is no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior.”

The drone strike by either Tehran or one of its allies was the first fatal attack after a series of incidents between Israel and Iran, including the alleged Israeli sabotaging of Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz in April. Is this exceptional or ominous for the future?

Was this politically timed?

On Aug. 3, Iran inaugurated Ebrahim Raisi, a protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the nation’s eighth president.

In the past, it is believed Iran tried to avoid causing casualties in its attacks against commercial shipping in the region. The Islamic republic, however, now looks poised to take tougher measures against Israel and the West. If the drone attack against the Japanese-owned vessel reflects Tehran’s new policy under Raisi, a nuclear deal may never be reached between Iran and the United States.

Should Tokyo be alarmed?

Yes, Tokyo should be alarmed. That is because Japan’s vital interests are directly threatened by such obstructions to free trade. Blinken also said that “These actions threaten freedom of navigation through this crucial waterway, international shipping and commerce, and the lives of those on the vessels involved.” Japan will very much be affected if Tehran somehow manages to impede the flow of goods through the region.

With that said, Tokyo is now completely preoccupied with the Olympic Games, the pandemic and the upcoming Lower House election, which could determine if Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga retains his premiership.

In other words, a political power struggle has begun in Japan once again, so we cannot expect politicians or journalists to be paying all that much attention to events in the Strait of Hormuz and the Middle East, even if Japanese-owned ships are targeted.

Therefore, I wouldn’t expect too much in the way of informative and accurate news stories coming out of Japan covering such incidents, especially from now until October, before which the election must be held.