In April 1953 a Japanese oil tanker sailed from the Iranian port of Abadan, defying British attempts to interdict the oil industry nationalised by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Ever since, Iran and Japan have enjoyed cordial relations. They are both ancient and proud civilisations, one being the only nation to have experienced nuclear attack, the other apparently keen to inflict this fate on its neighbours.
For several reasons, Japan has become a key player in the interminable crisis over Iran’s attempts to enrich uranium to the 80 per cent point where it could be capable of building a nuclear weapon. In a speech on Iran’s national day, in February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implicitly affirmed such an aspiration, even though the official line is that Tehran is seeking to enrich uranium to 20 per cent for fuel rods and medical isotopes.
The appointment of Japanese lawyer-diplomat Yukiya Amano as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has markedly changed the tone from that of his emollient predecessor Mohammed ElBaradei, who has returned to Egypt. Whereas the latter spoke of “a number of outstanding issues which give rise to concerns”, Amano warns: “The information available [to the IAEA]…is extensive….and raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Some of that information is derived from an Iranian laptop purloined by the Americans.
While being firmly in the Western camp, Japan’s new government is seeking to distinguish its foreign policy from that of the US while making no secret of its desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. That alone may explain why Japan is taking an unusually proactive role in the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, not to speak of the fact that Japan derives around 12 per cent of its oil from Iranian sources. It has revived a Franco-Russian offer to supply and remove enriched fuel rods, via Japan’s own model civil nuclear programme.
Amano’s no-nonsense approach has in turn strengthened the recent US push for tighter sanctions on Iranian banking, insurance and shipping, coupled with asset freezes and travel bans for anyone connected to its nuclear ambitions. Petrol sanctions are not included so as not to inflict misery on ordinary Iranians, many of whom evidently support the oppositional “green” revolution. There are distinct signs that Russia (the only player that can nullify a sanctions regime at low cost to itself) is shifting towards the American, British, French and German position, declaring it is “very concerned” about Amano’s revelations. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also been a frequent flyer to Moscow (along with less advertised visitors from Mossad). A plan to build a memorial to the Red Army in Israel is indicative of the lengths to which the Israeli Premier is going to curry favour with Vladimir Putin, although the real price Jerusalem will pay is probably much higher than symbolic gestures. Although the Chinese, who derive around 11 per cent of their oil from Iran, are reluctant to impose enhanced sanctions — President Obama’s moral grandstanding over Tibet and Xinxiang being regarded as unhelpful — a recent deal struck by Hillary Clinton with the Saudis to increase their oil exports to China may signal that their position may change too.
On the negative side, China will be loath to curtail its new-found role as an alternative pole of attraction for nations who feel their sovereignty is menaced by Western liberalism. More positively, China acted responsibly to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, as its navy is also doing against Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Neither China nor Russia has any interest in this issue being resolved outside the UN Security Council, should the US decide to form its own coalition of the willing, in a reprise of how George W. Bush handled things.
If all this is vaguely encouraging, the Iranians have not been idle in extending the “axis of annoyance” they have already forged with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in return for supplying engineering skills. Managing to outbid the Israelis, Iran has suborned President Lula da Silva of Brazil, a much more substantial figure than Chávez. It seems that Lula is about to allow Iranian banks to operate in Brazil, which will go some way to circumventing sanctions. The naive Brazilian, who is shortly to leave office, seems to think that negotiations without sanctions are the best way forward, as well as asserting Brazil’s new-found strength on the world stage.
Quite apart from Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is fascinating to see the outlines of an emerging world order for the 21st century.