Ghassan Charbel – Asharq Al-Awsat
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tehran is expected to be a milestone in efforts to reduce tension in the Iran-US crisis. The visit is unique for many reasons. It is the first time a Japanese prime minister has visited Iran since the 1979 revolution. The visit is made with clear American encouragement and an explicit Iranian acceptance, confirmed by the scheduling of a meeting between Abe and Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in major Iranian decisions.
Positions launched during the phase of exploring the possibilities of negotiation are part of the negotiation itself. It is not surprising that they are marked by contradictory indications.
The negotiation game is difficult, complex and involves misinformation. Concealing weaknesses with harsh rhetoric and a loud voice is a traditional reminder of the available papers.
Iran has had a long experience in this matter. For the last four decades, it has been a party to thorny and complex relations, especially with Western countries, mainly the United States.
In the diplomatic circles, officials whispered that Iran had to show some flexibility if it really wanted to shorten the crisis and get out of the “painful sanctions” that had a clear impact on its economy and the lives of its citizens. Diplomats say Tehran may be willing to show some flexibility on specific issues such as the weapons of mass destruction, that is, the scope of ballistic missiles.
Those tend to say that Iran, which has always shown an interest in maintaining relations with countries such as Japan, which enjoys economic and technological weight, may avoid taking decisive and final stances that would lead to the visit’s failure and strengthen the position of hardliners in the US administration.
Tokyo, on the other hand, is very interested in digging something like a hole in the wall of the current crisis. This position can be understood in light of the importance it attaches to maintaining stability in the Middle East, which accounts for 90 percent of its energy imports.
Stability in the Middle East is a persistent item in Tokyo’s dealings with the region. The same also applies to China, which is also concerned with this stability that is vital for its economy.
It can be said that Abe, despite the very complex nature of the crisis, finds something to build on. After its military actions in the region, Washington has made sure that it was neither seeking war – favoring the option of negotiation if Tehran showed the needed seriousness – nor does it want to change the regime, but rather modify Iran’s behavior.
Tehran, for its part, said it was not seeking war and was certainly aware of the cost of a direct confrontation with the US military machine. Observers believe that the option of small harassment or strikes by proxy is not available to Iran in the current crisis, especially after receiving strict warnings from the American side. The option of creating an alternative war in the region is also difficult because it will confirm the US accusations of Iran moving its arms in the region.
Four days before Abe’s arrival, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) identified what it considered to be the conditions for the success of the visitor’s mission. “The return of the United States to the nuclear agreement, the compensation of Iran’s losses, and the lifting of international sanctions imposed by Washington can guarantee the success,” Council spokesman Keivan Khosravi said.
At the same time, Khosravi was keen to praise relations between Tehran and Tokyo. “Japan’s approach in foreign policy basically supports the legal and political standards of the international community and has not been affected by the progress and delay of extremism,” he said.
If the last part of the speech confirms Iran’s interest in the Japanese channel, talk about the conditions for the success of the visit falls under high ceilings. If Washington were ready to return to the nuclear agreement, there would have been no crisis in the first place.
Statements by the SNSC spokesman came in parallel with a speech by Iran’s Oil Minister, Bijan Zangeneh, in which he acknowledged that the United States was “mature” in putting smart sanctions on his country.
He said US sanctions were “different and more effective” than previous ones, stressing that his ministry was “struggling” to circumvent them under the current circumstances. He also admitted that the severity of the sanctions was not limited to oil, but also affected the maritime transport and the banking sector.
On the eve of German Foreign Minister Haikou Mas’ visit to Tehran on Monday, Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif stepped up his tone against the Europeans and called on them to normalize their trade relations with his country, hinting at consequences if they did not.
For his part, Speaker Ali Larijani commented on remarks by President Emmanuel Macron during the latter’s meeting with his US counterpart, describing them as “shameful.” Macron spoke of the need to reach “full long-term conviction on the need to limit the ballistic activity and to contain Iran regionally.”
Perhaps Macron’s last words during his meeting with Trump constitute the problem and the key. By stepping out of the nuclear deal and imposing unprecedented sanctions on Iran, Trump brought back the issue that Tehran had successfully kept out of negotiations with the Obama administration – that is its regional role and ballistic missiles.
There are those who say that Zarif had hinted to his American counterpart during the negotiations that ended with the signing of the nuclear agreement that the issue of missiles and the regional role can be discussed later. But the spiritual leader quickly closed the door after signing the deal.
Amid deep doubts between the two sides and the contradiction of messages and signals, Abe will arrive in Tehran in the hope of cooling the crisis and opening a niche in the wall. The options are not easy for Iran. Waiting for the end of the Trump era is not a guaranteed option, especially given the harsh sanctions and the prospect of a second presidential term.