While Motegi’s visit to Tehran will boost Iran-Japan ties, it will have a greater impact on other international issues, notably the Iran nuclear agreement and Afghanistan.
Since the attention of most analysts has been understandably centred on the events in Afghanistan and their likely geopolitical implications, the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, has been relegated to the sidelines. Negotiations had begun this April in Vienna, between Iran and the other signatories to the deal (the E3 countries – the UK, France and Germany – played very important roles), but in the past two months there has been little to no progress. Commenting on the talks, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, ‘We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely.’
There was also scepticism with regard to the likely approach of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi towards negotiations given his relatively firmer stance on certain issues. It is relevant that ever since taking over as President there has been a significant change his tone.
Amid the events in Afghanistan, an important event which has taken place is the visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to Tehran, the first by a Japanese official since Raisi took office. Both sides agreed that the reduction of tensions was essential, and Raisi welcomed the efforts being made by Japan and other countries. Said Raisi:
Iran has always supported peace and stability in Afghanistan. Of course, we believe that Afghans should make their own decisions in Afghanistan.
The Foreign Minister’s visit to Iran comes days after not only the take-over of Kabul by the Taliban, but also after Raisi’s conversation with French President Immanuel Macron regarding the JCPOA. During his conversation with Macron, Raisi raised his reservations regarding the conditions being imposed by the signatories to the deal, and also criticised the US for imposing more sanctions which have only increased Iran’s economic challenges. Macron spoke in favour of the resumption of negotiations. Said the French President:
We are looking for a solution to this issue and we hope that negotiations will start again.
The visit is important for more than one reason. First, in the context of the revival of the JCPOA, the US has of late adopted a more aggressive posture regarding Iran and statements from senior officials within the Biden Administration indicate that their patience is running out with Iran.
It is significant that countries like France and Japan, a US ally, have reached out to Iran to ensure that negotiations are not stalled. It is be pertinent that Japan has provided assistance to Iran in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and recently donated three million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine to Tehran. Apart from the E3 countries, Tokyo is one of the few countries that advised the Trump Administration to adopt a nuanced approach to Iran and exempt it from some sanctions.
Second, in the context of Afghanistan, Mr Motegi’s visit is important. Iran has links with the Taliban and could be an important stakeholder in Afghanistan. Countries like France and Japan could leverage Iran’s ties to the Taliban.
Third, while the US is likely to remain pre-occupied with Afghanistan, its allies can play an important role in ensuring that the JCPOA negotiations progress. Given the recent acrimony between the US and Iran, Tehran could find it easier to deal with France and Japan.
Fourth, by reaching out to Tehran, Tokyo would also send a message to Beijing, whose clout in the Middle East has been rising in recent years. Beijing’s ties with Tehran have strengthened as a result of the Trump Administration’s policies and the two sides signed a 25 year co-operation agreement that would boost not just bilateral economic relations but also their strategic ties. While the government drew flak from many quarters in Iran for going ahead with that agreement because it lacked transparency, Raisi, by ensuring cordial ties with Japan, will also send a message to China that Iran will not be totally dependent upon Beijing.
New Delhi, which has in recent months prioritised its relations with Tehran, will be closely watching the outreach by other countries to Iran. India, given its own strategic and economic interests in Iran and given the changing geopolitical situation, should play a pro-active role along with other countries in convincing Washington to exhibit greater flexibility with Tehran and return to the JCPOA.
In conclusion, the Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit to Tehran has ramifications well beyond the bilateral relationship and is important not just in the context of the JCPOA, but also Afghanistan, since the situation in Afghanistan was very much on the agenda during the conversation between Raisi and the Japanese FM. The E3 countries, Japan and India need to find common ground with Iran to maintain stability and security in Afghanistan.