On Thursday, two tankers carrying petrochemicals, one of which was a Japanese-owned ship, came under suspected attack in the Gulf of Oman. The incidents compounded the already simmering hostilities in what’s possibly the world’s most pivotal maritime corridor. After the United States slapped sweeping sanctions on Iran’s energy industry, the threat of disruption flared in the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow body of water linking the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. About a third of the world’s oil tanker traffic passes through the strait, including an estimated 80 percent of Japanese oil imports.
The United States was quick to point the finger at Tehran. Late Thursday the U.S. military released a video it says shows Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from the Japanese vessel after the blast. A U.S. defense official had told my colleagues that they believed the attacks were carried out by divers using such mines. Last month, similar strikes, which U.S. officials also blamed on Iran, hit oil tankers in roughly the same area. On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the incident as an “unacceptable escalation” by the Iranian regime.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that the timing of the attack seemed intended to undermine the “extensive and friendly talks” held this week with Abe. “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” Zarif said.
What transpired earlier could have been quite momentous, too. Abe’s visit to Iran marked the first trip made by a Japanese prime minister to the Islamic Republic since the country’s 1979 revolution (though it’s Abe’s second — he accompanied his father, then-Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, in 1983). His arrival came after apparent encouragement from President Trump and conversations with the leaders of other countries in the Middle East that are similarly antagonistic toward Iran. Abe was determined to start the process of rapprochement.
“Middle Eastern peace and stability is essential not only for this region, but for the prosperity of the world,” Abe said in televised remarks Wednesday while standing alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “Nobody wants war. Japan wants to do all it can to relieve tensions.”
But while his aspirations were clear, his potential for achievement on this trip was less so. Neither the Iranian regime nor the Trump administration is prepared to meet the conditions expected of the other side. The United States seeks a wholesale revision of supposedly malign Iranian activities and support for militant groups in the Middle East. And Iran wants an end to U.S. sanctions and the return to the understandings of the nuclear deal. Just a day before Abe’s arrival in Iran, the United States issued a statement that encapsulated the surreal state of play, scolding Tehran for apparently breaching the nuclear deal that the Trump administration has already unilaterally rejected.
Amid such an impasse, Abe could complain of being dealt a rough hand. But it was believed he was bringing proposals, possibly agreed upon following consultations with Trump and U.S. officials, that could at least help ease tensions — if not push through a real diplomatic breakthrough.
“What Abe can do depends on what Trump has given Abe,” Kazuo Takahashi, professor of international politics at the Open University of Japan, told Bloomberg News. “If he’s going as a messenger boy, he’s shaming himself in front of the world’s public opinion. I don’t think he’d take such a political risk without some ideas of inducement for the Iranians offered by the Americans.”
But, for now, it looks as though the risk hasn’t paid off. On Thursday, Abe met Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and emerged from the session reiterating Iran’s commitments to peace and not building or using nuclear weapons. His Iranian interlocutors, though, made clear the emphasis of the discussions, rejecting any notion of dialogue with the United States — and making Abe look like a sheepish messenger.
“I do not consider Trump, as a person, deserving to exchange messages with,” Khamenei’s website quoted him as saying. “We will not negotiate with the United States.”
And then the tankers exploded, prompting the evacuation of stranded sailors and accusations from all sides. “It is an awkward ‘coincidence’ and suggests that Abe’s visit is little more than a photo op with zero impact on tensions,” Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo, told my colleague Simon Denyer.
Whatever Abe’s efficacy, the incident marks a worrying escalation. “This is a way station to a wider conflict breaking out between Iran and the United States,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group.
“If Iran was behind it, it is very clear the maximum-pressure policy of the Trump administration is rendering Iran more aggressive, not less. If Iran was not behind it, then it’s clear some other actor in the region could be trying to engineer a Gulf of Tonkin incident,” Vaez added, referring to the clash in the South China Sea in 1964 that led the U.S. government to falsify the intelligence it used to justify the Vietnam War.
Still, the Japanese prime minister may have an ongoing role to play. “Abe may continue to serve as a go-between for Tehran and its rivals — particularly with the Group of 20 summit approaching,” Tobias Harris, senior vice president of Teneo, a D.C.-based global advisory firm, said in an emailed statement. “But reducing the risk of escalation will require a fundamental shift in the strategies of both Iran and the U.S. and its regional allies, a shift that Abe is unlikely to be able to accomplish.”
On cue, Trump chimed in, backing away from earlier statements that he was prepared to sit down for talks with Iran. “They are not ready, and neither are we!” he tweeted.