Japan joins US efforts to pressure Teheran

By Luke Gowers

Japan recently announced that it would reduce oil imports from Iran in support of U.S. efforts to put pressure on the Islamic regime to abandon its nuclear programme. The announcement came from Japan’s Finance Minister, Jun Azumi, after he met with U.S. Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geither, announcing that, “In the past five years, we have reduced… the amount of oil imported (from Iran)…We wish to take planned and concrete steps to further reduce this share, which now stands at 10%”. Whilst Washington welcomes the commitment, it didn’t come without caution from Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, who is reported to have said that if implemented wrongly, U.S. sanctions could have a serious impact on the health of Japan’s economy and that of the world.

That Japan has taken on such commitments when it is already relying on reduced energy supplies seems bold, however experts say the country will be able to offset reductions by increasing imports from other major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Other countries on the other hand, have shown more caution before reducing oil imports that are vital to their economy. India has not told refineries to reduce supplies, and South Korea said it would ask the U.S. to let it not cut imports. Meanwhile, whilst efforts to join the U.S. embargo by the European Union are being pushed along, countries dependent on Iranian oil including Italy, Greece and Spain want to delay sanctions whilst they look for alternate sources.

U.S. efforts to gather support for sanctions against the Islamic Republic have arisen from escalating tensions between the two nations which have only intensified over the last ten years, after former President George W. Bush included Iran in his Axis-of-Evil speech. Although Iran’s relationship with the western powers has been difficult since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, during the 1990s things had begun to cool off and diplomatic efforts were making ground. Iran’s complicated relationship with the West, and events like the storming of the British consulate in Tehran last year, can only be understood by taking into account Iran’s history with Imperial powers.

The Islamic Regime remains defiant and has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to sanctions, the transit route in which a fifth of the world’s oil passes through. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Ramin Mehmanparast, has declared on the Jaam-e-Jam Television Network that “we are the world’s fourth largest oil producer and have the second largest gas reserves in the world. A country with such energy wealth cannot be eliminated from the world where energy is the driving engines of countries”. Iran’s importance in providing energy has been the most important factor in preventing complete support for sanctions. The BRIC countries for example, (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have failed to come on board with the U.S. efforts to turn the international community against Iran.

China, on the other hand is the largest importer of Iranian oil, buying over a third of Iran’s oil exports. However, it is likely to try to maintain a good relationship with Washington, whilst at the same time continuing to pursue its own interests, lending backing to the Iranian government so as to gain increasing influence in the Middle East.

China drastically needs a regular supply of oil in order to maintain its economic strength, and after the increased presence of the U.S. and its military in central Asia preventing increased Chinese influence in this resource rich region, it will not willingly reduce its import of Iranian oil.

Lines are slowly being drawn in the sand with the U.S. and its allies on one side, and those less hostile to Tehran on the other. Obama is much less likely to take George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” stance but is under a lot of pressure from Congress to act on Iran and contain the rise of Chinese hegemony. Japan on the other hand, has been an ally of the U.S. for many decades so it is no surprise that it has shown support for sanctions. To convince countries like China and India however, will be much more difficult, if not impossible.

With Iran threatening to close off the Strait of Hormuz, sanctions against Iran may only be isolating the Islamic Republic further. Russia and China may be right to warn against the use of sanctions; with Japan following the demands of the U.S. and with another assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist this week, Iran can surely only become even more volatile. The implementation of further sanctions without the support of countries like China, or military operations against Iran will only cause further damage to the global economy and the price of oil. Support from Japan may be a step in the right direction, but it does not mean that the U.S. should not continue to tread carefully in dealing with Iran.

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