JPRI Critique , Vol. XV, No. 3 (September 2009)
Fearing a Reprise of 1979: Japan's Primary Preoccupations in the Aftermath of Iran's 2009 Presidential Elections
by John de Boer, Ph.D.

Is Iran once again on the precipice of radical change? Will 2009 be as critical of a year in the history of Iranian, Middle Eastern, and even global politics as was 1979? These were the principle questions posed in an editorial in one of Japan's leading newspapers, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun ( Nikkei ) on July 12, 1979. The queries did not lead to hopeful statements about the prospects of democracy flowering in the streets of Tehran. Rather, what followed was a recounting of late-twentieth-century conflicts that reflected the considerable anxiety among many Japanese opinion makers and government officials upon confronting the possibility of political upheavals in Iran. The "hope" in Japan is that 2009 will not be like 1979.

For three decades Japan has taken a cautious and measured approach toward Iran. This policy stems largely from Japan's dependence on Iranian oil; yet it is also part of a geo-strategic perspective that emphasizes maintaining Iran as a reliable and stable Japanese ally. In Japan's strategic calculus, Iran has often been connected to major events that have shaken the Middle East--and indeed, the world--since 1979. As the Nikkei editorial underscored, the current state of politics in the Middle East can be traced back to that year when the world witnessed Iran's Islamic Revolution, the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein's rise to power in Iraq, and the consolidation of the Saudi Monarch's rule over Saudi Arabia. What followed were eight years of war between Iran and Iraq, the beginning of an Arab-Israeli "peace process", a second oil crisis, the intensification of the Cold War, 30 years of U.S.-Iranian antagonism (and U.S. sanctions on Iran), the first and second Gulf War, and the evolution and strengthening of terrorist groups including those who perpetrated   the 9-11 attacks. This almost dizzying list of developments in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution have influenced Japanese officials and intellects to call for a gradual and controlled opening of Iran rather than for radical change. Not surprisingly, their cautious position vis-à-vis Iran was articulated again in recent weeks--even as Iran faced allegations of wide-spread electoral fraud and large numbers of its own citizens took to the streets to protest the elections and demand greater political freedom.

When President Obama confirmed soon after his election openness to dialogue with Iran, Japan became one of the policy's biggest supporters. On repeated occasions, both in advance of and after the Iranian presidential elections, high-ranking Japanese government officials and major Japanese newspapers have called upon Iran to take the United States up on its offer. Of course, this is because a policy of engagement is entirely consistent with Japan's preference for gradual change, as opposed to abrupt and violent regime change.

Japanese media sources and government officials have expressed relief about President Obama's insistence on an engagement policy in the aftermath of the crisis brought about by the Iranian elections, despite strident calls from some in the American establishment to adopt a harder stance. All major Japanese news outlets have defended the policy of engagement and have encouraged a soft approach to Iran. The Mainichi Shimbun went so far as to underscore that Iran is relatively democratic--in contrast to Egypt, which has been ruled by President Mubarak since 1981, and Saudi Arabia, which has no constitution, no democratically elected parliament and no political parties. This Mainichi editorial of June 21, 2009, proceeded to explain that Iranian presidential elections are held every four years and presidents are limited to two terms. Recent editorials published by newspapers including Tokyo Shimbun , Chunichi Shimbun , Yomiuri Shimbun , and Sanyo Shimbun all call for engagement with Iran's political elite. On July 6, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs came out and officially endorsed this approach. The last thing that Japanese opinion and policy makers want to see is a radical dispersion of power in Iran, which leads to further state fragility and possibly revolutionary change. Their preferred choice is a stable and a reliable political system in Iran that gradually loosens controls on political freedoms and moves to engage in dialogue with the United States. The Obama administration's policy of positive engagement suits Japan's political inclinations.

As Japanese officials and media sources continue to press Iran to engage in dialogue with the United States, they are also lobbying the Obama administration to maintain a moderate course. The message to the U.S. is that Iran's influence on international affairs is profound: impacting nuclear proliferation in North Korea, stability in Iraq, prospects for peace and security between Israelis and Palestinians, and for progress in Afghanistan. Adding the implications of Russian and Chinese economic and military interests vis-à-vis Iran into the mix, the message to President Obama from those who support a soft approach is clear: the stakes are too high for the United States to abandon engagement in favor of a more hard-line approach to an Iranian government that has clamped down on human freedoms and lost legitimacy. Doing so--the Japanese establishment fears--would provoke cataclysmic changes reminiscent of 1979.

Sources consulted:
Editorial, "Chuto to beikoku no josei no renken" Nihon Keizai Shimbun , July, 12, 2009
Editorial, "Iran daitoryo zehi obama to taiwa o," Mainichi Shimbun , June 14, 2009
Editorial, "Iran daitoryo-sen: kosei-sa hoshou suru sochi o," Mainichi Shimbun , June 21, 2009
Editorial, "Iran daitoryo-sen: bei to taiwa ni fumi kire," Tokyo Shimbun , June 16, 2009
Editorial, "Iran daitoryo: kongo sekai to dou makiau," Sanyo Shimbun , June 16, 2009
Editorial, "Iran kanran: shidoubu ni wa jisei ga hitsuyouda," Yomiuri Shimbun , June 26, 2009
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iran daitoryo senkyo go no jyosei ni kansuru sengen , July 6, 2009
David Brooks, "Fragile at the Core," New York Times , June 18, 2009
David E Sanger, "Despite Crisis, Policy on Iran is Engagement," New York Times , July 5, 2009
Editorial, "Iran's Non-republic," New York Times , June 17, 2009
Editorial, "Iran's Blame Game," Los Angeles Times , June 18, 2009

JOHN DE BOER is a Fellow in Diplomatic and Political Affairs at JPRI.

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