Tokyo has yet to decide on how to respond to an expected request from the US for a Japanese naval expedition to the waters off the coasts of Iran and Yemen, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated.
“We’ve started to hear the United States’ thinking on this and we want to keep listening carefully,” Abe said, as cited by Reuters. “At the same time, Japan also has friendly ties with Iran,” he stressed.
Abe also noted that he would like to speak to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and that Japan would continue its efforts to reduce tensions in the region.
Abe paid a two day visit to Iran last month, with the trip preceded by a conversation between Abe and US President Donald Trump. During his visit, two tankers carrying “Japan-related” cargo were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, with the US immediately blaming Iran. Tehran said the timing of the attacks was ‘beyond suspicious’, and vocally denied any involvement.
On Sunday, Prime Minister’s Abe’s ruling coalition reportedly won close to a two thirds majority in elections to the upper house of parliament. Ahead of the vote, Japanese media wrote that if Tokyo joined the US maritime coalition, it might inflame Japanese public opinion, because Japan’s military has not sent forces on a combat mission abroad since the Second World War.
Over 85 percent of Japan’s oil supplies pass through the Strait of Hormuz, with the country a major buyer of Iranian oil before US restrictions on Iranian oil sales went into effect in early May.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton arrived in Japan on Sunday, where he is expected to discuss the coalition idea. The US first proposed the idea earlier this month, explaining that the US Navy would ensure the coordination of vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and head up surveillance while allies patrolled nearby waters and escorted their own countries’ commercial vessels through the strait.
However, late last week, senior Western officials with knowledge of the situation told Reuters that Washington has had trouble gaining support for the coalition idea. “The Americans want to create an ‘alliance of the willing’ who confront future attacks,” one Western diplomat said. “Nobody wants to be on that confrontational course and part of a US push against Iran,” he added.
An official from France, which has its own military presence in the region, including a naval base in the UAE, said that it would not support the maritime coalition idea, explaining that it would be ‘counterproductive’ to the goal of easing tensions. An official from the UK similarly said that escorting every ship was unrealistic.
Up to one third of the world’s sea-borne oil passes through the Hormuz Strait every day, making the waterway a key strategic artery linking Middle Eastern oil to the rest of the world. Tensions in the region first began to be ratcheted up in mid-May, when multiple tankers were attacked off the UAE coast. In mid-June, two more tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The US blamed the attacks on Iran, with Tehran denying the allegations. Tensions rose again earlier this month, when Royal Marines seized a tanker laden with Iranian oil off the coast of Gibraltar, with Iran responding by seizing a UK tanker in the Persian Gulf last week.