The Iranian Dilemma: things are worse than they seem for Japan?
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)
Japan played host to an important series of official visits last week by the representatives of two countries that have been engaged in a conflict that has long shaped the political and military landscape of Asia. Last week, news reports quoted the visiting Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom calling for Japanese caution in dealing with Iran and telling Japanese officials that, "just as you are dealing with the North Korean threat, we must deal with the Iranian threat". Days later, the media focused on the arrival of the Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi in Tokyo and covered his declarations as he attempted counter Shalom's statements and allay concerns that the Islamic republic was going nuclear.
News reports on the respective Asian tours of these two foreign ministers reflected a tense state of affairs. They also demonstrated the fact that the escalating conflict between Iran and Israel has implications that go well beyond its bilateral context.
Shortly after Israel's independence, Iran was one of Israel's only Muslim allies. Under the Shah, Iran was aligned with the US and secretly cooperated with Israel both politically and militarily. However, after the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran joined most other Islamic states in actively opposing Israel's occupation of Palestine. Since then, Iran has characterized Israel as the spearhead of US imperialism in Asia and has called upon all Muslim nations to actively oppose the occupation of Palestine.
The question of Palestine is indeed an issue around which many Muslims unite. Even the Indian prime minister J. Nehru testified to this in 1949 when he told Israeli diplomats that, "Palestine was a source [of] constant agitation and made a deep impression [on] Moslems everywhere1)". The reason for this solidarity is explained by the fact that the community of Islam interprets Israel's occupation of Palestine as part of a grander imperialist strategy that seeks to undermine Muslim alternatives to Western domination.
Israel's coupling of its military operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with the West's larger "global war on terrorism" has only reinforced this world-view. For many Muslims, the recent US led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are nothing more than an extension of what has been a permanent feature of politics in Asia: Western intervention. Bush's 'Axis of Evil' targeting two Muslim states (Iran and Iraq) has caused Muslims in Asia, whether Sunni or Shiite, to perceive the so-called war on terrorism as a 'global war on Islam'.
Those who subscribe to this perspective believe that the West's (particularly US' and Israel's) preoccupation with Iran's nuclear program has less to do with a commitment to nuclear non-proliferation in general and more to do with the desire to prevent a powerful Islamic country from going nuclear. This analysis argues that what America and Israel are afraid of is an "Islamic bomb". The fact that Israel's long standing nuclear program has received no rebuke whatsoever from the West supports the argument that the West operates on a double standard that allows its non-Muslim allies to go nuclear while doing its utmost to prevent an Islamic bomb.
The only anomaly to this line of thought is the nuclear Pakistan. However, recent news reports from South Asia indicate that Israel and the US are working to annul this threat by arming India. New Delhi has become Israel's biggest arms buyer purchasing approximately $2 billion worth of arms in 2002. The upcoming visit of prime minister Ariel Sharon to the sub-continent is expected to culminate in the signing of a deal to transfer Phalcon surveillance technology, which requires the explicit US endorsement. Thanks to India, Israel is now one of the world's top arms suppliers. In addition to military hardware, analysts suspect that there is also intelligence cooperation between the two countries.
The motivation behind these deals does not seem to be purely economic. According to former US ambassador Harvey Feldman, "common security interests have motivated the development of military ties between Israel and India". Although ambassador Feldman left the nature of the common threat undefined, there is little doubt that India had Pakistan and Kashmir in mind when it purchased these weapons. This naturally leads to the interpretation that Israel and India are bound by a common interest to control Muslim movements.
While some may find this far fetched, Israel state archives indicate that high ranking Israeli officials such as Abba Eban considered India as a natural partner in the defense against what the Israeli government considered harmful expansionist movements in the Muslim world as far back as the late 1940s. In a conversation with the Indian ambassador to the United Nations (B. N. Rau), Abba Eban told his Indian counterpart that, "both India and Israel are faced with difficult problems arising from exclusive and expansionist movements in the Moslem world. Israel constitutes a break in the uninterrupted continuity in the Moslem domination extending from Pakistan to Western Morocco2)". Eban then proposed that the two countries form an alliance as a counterweight to Islamic countries.
While in Japan, Shalom pressed foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi to "condition Japan's signature upon economic projects with Iran on that country's adoption of the 'Additional Protocol'". Something that Israel has refused to sign (the protocol would open Iran to unannounced inspections). While promising to consider Israel's request in a "positive light", Japan insisted that its bid to explore for oil in Iran should be kept separate from the nuclear issue.
In an increasingly polarized world, Japan finds itself in a very difficult situation vis-a-vis Iran. To survive it needs a stable source of oil and yet it simultaneously depends on and belongs to the US led sphere of dominance. In order to secure its national interests from two opposing camps, Japan has long operated on the basis of seikei bunri (separation of politics from economics). It employed this policy throughout the 80s and 90s as it continued to purchase oil from an Iran despised by the US. However, the spread of nuclear weapons and the radicalization of the Muslim world-view described above has pushed Japan into a corner. Furthermore, in a world dominated by a superpower discourse that says "you are either with us or against us" in the global war on terror, Japan will find it difficult to secure some middle ground. As has been outlined in this article, the conflict between Iran and Israel forms part of a larger battle unfolding between two increasingly radicalized antagonists: the US and its coalition versus the Muslim world. Where Japan positions itself in this regards is a question of prime importance that Japan is facing as it confronts the Iranian dilemma.
1) State of Israel, Israel State Archives, "E. Elath [Washington] to M. Sharett", 14/15 October 1949, Orig.: 93.01/2181/7.
2) State of Israel, Israel State Archives, "A. Eban: Aide-Memoir of Conversation with B. N. Rau [New York]", 23 June 1949, Orig.: 93.03/71/14.