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Ever since the United States pulled out of The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and followed it up with sanctions on Tehran, the Islamic Republic has found itself gripped in an economic crisis. The JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, was a linchpin of Iran’s potential re-entrance into economic prosperity and international status. Now that dream is a nightmare. Negative growth rates, falling oil exports and the non-materialization of promised foreign inflows have put the country in a tough spot, forcing it to seek mediation from elsewhere. 

Iran Wants Japan To Help Out

First it was France’s Emmanuel Macron that Tehran placed its hopes in to help salvage the nuclear deal and ease US pressure. This time, it’s Shinzo Abe of Japan. And for that purpose, Iran’s Rouhani touched down in Tokyo to meet his Japanese counterpart. 

Tokyo enjoys close relations with Washington, especially the current president, while still maintaining friendly ties with Tehran, putting it in a good position to be a possible mediator between the two countries. In fact, earlier this June, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Iran since 1978. There was hope that he could help calm things with the US, albeit an unrealized hope.

Another meeting in just a year suggests growing desperation in Tehran on the economic front, which has time and again brought Iranian citizens to the streets en masse as financial belt-tightening hits them hard. The most recent instance occurred when Iran’s government raised fuel prices to pay for social support benefits, resulting in massive protests that saw over 160 Iranians killed. In an attempt to quell unrest and salvage its nuclear deal, Tehran has been knocking on the doors of different powers which could help alleviate the crisis or possibly break its impasse with Washington. 

What Transpired During The Abe-Rouhani Summit?

The meeting between Rouhani and Abe saw the announcement of Japan’s plans to send naval troops to Middle Eastern waters to protect its vessels. However, this won’t be part of the US-led coalition announced earlier in November after a series of attacks in the Gulf on international merchant vessels, including the capture of a British tanker by Iran. 

According to Reuters, the planned Japanese operation is set to cover high seas in the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but not the Strait of Hormuz. Given the deployment won’t be associated with US-led coalition, Tehran hasn’t opposed it. 

Rouhani also sought the help of his host in maintaining the nuclear deal with Washington. But Abe made clear his expectations that Iran will abide by the agreement and “fulfill the constructive duty for peace and stability in the region.” He also said the Japanese would “try to fulfill our role to ease and stabilize the tension in the region.”

After the meeting, Rouhani tweeted a photo of him and Abe with the caption: “I welcome any effort that could boost economic exchanges, especially in the energy sector, and increase oil exports. As long as it preserves our national interests and be in the #JCPOA context. Other parties must also keep up to their commitments.”

Japan used to be a major buyer of Iranian oil, but the issue was not addressed at the recent bilateral meeting.

Iran Announces Plan To Restart Nuclear Program

On Monday, Iran revealed plans of redeveloping its Arak heavy water reactor which, though short of breaching the terms of the JCPOA, shows Tehran’s growing appetite for pursuing the nuclear road. The closure of Arak was part of the 2015 nuclear deal. This isn’t the first such instance either. In early November, the country stopped an International Atomic Energy Agency inspector from visiting its nuclear site while also injecting uranium gas into its Fordo plant. 

Treading A Fine Line

Rouhani is currently in an awkward position with an unhappy population on the one hand that wants economic recovery and the hard-line military-religious leadership on the other pressuring him to be tough on the United States. Although Rouhani has ruled out any negotiation as long as the US-led sanctions remain, he has yet again shown willingness to reach out to Washington with his actions in Japan. In fact just after the meeting, Abe had a call with President Trump briefing him about the summit. 

Nonetheless, the takeaway here is that Tehran is slowly signalling its intent to restart the nuclear program, while largely avoiding the blame, too, since it is Washington that tore up the mutually agreed upon deal and has been playing hardball ever since. 

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