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Rouhani looks to Japan’s Abe to pick up where Macron left off

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who appears to be seeking a mediator for the US-Iranian relationship, next week will visit Japan, a country where Iran has a lot of frozen assets.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid - HP1EF9Q1CPOMH

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani travels to Japan on Dec. 19-20, he will be looking to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to try to advance possible US-Iran mediation efforts, as French efforts appear to have stalled amid rising European concern about Iran’s steps away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran “is asking Abe to pick up where [French President Emmanuel] Macron left off,” Ali Vaez, Iran director at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor.

For Rouhani, the invitation to Japan may offer the chance to signal not just internationally but also to the domestic Iranian audience that there could be a reprieve from economic duress that has spurred recent widespread protests and a bloody crackdown that killed over 200 people.

“What Rouhani needs to show is, absent any head of state to head of state engagement with the Europeans, that there still a different channel to use to try and find a framework for de-escalation,” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of the Bourse & Bazaar website about Iranian international economic engagement,  told Al-Monitor. “The Japanese put themselves forward.”

“Another reason it might work, is Japan is one of the places where Iran does have a lot of frozen assets,” Batmanghelidj said. “One of the challenges for Macron was, even if he was able to get permission from the [Donald] Trump administration to provide some funds to Iran for a line of credit, it was not clear where the money would come from … which is why the plan had shifted to a discussion of waivers for oil sales.

“But Iran has needs for hard currency that are more urgent than just selling oil,” he said. “If Abe was able to come up with a financial package, he may be in a position because the Bank of Japan is one of the places where Iran has funds.”

The US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, speaking after a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington today, said there was no willingness on the part of the Trump administration to offer a gesture of compromise, such as a temporary oil sanctions waiver, that could induce Iran to come to the table. But he also expressed hope that the recent US-Iran prisoner exchange could be a first step that could lead to direct engagement and the release of the other Americans being held in Iran.

“We demonstrated with the prisoner exchange that we know how to work together and reach a deal,” Hook said. “I do hope this exchange is a first step.”

Hook said he and an Iranian Foreign Ministry counterpart, Mohsen Baharvand, did not hold discussions when they were both in Zurich over the weekend for the prisoner exchange, under which Iran released Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang and the United States dropped charges against and released Iranian stem cell scientist Massoud Soleimani. Hook said Baharvand, an aide to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, may not have had a mandate to talk; Hook called it a “missed opportunity” and said he believed the Iranian people would like a dialogue.

“We have offered so many diplomatic off-ramps to this regime,” Hook said. “So have the French, and the Japanese, and the Omanis and the Pakistanis. They keep rejecting diplomacy.”

French-led efforts to advance a framework that would get the United States and Iran back to the table appear to have stalled amid rising European concern over Iranian actions on both the nuclear and regional fronts. European powers signaled at the meeting of the Joint Commission overseeing implementation of the Iran nuclear last week that they are likely to trigger a dispute resolution mechanism in the accord next month if Iran takes the next step in January in reducing its commitments to the deal to protest the lack of sanctions relief since the United States quit the deal last year. Of particular concern to Western powers is Iran’s decision to resume enrichment at the underground Fordow facility.

Perhaps Abe could convince Iran to take a smaller step in January — if not to refrain from taking a further step to reduce its commitments altogether — that would not force the Europeans to trigger the dispute mechanism. If unresolved in a certain number of days, the mechanism could send the Iran nuclear file back to the UN Security Council.

The Europeans, even if they trigger the dispute resolution mechanism, “remain pretty clear that they don’t see maximum pressure working,” Batmanghelidj said. “The problem is they don’t feel that Iran is being constructive in terms of not making the situation worse.”

At stake, they feel, is the integrity of arms control agreements. “The nonproliferation people in the foreign ministries are quite sensitive about the deal getting hollowed out,” he said.