In April 1953 a Japanese oil tanker sailed from the Iranian port of Abadan, defying British attempts to interdict the oil industry nationalised by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Ever since, Iran and Japan have enjoyed cordial relations. They are both ancient and proud civilisations, one being the only nation to have experienced nuclear attack, the other apparently keen to inflict this fate on its neighbours.
For several reasons, Japan has become a key player in the interminable crisis over Iran's attempts to enrich uranium to the 80 per cent point where it could be capable of building a nuclear weapon. In a speech on Iran's national day, in February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implicitly affirmed such an aspiration, even though the official line is that Tehran is seeking to enrich uranium to 20 per cent for fuel rods and medical isotopes.
The appointment of Japanese lawyer-diplomat Yukiya Amano as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has markedly changed the tone from that of his emollient predecessor Mohammed ElBaradei, who has returned to Egypt. Whereas the latter spoke of "a number of outstanding issues which give rise to concerns", Amano warns: "The information available [to the IAEA]...is extensive....and raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." Some of that information is derived from an Iranian laptop purloined by the Americans.
While being firmly in the Western camp, Japan's new government is seeking to distinguish its foreign policy from that of the US while making no secret of its desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. That alone may explain why Japan is taking an unusually proactive role in the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme, not to speak of the fact that Japan derives around 12 per cent of its oil from Iranian sources. It has revived a Franco-Russian offer to supply and remove enriched fuel rods, via Japan's own model civil nuclear programme.