Japan’s greatest threat comes from the Persian Gulf, not North Korea

Japan’s greatest threat comes from the Persian Gulf, not North Korea

In the context of the struggle over Iran’s development of a nuclear industry and possibly of nuclear weapons, one often hears that Israel considers development of an Iranian nuclear bomb as an existential threat. The concern, of course, is that if they had the bomb, some of Iran’s leading Mullahs might be mad enough to try to use it to wipe out Israel in one strike.

It is to counter that threat that there have been threats and much discussion of a pre-emptive Israeli or Israeli-U.S., or solely U.S. strike against Iran’s nuclear development facilities.

Lost in the whole discussion is what any of these strikes might do to Japan. I know that might seem irrelevant in view of the fact that Japan is physically several thousand miles away from Iran and Israel. In actuality, however, Japan is right in the middle of the Persian Gulf. Let me explain.

As a result of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors were knocked out and largely destroyed. Then safety checks and scheduled maintenance stops halted the remaining active reactors. Today, only one of Japan’s reactors is operating and it is scheduled to go down for maintenance soon. Once the reactors are turned off, it is proving extremely difficult to overcome public opposition to turning them back on. Those living near the reactors are afraid of a repeat of the Fukushima experience and don’t want to hear about the power being turned back on. While understandable, this means that over a third of Japan’s electric generation capacity is out of action. With Japan’s hot, humid summer approaching, there is fear of serious power shortages despite draconian conservation measures.

Now here’s where the Persian Gulf comes in. To replace the lost nuclear power, Japan has been importing large quantities of oil from the Gulf to power its remaining conventional generators. This has driven up the price of oil, but at least it has relieved to some extent the electricity shortage.

However, any kind of strike on Iran or military action in the Gulf is virtually guaranteed to close, at least temporarily, the Straits of Hormuz and thereby to shut off the oil shipments to Japan. Thus, in a very real sense, a strike on Iran is also likely to be a strike on Japan.

At the German Marshall Fund meeting that I attended earlier in the week in Tokyo, there was much discussion of the North Korean missile failure and its implications. In the midst of this discussion, a senior Japanese official almost screamed at the audience not to become preoccupied with North Korea and missiles. Said this person, "the North Korean missile is not a real threat to Japan. The much greater threat is a closure of the Persian Gulf. We must prevent that by all means."  

In the past six months, Washington has made much of its new "pivot to Asia" policy under which U.S. resources and priorities are to be concentrated on the Asia-Pacific region as a way of reassuring its Pacific allies of America’s commitments to them. This is supposed to strengthen U.S. ties with key Asian countries as well as promote American exports and economic interests. It would thus be ironically counter-productive if a strike on Iran would prove to be an existential threat to America’s greatest Asia-Pacific ally — Japan.